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Darwin Correspondence Project

From V. O. Kovalevsky   19 August [1871]1

Paris | 18. Boulevard St. Michel

19 Aug.

Dear Sir

What a long time I had no news from You and feel that it is all by my own fault. Your last letter to Berlin2 came together with another, from Paris, stating the arrest of my brother in law, my wife was so alarmed at the position of her sister left alone, that we took the same evening the train to Paris and from that time are staying here trying to do something through our Embassy; I have seen the man nearest to Mr Thiers Mr Barthelemy St. Hilaire and hope to obtain a decree of banishment.3 Happily I have not quite lost my time in Paris, and through the kindness of Mr Gervais4 did get access to all the collections of the Paris Museums. In the cellars of the Laboratoire d’Anatomie Comparée I found a large quantity of chests with fossils from Sansan, collected by Lartet, and seeing among them many bones of Anchiterium resolved to study this genus nearer than it was done by Blainville.5 By and by the quantity of bones found in different places grew very large, a block of stone proved to contain the whole head (quite unknow till now) and gradually I came to the idea of publishing a monography of Anchiterium as a first essay in Palaeontology.6 Mr Gervais gave the permission to publish the description of all they have and I am now very busy comparing bones of Palaeoth. Hipparion and horse with my Anchiterium.7 I have the animal nearly complete, as good as a living one and a head though crushed but with a full dentition: six molars in each jaw, the seventh coming into place, and three permanent premolars in both jaws quite formed and ready to push the milk premolars out. I think it is the most precious head any collection can boast, fancy only 40 molars beautifully preserved in one head; I have exposed the 12 permanent premolars by breaking the outer wall of both jaws. The animal is very curious presenting a mixed type of horse and Palaeoterium; the head is quite Palaeotherian, the extremities, the carpus and tarsus are hippoid but still with Palaeoterian affinities, so the large metacarpal (the 3d.) is hippoid in his upper part and quite Palaeotherian in the lower, the articular surface for the phalangi beeing quite the same as in Palaeotherium with the middle ridge extending over only one half of the lower articular head and not on the whole as in Hipparion and horse.8 Notwithstanding all this the French are dead against You and I must really mitigate my Darwinisme not to irritate them.9

Still you have here a great friend of Your views, this is Mr Gaudry but even he dares not to do it openly as “le Darwinisme est en mauvaise odeur au Jardin des Plantes”.10 But even Mr Gaudry is opposed to my views of making from the Anchiterium a transitional type between Palaeotherium and horse, saying that one has quite an omnivorous the other a ruminant dentition, but I hope that a series of milk teeth in the happiest state (worn down so as to present the two crescents characteristic for ruminants) will help us over this difficulty.11 Before going to print I shall certainly see You an take Your opinion on the matter.

But my letter is getting to long, I hope to have some lines from You, my best compliments to Mrs Darwin and the ladies12 | Your truly | W. Kowalevsky

Have You read Kupfer’s “Verwandschaft zwischen Ascidien und Wirbelthiere” in the second number of the Archiv für Mikroskopische Anatomie for 1870, it will greatly interest You.13


