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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   12 September 1871

11 St. Mary Abbot’s Terrace | Kensington

Sept. 12. ’71

My dear Sir

I have gone carefully through the chapters on man in your Descent, for the second time.1 As regards my speciality there is only one statement that is incorrect. The negroes have whiskers, though scanty ones:2 the remark about the music of savages should be modified—if the negroes are to be regarded as savages.3 But that would require a long discussion which I will not trouble you with now. I must confess that I do not believe in sexual selection forming the negro type. I prefer your first idea—that which had also occurred to Dr. Wells—4 That is a question I shall discuss at length in my Narrative which I suppose will come out about this time next year—5 My sketch of the history of Africa in connection with Universal History will I hope be out before Christmas; & in one chapter I make an attempt to restore the early history of man: I write what may have happened, precisely as if it had happened, & I think that I shall account for the origin of language which is the chief puzzle about the origin of man in this way.6

I suppose a certain gregarious species of the quadrumana placed under conditions so peculiarly favourable to life that it multiplies exceedingly— The checks on the population of the gorilla & chimpanzee are chiefly (I think) scarcity of food. But whatever they may be this species does not suffer from them. Then owing to geological changes—perhaps the island which they inhabit being converted into a continental area?—they are exposed to a furious struggle for existence against intruding species. Being by nature the most defenceless of all animals they are only able to preserve themselves from extinction by means of their intelligence & their power of cooperation. These are their only weapons & they become developed in course of time in an extraordinary manner. It becomes essential for the preservation of their lives that they should be able to combine promptly & systematically; this can only be done by their being able to understand one another & so under extreme & long continued pressure the language of sounds & signs which all gregarious quadrumana possess becomes developed in an unprecedented manner.

When once the language is formed everything else is easily explained— But is this I will not say a good explanation: is it altogether ridiculous & irrational? Is it actually impossible; in contradiction to the laws of nature?

I feel convinced that the exceptional development of the brain in our species is owing to its being naturally deficient in bodily activity & strength; & there is if I remember right a passage in your first volume which suggests that the same belief exists in your own mind.7 But where I may say something absurd if I do not take care is when I begin talking about geology—and I venture to ask you for your opinion on the hypothesis above. I need not say that the above ideas whether good or bad would never have come into my head had it not been for the Origin of Species. When I read that work for the first time, I made a note, to collect materials for a book to be called the Origin of Mind. Being now older, I see the task is beyond my powers: but I hope to contribute one or two facts towards it derived from savage experiences. But I am merely picking up crumbs from your table.

I make no apology for asking your advice because if I say anything ridiculous you will suffer for it. My views will be called Darwinian; & the master is usually held responsible though of course unjustly for the opinions of his disciples—

I remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade


Descent 1: 1–250 and 2: 316–406.
In Descent 2: 321, CD had reported: ‘With negroes the beard is scanty or absent, and they have no whiskers’.
Reade probably refers to a remark in Descent 2: 334 that savages are capable of high musical development, but do not practise in their own countries what would be considered music by Europeans. CD added to the second edition of Descent a reference to Reade 1872, p. 441, and Reade 1873, 2: 313, describing the use of music among Africans to express vivid emotion (Descent 2d ed., pp. 571–2).
William Charles Wells suggested that people with darker hair and skin were immune to certain poisons and parasites (in Descent 1: 243, CD cites Wells 1814 and 1818).
Reade’s African sketch-book was published in June 1873 (Athenæum, 14 June 1873, p. 759). In this work, Reade stated his conviction that humanity was divided into different races by the effect of climate and diet over long periods of time (Reade 1873, 2: 523–4).
Martyrdom of man (Reade 1872) was published in May 1872 (Athenæum, 11 May 1872, p. 589). Reade discussed the role of language in the earliest development of humans in Reade 1872, pp. 419–21. CD discussed language in Descent 1: 53–62.
Reade refers to Descent 1: 157: ‘The slight corporeal strength of man, his little speed, his want of natural weapons, &c., are more than counterbalanced, firstly by his intellectual powers … and secondly by his social qualities’.


Athenæum. 1844. A few words by way of comment on Miss Martineau’s statement. No. 896 (28 December): 1198–9.

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.

Reade, William Winwood. 1872. The martyrdom of man. London: Trübner & Co.

Reade, William Winwood. 1873. The African sketch-book. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.

Wells, William Charles. 1814. An essay on dew, and several appearances connected with it. London: Taylor and Hessey.


Prefers W. C. Wells’s explanation of the formation of the Nehro type to CD’s sexual selection.

Outlines his view of the origin of man by natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 47
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7936,” accessed on 16 April 2021,

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