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Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. R. Wallace   [2 September 1872]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

My dear Wallace

I write a line to say that I understood, but I may of course have been mistaken, from Huxley that Bastian distinctly stated that he had watched the development of the scale of Sphagnum: I was astonished, as I knew the appearance of Sphagnum under a high power, & asked a second time; but I repeat that I may have been mistaken.—2 Busk told me that Sharpey had noticed the appearance of numerous infusoria in one of the solutions not containing any nitrogen; & I do not suppose that any physiologist wd. admit the possibility of infusoria absorbing nitrogen gas.—3 Possibly I ought not to have mentioned statements made in private conversation, so please do not repeat them. I quite agree about the extreme importance of such men, as Cohn, Trecul & Carter having observed apparent cases of Heterogenesis.—4 At present I shd. prefer any mad hypothesis, such as that every disintegrated molecule of the lowest forms can reproduce the parent-form; & that these molecules are universally distributed & that they do not lose their vital power until heated to such a temperature that they decompose like dead organic particles.

I am extremely grieved to hear about the museum: it is a great misfortune.—5

Yours most sincerely | C. Darwin

I have taken up old Botanical work & have given up all theories.—6

I quite agree about Howarth’s paper: he wrote to me & I told him that we differed so widely, it was of no use our discussing any point.7

As for Galton’s paper, I have never yet been able fully to digest it: as far as I have, it has not cleared my ideas, & has only aided in bringing more prominently forwards the large proportion of the latent characters.—8


The date is established by a note written at the top of the letter in an unknown hand referring to the postmark, and by the relationship between this letter and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 31 August 1872.
CD refers to George Busk and William Sharpey. The unlikelihood of life arising in solutions without nitrogen was an important criticism of Bastian’s work (see for example, T. H. Huxley, ‘Dr Bastian and spontaneous generation’, Nature, 13 October 1870, p. 473). See also letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 August [1872].
For Ferdinand Julius Cohn’s and Auguste Adolphe Lucien Trécul’s contributions to the spontaneous generation debate, see Farley 1977, pp. 132–7 and pp. 111–14. On Henry John Carter’s work, see Carter 1856, H. C. Bastian 1872, 2: 441, and Wallace 1872d, p. 302.
Wallace had hoped to be appointed director of the Bethnal Green Museum (see letter from A. R. Wallace, 31 August 1872 and n. 5).
See letter from A. R. Wallace, 31 August 1872 and n. 7. CD’s letter to Henry Hoyle Howorth has not been found, but see the letter from H. H. Howorth, 30 July 1872. Howorth’s paper was Howorth 1872c.
In his letter of 31 August 1872, Wallace had praised Francis Galton’s article on blood-relationships (Galton 1872a). See also letter from Francis Galton, 28 May 1872 and n. 5.


Bastian, Henry Charlton. 1872. The beginnings of life: being some account of the nature, modes of origin and transformations of lower organisms. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Farley, John. 1977. The spontaneous generation controversy from Descartes to Oparin. Baltimore, Md., and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Huxley’s report of Bastian’s having watched the development of the scale of Sphagnum. The importance of studies of possible causes of heterogenesis.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent from
Source of text
The British Library (Add MS 46434)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8504,” accessed on 22 July 2024,

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