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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Roland Trimen   17 and 18 April 1871

Colonial Office, | Cape Town.

17th. April, 1871.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

It gave me very great pleasure to receive the copy of your new book which you have so kindly presented to me, and I am very glad to find that some of my too incomplete observations proved of use to you.1

I have not had time to read the work with the attention which it demands; but I have seen enough to move my warmest admiration, and to recognize in still greater development the high intellectual powers which compelled the homage of scientific Europe in your famous “Origin”.

As far as the bodily frame of our race is concerned, I think I can fully follow you to your conclusions; indeed, I cannot understand how any reasonable person can shut his eyes to the unmistakeable affinities between man and (at least) other mammals, not to mention the rest of the vertebrate class.2 But I admit that, as yet, I find considerable difficulty in seeing my way to identifying in kind the mental (and especially the moral) faculties of man and other animals. You yourself so freely admit this difficulty, that you will not be surprised at it in others.3

You touch but very slightly and remotely (II, pp. 394 & 395) on the chief of all the distinctions between us and other organic beings— I mean our sense of a spiritual life other than (and as it were apart from) our bodily life. I imagine the general belief (which you refer to) in purely spiritual beings to spring from this inner sense. For myself I firmly believe that men have spirits (or what are commonly termed souls) as well as minds & bodies; for I am conscious of impressions and exertions that belong to me personally—that are emphatically mine—but that I cannot refer either to bodily or mental sources. That at some time in the past man must have had a special endowment of spiritual life, I cannot doubt; but that this, too, may have been a gradual endowment (as the race became fitter for it) is certainly not impossible. At the same time, one feels that the spiritual and mental provinces of one’s highly complex being are not altogether distinct:—there is no rigid and constant separation—but it is only at times that one becomes keenly conscious of that innermost citadel where one supreme personality reigns apart.

(These are rather deep waters to wade in, and I don’t think I am as clear as I could wish; but I am quite sure that you will both understand what I mean and excuse my awkwardness in putting it.)

I remember reading somewhere that there was little or no sense of humour, or of the ludicrous, in any animal but man; and it struck me at the time as true. I should greatly like to hear whether you consider that the higher vertebrates have evinced any indications of such a sense.

I am not sure if it was the same writer (but I think so) who illustrated his view by the remark that a company of patient oxen in a railway-truck, next to which he was in an open van, made no attempt to beguile their evident fatigue and the tedium of the journey (it was a “parliamentary” train!) by the interchange of anything funny or amusing. He further declared that, had he recognized the faintest scintilla of a joke in one of the great bovine eyes so close to his own, he must inevitably have forsworn the cannibalism of beef-eating for evermore!4

There certainly seems to us a deep sadness (or, at any rate, gravity) among animals, especially, I think, in those nearest to us. How melancholy is the expression of the Anthropomorphous Apes! To be sure, we always see them in durance vile, and generally in ill-health. But even dogs look vaguely at you, as if puzzled, when you speak to them and laugh; as I have often observed. What a companion would be an attached and well-bred dog with a keen sense of the ludicrous!5

I have not found any allusion in your book to that most ruinous propensity of nocturnal winged animals (chiefly insects) to rush impetuously into bright flames. I suppose that this most destructive tendency could only have come into operation after man began to lighten his darkness by artificial means. It has always puzzled me very much, because it is such a manifest disadvantage to any animal in which it prevails. (On your theory, however, the elimination by death or severe injury of all those individuals in whom the propensity was strongest, might eventually rid a species of so peculiar a form of suicide.) Many millions of insects (& particularly of Moths) must be destroyed annually by this fatal penchant. How could it have originated? You say that Mr. Wallace has an innate genius for solving difficulties, & so he has;6 but you have it in a still greater degree; & I should be greatly obliged by your telling me what you think about this. I have noticed that the majority of the Moths that are attracted by light are ♂s, which may be attributable to their ranging in search of ♀s. But these must be diverted from the extremely strong sexual instinct by the attraction of light, which thus seems even more powerful.

I sincerely trust that your health is stronger than when I last heard of you from Sir H. Barkly.7 It is marvellous to me to note the great amount of careful study and research which you accomplish under the great hindrance of physical weakness.

18th. April.— My expectation of receiving an appointment to some quiet country Commissionership where I might make some discoveries useful to Natural Science has not yet been realised.8 Instead of having more time for those studies to which I incline, I find that each year only brings me more of the tedious office work for which I have but little liking. However, things may perhaps work round in time, and what seems unfavourable and is irksome now may result in more leisure hereafter. I remember a remark by the late Henry Drummond that men of science were notoriously bad statesmen and men of business; and I am disposed to think that he was not so far wrong.9 There is certainly one great advantage in being stationed in Capetown, viz, that one does occasionally meet with some people of intellectual tastes; while in the country villages an utter stagnation of mind seems generally to prevail.

I hope I have not wearied you with this chatter of mine. I am very grateful for your kind thought of me; and with sincerest regards to Mrs. Darwin and your family, remain Ever faithfully yours, | Roland Trimen

Charles Darwin, Esqre | &c &c &c

CD annotations

9.1 I have … ♀s. 9.13] heavily scored pencil
11.1 My expectation … realised. 11.3] cross in margin, pencil
Top of letter: ‘(anythg new).’ pencil


Trimen’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Descent (see Correspondence vol. 19, Appendix IV). CD cited Trimen frequently in Descent.
CD discussed the anatomical similarities between humans and animals in Descent 1: 9–33.
CD admitted the difficulties of showing affinities between the mental and moral faculties of humans and animals in Descent 2: 390.
The reference has not been identified.
CD added a discussion of the sense of humour in dogs to Descent 2d ed., p. 71.
Trimen quotes Descent 1: 416; he refers to Alfred Russel Wallace.
No correspondence between CD and Henry Barkly has been found, but see Correspondence vol. 18, letter to J. D. Hooker, 8 March [1870]. Henry Barkly was governor of Cape Colony and corresponded regularly with CD’s friend Joseph Dalton Hooker.
Trimen was a clerk of the second class in the Colonial Office at Cape Colony until 1872, when he took a position as private secretary to Henry Barkly (see Colonial Office list 1871 and DSAB; for Trimen’s dissatisfaction with his official duties, see Correspondence vol. 17, letter from Roland Trimen, 18 November 1869).
Trimen may refer to a speech made by Drummond in a House of Commons debate on agricultural distress, 19 February 1850: ‘Yet is it not notorious that no English manufacturer ever yet made one single useful discovery in arts or science?’ (Hansard parliamentary debates 3d ser. vol. 108 (1850), col. 1107).


Colonial Office list: The Colonial Office list … or, general register of the colonial dependencies of Great Britain. London: Edward Stanford; Harrison & Sons. 1862–99.

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

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

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

DSAB: Dictionary of South African biography. Edited by W. J. de Kock et al. 4 vols. Pretoria and Cape Town: Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk [and others]. 1968–81.

Hansard parliamentary debates:


Man’s spiritual life separates him from other animals.

Why are moths attracted, often fatally, to lights?

Thanks for copy of Descent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Roland Trimen
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Colonial Office, Cape Town
Source of text
DAR 178: 187
Physical description
ALS 12pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7692,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

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