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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Chauncey Wright   3 June [1872]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

June 3d

My dear Sir

Many thanks for your article in the N. American Review, which I have read with great interest.—2 Nothing can be clearer than the way in which you discuss the permanence or fixity of species.— It never occurred to me to suppose that anyone looked at the cases as it seems Mr. Mivart does. Had I read his answer to you,3 perhaps I shd. have perceived this; but I have resolved to waste no more time in reading reviews of my works or on evolution, excepting when I hear that they are good & contain new matter, or are written by men whom I respect. It is pretty clear that Mr Mivart has come to the end of his tether on this subject.—

As your mind is so clear, & as you consider so carefully the meaning of words, I wish you wd. take some incidental occasion to consider when a thing may properly be said to be effected by the will of man.— I have been led to the wish by reading an article by your Prof. Whitney versus Schleicher.4 He argues because each step of change in language is made by the will of man, the whole language so changes; but I do not think that this is so, as man has no intention or wish to change the language. It is a parallel case with what I have called “unconscious selection” which depends on man consciously preserving the best individuals & thus unconsciously altering the breed.—5

My dear Sir | yours sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Chauncey Wright, 24 May 1872.
Wright had sent CD a proof copy of a paper that was part of an exchange with St George Jackson Mivart (see letter from Chauncey Wright, 24 May 1872 and n. 6); it was published in the North American Review. The proof copy, lightly annotated by CD, is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Mivart 1872b.
There is an annotated copy of William Dwight Whitney’s paper criticising the views of August Schleicher on the nature of language (Whitney 1871) in the Darwin Pamphlet collection–CUL. Schleicher had sent CD his paper on Darwinism and language, and CD also had the English translation (Schleicher 1863 and 1869; see Correspondence vol. 13, letter from August Schleicher, 9 February 1865, n.1).
CD distinguished between ‘methodical’ selection (breeding with the modification of a particular feature in view) and ‘unconscious’ selection (breeding from the best animals and plants with no particular improvement in mind) in Origin, pp. 34–8. Schleicher had argued that languages were independent entities that developed organically through a mechanism which he likened to natural selection and which was independent of human agency. Whitney argued that language was a wholly human artefact, with its natural tendency to vary kept in check through acts of individual and collective will, whose development required ‘the will of man as a determining force’ (Whitney 1871, p. 47); CD annotated this passage in his copy of the paper, ‘but without reflection on the result’. For more on the views of Schleicher and Whitney, see Alter 2005, pp. 129–35.


Alter, Stephen G. 2005. William Dwight Whitney and the science of language. Baltimore, Md., and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Schleicher, August. 1863. Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft. Offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr Ernst Häckel. Weimar, Germany: Hermann Böhlau.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1871. Strictures on the views of August Schleicher respecting the nature of language and kindred subjects. Transactions of the American Philological Association 2: 35–64.


CW’s article responding to Mivart [see 8351] on the fixity of species is very clear.

On evolution of language, CD doubts W. D. Whitney’s claim that changes are effected by the will of man. Asks CW when a thing may properly be said to be so effected.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Chauncey Wright
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8367,” accessed on 20 April 2024,

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