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Darwin Correspondence Project

To F. P. Cobbe   28 November 1872

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

Nov 28. 1872

My dear Miss Cobbe

I have been greatly interested by your article in the Quarterly.1 It seems to me the best analysis of the mind of an animal which I have ever read, & I agree with you on most points. I have been particularly glad to read what you say about the reasoning power of dogs & about that rather vague matter, their self-consciousness.2 I dare say however that you wd prefer criticisms to admiration. I regret that you quote Jesse so often: I made enquiries about one case (which quite broke down) from a man who certainly ought to have known Mr Jesse well, & I was cautioned that he had not written in a scientific spirit.3 I regret also that you quote old writers;4 it may be very illiberal but their statements go for nothing with me, & I suspect with many others. It passes my powers of belief that dogs ever commit suicide; assuming the statements to be true, I shd think it more probable that they were distraught & did not know what they were doing; nor am I able to credit about fetishes.5

One of the most interesting subjects in yr article seems to me to be about the moral sense.6 Since publishing the Descent of Man I have got to believe rather more than I did in dog’s having what may be called a conscience. When an honourable dog has committed an undiscovered offence he certainly seems ashamed (& this is the term naturally & often used) rather than afraid to meet his master.7 My dog, the beloved & beautiful Polly, is at such times extremely affectionate towards me; & this leads me to mention a little anecdote. When I was a very little boy, I had committed some offence, so that my conscience troubled me; & when I met my father,8 I lavished so much affection on him, that he at once asked me what I had done, & told me to confess. I was so utterly confounded at his suspecting any thing, that I remember the scene clearly to the present day; & it seems to me that Polly’s frame of mind on such occasions is much the same as was mine, for I was not then at all afraid of my father.

This note is not worth sending, but I have nothing better to write & I remain with kind regards to Miss Lloyd9 | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin


See letter from F. P. Cobbe, [26 November 1872]. CD refers to [Cobbe] 1872a.
Cobbe discussed the reasoning power of dogs and their lack of self-consciousness in [Cobbe] 1872a, pp. 442–5, 447–8.
CD probably refers to Edward Jesse: Cobbe cited Edward Jesse twice in [Cobbe] 1872a (pp. 429, 445), and George Richard Jesse once (p. 446). CD himself cited G. R. Jesse in Variation 2d ed. 1: 30, 44, 45.
In [Cobbe] 1872a, pp. 443–4, Cobbe used anecdotes from the medieval Life of St Hugo and from Plutarch.
Cobbe related anecdotes of dogs committing suicide in [Cobbe] 1872a, pp. 445–6, and fetishes (and a fear of the uncanny) in ibid., pp. 437–8
Cobbe argued that dogs had noble impulses, but were powerless to make a moral choice between them and lower ones ([Cobbe] 1872a, pp. 438–9).
Cobbe had written: ‘Shame, after transgressing any of the arbitrary rules imposed on him, a dog displays with ludicrous simplicity’ ([Cobbe] 1872a, p. 429).
Robert Waring Darwin.


Variation 2d ed.: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1875.


FPC’s article on consciousness of dogs is best analysis of an animal’s mind CD has read.

Regrets she quotes [Edward?] Jesse.

Since writing Descent, CD has come to believe dogs have a conscience.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Frances Power Cobbe
Sent from
Source of text
The Huntington Library (CB 386)
Physical description
LS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8652,” accessed on 26 March 2023,

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