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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Patrick Matthew   12 March 1871

Gourdiehill, Errol, Scotland,

March 12/71

To Charles Darwin Esq.

Dear Sir,

I am Glad to see by the Newspapers that you have had health & strength so as be able to bring out full illustrations of the variation & selection Laws of Nature.1 Of which I would desire to be able to write a critique, but am so much taken up with political and agricultural affairs that I fear I will not have time, more especially as I intend in a few weeks to go over to Germany where one of my sons has been settled as an agriculturist for many years & has a large family; and as being known quite as much in Germany as in Britain I may remain some time.2 I also fear that I am not sufficiently a restricted Naturalist as be able to enter into the minutiæ of the science.

I am now engaged with the cutivation of Peace & of Climate, Also the Philosophy of Agriculture, in which being above 4 score it is probable I may not be able to complete, as you have been able to do in your province. I enclose an Article from the Scotsman Newspaper which will shew I am not yet quite effete.3 I hope your family are now all well, When you wrote to me long ago, one of your sons was very unwell. I hope he reovered.4

I have not had time to give the subject—the modification of life to circumstances—sufficient attention. One strange character of Rye, acquired we may suppose by being so very long cultivated in fields, of taking a gregarious nature, was observed by me when over in Germany. I walking through wheat fields searching for new varieties of wheat, I found a few scattered plants of rye, which being nearly ripe, had only 2 or 3 grains in the Ear, the other spaces being empty chaff. Also on a few solitary ears of Rye on the high way I found equally unfruitful. This did not seem to be from bird depredation. At the blooming time of fields of Rye, Rye grass, pinus sylvestris & pinaster,5 in time of a soft S. West Zephyr, there is often seen a pollen mist ⁠⟨⁠cl⁠⟩⁠oud sweeping along, which in the rye seems necessary to the fecundation probably from being so long used to it.

There cannot be a doubt that in the scheme of nature there exists high design & constructive power carried out by general Laws, And the great probability is that these laws are everlasting, as Nature itself is, tho’ under these laws subject to revolution. It is also probable that the spark of life, like light, & heat &c., is radiated from the sun & has a power of building up to itself a domicile suited to existing circumstances & disseminating sparks of its own kind, but possessed of a variation power. That there is a principle of beneficence operating here the dual parentage and family affection pervading all the higher animal kindom affords proof. A sentiment of beauty pervading Nature, with only some few exceptions affords evidence of intellect & benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design & cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Could any fitness of things contrive a rose, a lily, or the perfume of the violet.6 There is no doubt man is left purposely in ignorance of a future existence. Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense.

It is a beautiful parable, the woman walking through the City of Damascus bearing fire in the one hand & water in the other, crying, with this water I will burn heaven & with this water extinguish hell that man may worship God for his own sake & not as mercen⁠⟨⁠ary⁠⟩⁠ labourers.7 We are gifted with a moral sense & it is delightful to do good. It is a pleasure to me to wish you & yours the enjoyment of doing good. I regret I cannot do more than wish it.

Patrick Matthew

P.S. I see it stated that you cannot account for useless parts by the laws of variation & competition, general laws cannot provide against accidents in all cases8


Matthew refers to Descent.
Alexander Matthew managed his father’s estate in Holstein (Dempster 1996, p. 3).
The enclosure has not been found but the article referred to, a two-column unsigned review of Descent ([Matthew] 1871), appeared in the Scotsman, 9 March 1871, p. 5.
The reference is to Leonard Darwin (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Patrick Matthew, 13 June [1862] and n. 3).
Rye is Secale cereale; rye grass refers to a number of species of the genus Lolium. Pinus sylvestris is Scots pine and P. pinaster is the maritime pine. The bloom period for rye is early spring; most rye grasses bloom in early summer. Scots pine flowers in late May or early June, with most pollen shed in two or three days; similarly, maritime pine flowers in early June, shedding most of its pollen in about four days. Environmental factors also affect flowering times.
In Origin 4th ed., pp. 238–41, CD had discussed beauty in nature and offered explanations based on both natural and sexual selection.
The story is taken from the memoirs of Jean de Joinville. For a modern English translation, see Joinville 1906, p. 107.
The source of the statement has not been identified, but may originate in one of the many reviews of Descent. For a list of reviews of Descent, see Correspondence vol. 19, Appendix V.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Dempster, W. J. 1996. Natural selection and Patrick Matthew. Evolutionary concepts in the nineteenth century. Durham: Pentland Press.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Joinville, Jean. 1906. The memoirs of the Lord of Joinville: a new English version. Edited by Ethel Kate Wedgwood. London: J. Murray.

[Matthew, Patrick.] 1871. Review of Descent. Scotsman, 9 March 1871, p. 5.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.


Encloses an article he wrote for the Scotsman [9 Mar 1871, p. 5].

Wishes he had time to write a critique of Descent. There is evidence of design and benevolence in nature. Beauty cannot be accounted for by natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Patrick Matthew
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Natural History Museum, Library and Archives (General Library)
Physical description
ALS 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7576,” accessed on 23 July 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19