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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Roland Trimen   13 April 1872

Colonial Secretary’s Office, | Cape Town.

13th. April, 1872.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

About 10 days ago I had the great pleasure of receiving your very kind gift of a copy of the new edition of the “Origin of Species”.1 Not knowing of the new issue, but recognizing your handwriting on the cover, I at first imagined that your wonderful industry and originality had taken us all by surprise with the production of some new work. Pray accept my very cordial thanks for your kind thought of me.

My brother forwarded to me your note of 13th. Novr. last after I had left England. I was very glad to receive an autograph note, as it seemed to give me some assurance that your health had improved.2

I have been much interested and instructed in reading the additional matter in the new edition of the “Origin”, (particularly, of course, the discussion of objections in the re-moulded Chapter IV.)3 I think that I can follow you in all your arguments in reply to objectors. The illustration of the ‘baleen’ difficulty by means of the various modifications presented by the bills of different ducks strikes me as very good.4 You have a most happy and enviable power of perceiving and demonstrating the analogies existing between structures with which people are in a general way familiar, and those more unusual ones at which everybody wonders. The delightful account of the Flat-fishes’ eyes is in the main new to me; for I did not know that in actual free life the eyes of those fish were ever symmetrically placed.5

As regards the rattlesnake, I fancy your explanation to be the true one (Please excuse the fragmentary letter paper!) viz: that the object of the rattle is to alarm the snake’s enemies;6 because it is quite likely that the temporary surprise and consequent stoppage of a pursuing enemy occasioned by the unexpected rattling noise might, however brief in duration, just afford the snake time to effect its escape to some place of security. I observe, however, that in a recent number of ‘Nature’, Mr. A Bennett describes some American observer as “coming to the rescue of Natural Selection” in this case, inasmuch as he has noted that the noise of the rattle closely resembles the note of the Cicadas, and that birds are thus attracted to the immediate vicinity of the snake.7 Now, the only feeble rattle of the rattlesnake that I ever heard came but indistinctly through a glazed case, so that I am not a judge of the character of the sound; and not having been in America, I can’t say how the New-World Cicadas sing; but the shrill din of the African Cicadas strikes me as being very far removed from anything approaching the sound of a rattle. There is something rather taking, however (and indeed I think quite humorous) in the notion of the hungry rattlesnake cunningly “playing-up” the birds to the ancient nursery rhyme of “Will you, will you will you, will you come and be killed”?8 Yet it doesn’t do to be too incredulous when one thinks of those clever “Fishing-frogs” attracting the small fry by their worm-like filaments.9

It has occurred to me that the time has arrived for the commencement of something like a systematic search for very early human or semi-human remains in such recent strata as offer themselves in the regions where it may not unreasonably be conjectured that our race originated. None of the investigations hitherto made (deeply interesting as they have proved) seems to have attempted or contemplated any discoveries of remains prior to those of the Drift. Might not the “imperfection of the Geological Record” be lessened by some well-considered exploration with the discovery of still earlier races than “Stone-Age” man as its chief end in view?10

I am sorry to say that I have been obliged almost to neglect Natural History since I returned hither. I get more & more involved in dull office details, which allow me less time and strength than ever for the work I most like. I have applied for the Museum Curatorship here, with the hope (if I be appointed) of making what leisure I have of use to Natural Science. The emoluments attaching to the Curatorship are so very small that the Trustees cannot hope to obtain more than the leisure hours of any man competent for the post, unless (like Layard of late years) he be provided likewise with one of those comfortable sinecures (now alas! almost extinct among offices) which make no demand upon his time.11

I have been just as much puzzled as yourself about Owen’s attitude in respect to Evolution. At one time he seems anxious to take the credit of the theory to himself; at another, rather to treat the doctrine as something quite generally accepted & scarcely worth insisting upon; and then again, quite to bristle up at the very idea of such a thing!12 I am afraid that, with all his great ability and knowledge, we must admit the unfortunate defect of great jealousy of anybody’s presuming to deal with the great problems of Biology, unless with his special sanction and (one may almost say) permission.

