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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Fiske   23 October 1871

Harvard University, | Cambridge, Mass.,

October 23, 1871.

Mr. Charles Darwin:—

My dear Sir,—

Since it came in my way, in discharge of my duties as lecturer at the university, to notice your discoveries in so far as they bear upon the organization of scientific truths into a coherent body of philosophy, it has been my intention to write and seek the honour of your acquaintance, forwarding to you, as a sort of letter of introduction the reports of my lectures.1

A few days ago I met your two sons at dinner (who afterwards kindly called at my house) and I gave to Mr. F. Darwin the reports of a few of my lectures to transmit to you.2 I cannot however resist the temptation to write to you, and tell you directly how dear to me is your name for the magnificent discovery with which you have enriched human knowledge, winning for yourself a permanent place beside Galileo and Newton.3

When your “Origin of Species” was first published, I was a boy of seventeen; but I had just read Agassiz’s “Essay on Classification”4 with deep dissatisfaction at its pseudo-Platonic attempt to make metaphysical abstractions do the work of physical forces; and I hailed your book with exultation, reading and re-reading it till I almost knew it by heart. Since then “Darwinism” has formed one of the pivots about which my thought has turned. And though I am no naturalist, and cannot claim any ability to support your discovery by original observations of my own, yet I have striven, to the best of my ability, to point out the strong points of your theory of natural selection, and to help win for it acceptance on philosophic grounds.

There is one place in which it seems to me that I have thrown out an original suggestion, which may prove to be of some value in connection with the general theory of man’s descent from an ape-like ancestor. In the lecture in “Moral Progress” (which along with others your son will hand you) I have endeavoured to show that the transition from Animality (or bestiality, stripping the word from its bad connotations), to humanity, must have been mainly determined by the prolongation of infancy or immaturity, which is consequent upon a high development of intelligence, and which must have necessitated the gradual grouping together of pithecoid men into more or less defined families.

I will not try to state the hypothesis here, as you will get a clearer statement of it in the lecture. I should esteem it a great favour if you would, after looking at the lecture, tell me what you think of the hypothesis. It seems to me quite full of significance.

I am on the point of giving a few popular lectures in illustration and defence of your views. You will see from the papers, which I have sent you, that I am an earnest admirer of Mr. Herbert Spencer,—a thinker to whom I am more indebted than I can possibly tell, and who has been so kind as to give me some of his personal advice and assistance, by way of letter, during the past seven years. I hope, before next summer, to visit England, and count much upon seeing you, as well as Mr. Spencer and Mr. Huxley.5

Meanwhile, and always, believe me, dear sir, | Yours, with deep respect, | John Fiske.


Fiske lectured on positive philosophy at Harvard between October and December 1869, and on the philosophy of evolution between February and June 1871. Both series of lectures were reported in the World, a New York weekly newspaper (J. S. Clark 1917, 1: 360, 361, 380–2); they were revised and reprinted in his Outlines of cosmic philosophy (Fiske 1874). No copy of the lectures has been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL.
George Howard and Francis Darwin were travelling in the United States (see letter to Asa Gray, 16 July [1871]).
Fiske refers to Louis Agassiz and J. L. R. Agassiz 1859.
See J. S. Clark 1917. Fiske refers to Thomas Henry Huxley. Fiske visited England in 1873 (see letter from John Fiske, 31 October 1873 (Calendar no. 9120)).


Agassiz, Louis. 1859. An essay on classification. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts; Trübner & Co. [Reprint of vol. 1, pt 1, of Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America. 4 vols. 1857–62.] [Reprint edition. Edited by Edward Lurie. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1962.]

Calendar: A calendar of the correspondence of Charles Darwin, 1821–1882. With supplement. 2d edition. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Clark, John Spencer. 1917. The life and letters of John Fiske. 2 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Fiske, John. 1874. Outlines of cosmic philosophy: based on the doctrine of evolution, with criticisms on the positive philosophy. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co.


JF’s indebtedness to Herbert Spencer. [Published version complete.]

Letter details

Letter no.
John Fiske
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
J. S. Clark 1917, 1: 389–91; DAR 164: 124
Physical description
C ALS 1p inc

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8030,” accessed on 1 October 2023,

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