The year is established by the reference to the arrest of Victor Jaclard (see n. 3, below).
Jaclard was a member of the socialist government of the Paris Commune and was arrested in June 1871 after the commune fell to the national government. See also letter from V. O. Kovalevsky, 14 March 1871. Jaclard’s partner, Anna Korvin-Krukovskaya, was a sister of Kovalevsky’s wife, Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya. Louis Adolphe Thiers was the leader of the French national government; Jules Barthélemy-Saint-Hilaire had helped bring him to power. Kovalevsky helped Jaclard and Korvin-Krukovskaya escape to Switzerland, where they were formally married, and then to Russia. (DBF; Delfau 1971, p. 75; Koblitz 1983, pp. 108–9.)
The fossils of Anchitherium, a three-toed, browsing member of the horse family, had been discovered at Sansan by Edouard Lartet after the publication of Henri Blainville’s classification of fossil vertebrates (Blainville 1841–55; see preface to V. O. Kovalevsky 1872). Lartet had adopted the name Anchitherium aurelianense in place of Palaeotherium aurelianense by 1868 (Université de Toulouse, Edouard et Louis Lartet, pionniers des études préhistoriques, Carnets autographes d’Eduard, 1: Notes de travail ‘Elephas bombifrons’, (accessed 24 September 2010); see this site for a comprehensive collection of Lartet’s personal papers). The Laboratoire d’anatomie comparée was part of the Muséum d’histoire naturelle, Paris.
Kovalevsky refers to V. O. Kovalevsky 1872. Kovalevsky was one of the first to interpret fossils according to Darwinian theories of evolution (see n. 11, below); he published eight monographs on the paleontology of ungulates showing their adaptation to their environment (Vucinich 1988, pp. 62–8; see also S. J. Gould ed. 1980).
Palaeotherium, an Eocene branch of the family Equidae, and Anchitherium, a younger branch of the same family, were both browsing horses; the Hipparion group, which includes modern Equus, is younger still, and comprises grazing horses. (MacFadden 1992, p. 99.)
Palaeotherium had three distinct toes; in Hipparion the middle toe had developed into a hoof.
For the reception of Darwinism in France, see Stebbins 1988, especially pp. 136–8.
Kovalevsky refers to Albert Gaudry. Le Darwinisme est en mauvaise odeur au Jardin des Plantes: Darwinism is extremely unpopular in the botanic garden. The Muséum d’histoire naturelle was in the botanic garden in Paris.
Gaudry is associated, along with Richard Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley, with the theory that Anchitherium and Hipparion represent intermediate chronological stages in a simple lineal descent from Palaeotherium, which had toes, to Equus, which has hooves. In his most recent work on the fossil animals and geology of Attica, however, Gaudry, while recognising the similarities between Anchitherium and Hipparion, had not proposed any relationship between them; he classed Anchitherium as a descendant of a line beginning with Palaeotherium, and placed Equus on a separate line of descent beginning with Hipparion (Gaudry 1862–7, 1: 350–3). Kovalevsky recognised that the different forms had a common ancestor, but suggested that they had evolved separately at different periods, adapting through natural selection to different habitats, with resultant changes in dentition as well as the development of hooves (V. O. Kovalevsky 1872). For the history of evolution in equids see MacFadden 1992, especially pp. 28–9.
Kovalevsky refers to Emma Darwin and her daughters, Henrietta Emma Darwin and Elizabeth Darwin. Kovalevsky wrote a Russian lower-case cursive ‘t’ (which resembles a Roman lower-case cursive ‘m’) in the word ‘to’ in ‘compliments to’, so that in the manuscript the word looks like ‘mo’.
Kovalevsky refers to Karl Wilhelm Kupffer and to his work on the relationship between ascidians and vertebrates (Kupffer 1870).


Blainville, Henri Marie Ducrotay de. 1841–55. Ostéographie, ou description iconographique comparée du squelette et du système dentaire des cinq classes d’animaux vertébrés récents et fossiles pour servir de base à la zoologie et à la géologie. 3 vols. and atlas (2 vols.). Paris: Arthus Bertrand.

DBF: Dictionnaire de biographie Française. Under the direction of J. Balteau et al. 21 vols. and 4 fascicules of vol. 22 (A–Leyris d’Espochès) to date. Paris: Librairie Letouzey & Ané. 1933–.

Delfau, Gérard. 1971. Jules Vallès: l’exil à Londres (1871–1880). Paris and Montreal: Bordas.

Gaudry, Albert. 1862–7. Animaux fossiles et géologie de l’Attique, d’après les recherches faites en 1855–56 et en 1860 sous les auspices de l’Académie des Sciences. 1 vol. and atlas. Paris: Libraire de la Société Géologique de France.

Koblitz, Ann Hibner. 1983. A convergence of lives: Sofia Kovalevskaia, scientist, writer, revolutionary. Boston: Birkhäuser.

Kovalevsky, Vladimir Onufrievich. 1872. Sur l’Anchitherium aurelianense Cuv. et sur l’histoire paléontologique des chevaux. [Read 5 September 1872.] Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences de Saint-Pétersbourg 7th ser. 20 (1873), no. 5: 1–73.

Kupffer, Carl. 1870. Die Stammverwandtschaft zwischen Ascidien and Wirbelthieren. Nach Untersuchungen über die Entwicklung der Ascidia canina. Archiv für Mikroskopische Anatomie 6: 115–72.

MacFadden, Bruce J. 1992. Fossil horses: systematics, paleobiology, and the evolution of the family Equidae. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Stebbins, Robert E. 1988. France. In The comparative reception of Darwinism, edited by Thomas F. Glick. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Vucinich, Alexander. 1988. Darwin in Russian thought. Berkeley: University of California Press.


A. J. Gaudry is one of few supporters of Darwinism in Paris.

The climate is so hostile that Kovalevsky must mitigate his views so as not to irritate the French.

Working on Anchitherium, which he believes is intermediate between Palaeotherium and the horse.

His brother-in-law has been arrested.

Letter details

Letter no.
Vladimir Onufrievich Kovalevsky (Владимир Онуфриевич Ковалевский)
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 169: 66
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7911,” accessed on 17 May 2022,

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