Sir H. Barkly, our present Governor, takes great interest in Natural Science. He has placed a sum on the Estimates in aid of the completion of the ‘Flora Capensis’; and, as the Colony is just now in an unusually flourishing financial condition, I fancy the legislature will be well disposed to vote the money.13

With renewed thanks, and sincerest wishes for your good health, I am | Very faithfully yours, | Roland Trimen

Charles Darwin, Esqre. | &c &c


Trimen’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Origin 6th ed. (see Correspondence vol. 20, Appendix IV).
CD had been unable to see Trimen before he returned to Cape Town. In his letter to Trimen of 13 November [1871] (Correspondence vol. 19), CD mentioned that he had been ill for a week. Trimen’s brother was Henry Trimen.
See Origin 6th ed., pp. xii and 168–204.
In Origin 6th ed., pp. 182–5, CD had countered St George Jackson Mivart’s objection that it was hard to imagine how early stages in the development of baleen in whales could have been useful. CD described gradations in the the development of lamellae in the beaks of various geese and ducks to illustrate how the adaptation for sifting fine particles in water might have come about.
See Origin 6th ed., pp. 186–8, for CD’s account of movement of the eye in flatfishes of the family Pleuronectidae. See also letter from G. J. Allman, 13 April 1872 and nn. 2 and 3.
See Origin 6th ed., p. 162.
Trimen refers to Alfred William Bennett’s review of Origin 6th ed. in Nature, 22 February 1872, pp. 318–19. Bennett mentioned Nathaniel Southgate Shaler’s view that rattlesnakes mimicked the sound of cicadas, thereby attracting birds within striking range (Shaler 1872, p. 34). See letter to A. W. Bennett, 29 February [1872] and nn. 3–5.
Trimen probably refers to the nursery rhyme ‘Mrs. Bond’, which contains the line, ‘Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come and be killed, For you must be stuffed, and my customers filled!’ (see Crane [1876]).
Fishing-frogs are fishes of the genus Lophius, also known as monkfish; they have three long filaments attached to the middle of the head. One of the filaments is used as a lure to attract other fishes.
Chapter 10 of Origin 6th ed. is ‘On the imperfection of the geological record’.
Trimen became curator of the South African Museum in 1872 on the same terms as his predecessor, Edgar Leopold Layard, that is, £100 a year in addition to his official salary. He was given one day a week to attend the museum (Iziko: (see Internet archive, Wayback machine, 21 November 2008)). Layard had been commissioner at the Mixed Commission Court at the Cape of Good Hope; the Mixed Commission was abolished in 1870 (Gibbs 1889, p. 34).
Trimen evidently refers to the introductory ‘Historical sketch’ in Origin 6th ed., p. xviii, in which CD wrote: When the first edition of this work was published, I was so completely deceived, as were many others, by such expressions as ‘the continuous operation of creative power,’ that I included Professor Owen with other palaeontologists as being firmly convinced of the immutability of species; but it appears (‘Anat. of Vertebrates,’ vol. iii. p. 796) that this was on my part a preposterous error. In the last edition of this work I inferred, and the inference still seems to me perfectly just, from a passage beginning with the words ‘no doubt the type-form,’ &c. (Ibid. vol. i. p. xxxv.), that Professor Owen admitted that natural selection may have done something in the formation of new species; but this it appears (Ibid. vol. iii. p. 798) is inaccurate and without evidence. I also gave some extracts from a correspondence between Professor Owen and the Editor of the ‘London Review,’ from which it appeared manifest to the Editor as well as to myself, that Professor Owen claimed to have promulgated the theory of natural selection before I had done so; and I expressed my surprise and satisfaction at this announcement; but as far as it is possible to understand certain recently published passages (Ibid. vol. iii. p. 798), I have either partially or wholly again fallen into error. It is consolatory to me that others find Professor Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do. For more on Richard Owen’s correspondence with the London Review, see Correspondence vol. 14, letter to J. D. Hooker, 31 May [1866] and n. 11.
Henry Barkly was governor of Cape Colony from 1870 until 1877 (ODNB). The first three volumes of Flora Capensis were published between 1860 and 1865. The main author, William Henry Harvey, died in 1866 and the work was left uncompleted. Barkly urged Joseph Dalton Hooker to complete the work and a subsidy of £200 per volume was approved by the colonial parliament in 1872. The direction of the completion of the work was assumed by William Turner Thiselton-Dyer in 1877; the fourth volume appeared only in 1897 and the work was finally completed in 1925 (see Thiselton-Dyer 1925).


On new [6th] edition of the Origin; comments on additions.

Owen’s attitude toward evolution.

Letter details

Letter no.
Roland Trimen
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Colonial Secretary’s Office, Cape Town
Source of text
DAR 178: 191
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8285,” accessed on 15 September 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20