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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [1 September 1844]1

Down near Bromley | Kent


My dear Lyell

I was glad to get your note & wanted to hear about your work—2 I have been looking to see it advertised— it has been a long task— I had, before your return from Scotland, determined to come up & see you; but, as I had nothing else to do in town, my courage has gradually eased off, more especially as I have not been very well lately.— We get so many invitations here, that we are grown quite dissipated—but my stomach has stood it so ill, that we are going to have a month’s holidays & go nowhere. The subject, which I was most anxious to talk over with you, I have settled, by having written 60 pages of my S. American geology— I am in pretty good heart & am determined to have very little theory & only short descriptions.— The two first chapters, I think will be pretty good, on the elevation & great gravel terraces & plains of Patagonia & Chile & Peru.— I am astounded & grieved over d’Orbigny’s nonsense of sudden elevations; I must give you one of his cases.3 diagram

He finds still attached to the rocks at 300 ft, six species of truly littoral shells

He finds at 20 to 30 ft above sea, an immense accumulation of chiefly littoral shells.

He argues the whole 600 ft uplifted at one blow, because the attached shells at 300 ft have not been displaced.

Therefore when the sea formed a beach at 600 ft, the present littoral shells, were attached to rocks at 300 ft depth, & these same shells were accumulating by thousands, at 600 ft. depth.— Hear this oh Forbes:4 is it not monstrous for a professed conchologist?— This is a fair specimen of his reasoning. One of his arguments against the Pampas being a slow deposit, is that mammifers are very seldom washed by rivers into the sea!5 Because at 12,000 ft he finds the same kind of clay with that of the Pampas, he never doubts that it is contemporaneous with the Pampæan debacle, which accompanied the right Royal salute of every volcano in the Cordillera. What a pity these Frenchmen do not catch hold of a comet, & return to the good old geological dramas, of Burnett & Whiston—6 I shall keep out of controversy, & just give my own facts. It is enough to disgust one with Geology;—though I have been much pleased with the frank, decided, though courteous manner, with which d’orbigny disputes my conclusions, given unfortunately without facts & sometimes rashly in my Journal.7

Enough of S. America: I wish you wd: ask Mr Horner (for I forgot to do so, & am unwilling to trouble him again) whether he thinks there is too much detail, (quite independently of the merit of the book) in my volcanic volume; as to know this, wd. be of some real use to me; you could tell me, when we meet after York, when I will come to town: I had intended being at York, but my courage has failed; I shd much like to hear your lecture,8 but still more to read it; as I think reading is always better than hearing.

I am very glad you talk of a visit to us in the Autumn; if you can spare the time, I shall be truly glad to see Mrs. Lyell & yourself here; but I have scruples in asking anyone, for you know how dull we are here. Young Hooker talks of coming; I wish he might meet you— he appears to me a most engaging young-man.

I have been delighted with Prescott,9 of which I have read Vol I, at your recommendation; I have just been a good deal interested with W. Taylor of Norwich Life & correspondence.10

Farewell—with our kind remembrances to Mrs Lyell | Ever yours | C. Darwin

We had, until this morning when we heard, much hoped to have seen Mr & Mrs Horner here at Down.

On your return from York I shall expect a great supply of geological gossip:


Dated by CD’s reference to having read Prescott 1843 and Robberds 1843, see nn. 9 and 10, below. The only Sunday falling between these two dates was 1 September.
Lyell was writing an account of his travels in North America, eventually published as C. Lyell 1845a.
Orbigny 1835–47, vol. 3, pt 3: Géologie, pp. 93–8.
Edward Forbes (1843) had recently demonstrated the existence of well-marked zones of water depth, each with its own distinctive fauna; he believed there were no animals living below about 300 fathoms (p. 170). See also Rehbock 1983, pp. 139–44, and Browne 1983, pp. 144–5.
Orbigny 1835–47, vol. 3, pt 3: Géologie, pp. 85–6 n.
Thomas Burnet and William Whiston. In Burnet’s view the present state of the earth’s surface was the result of catastrophic events during the deluge, while Whiston held that the earth had originally been a comet and that the deluge was due to the close approach of another comet. See Davies 1969 for accounts of these theories.
Orbigny 1835–47, vol. 3, pt 3: Géologie, pp. 82–7. See Journal of researches, p. 171, and South America, pp. 93, 101.
The British Association for the Advancement of Science met in York from 26 September to 2 October 1844. Lyell gave a special evening discourse on the geology of North America (Report of the 14th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at York in 1844, p. xxx).
Prescott 1843. CD’s entry in his reading notebook (DAR 119) for 30 August 1844 reads: ‘1 Vol of Prescotts Hist of Mexico’. The two concluding volumes were recorded as read on 1 October (Vorzimmer 1977, p. 131).
Robberds 1843, recorded in CD’s reading notebook (DAR 119; Vorzimmer 1977, p. 131) on 5 September 1844. It was borrowed from the London Library on 7 August and returned on 23 September (London Library Archives).


Browne, Janet. 1983. The secular ark. Studies in the history of biogeography. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

Journal of researches: Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, RN, from 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.

Orbigny, Alcide Charles Victor Dessalines d’. 1835–47. Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale (le Brésil, la République orientale de l’Uruguay, la République Argentine, la Patagonie, la République du Chili, la République de Bolivia, la République du Pérou), exécuté pendant les années 1826 … 1833. 6 vols. in 7 and 4 atlases. Paris and Strasbourg: Pitois-Levrault et Cie, P. Bertrand.

Prescott, William Hickling. 1843. History of the conquest of Mexico, with a preliminary view of the ancient Mexican civilization, and the life of the conqueror, Hernando Cortés. 3 vols. London.

Rehbock, Philip F. 1983. The philosophical naturalists. Themes in early nineteenth-century British biology. Madison, Wis., and London: University of Wisconsin Press.

Robberds, John Warden. 1843. A memoir of the life and writings of the late William Taylor of Norwich. 2 vols. London.

South America: Geological observations on South America. Being the third part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1846.

Vorzimmer, Peter J. 1977. The Darwin reading notebooks (1838-1860). Journal of the History of Biology 10: 107–53.


Asks about CL’s new book [Travels in North America (1845)].

Discusses views of A. D. d’Orbigny on elevation.

Mentions reading W. H. Prescott [History of the conquest of Mexico (1843)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.39)
Physical description
ALS 7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 773,” accessed on 4 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3