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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   25 February 1873

Feb. 25, 1873

Dear Darwin

Some of Agassiz’s sayings and doings are of such a sort that they can only be met and exposed in a squib.

I happen to know that he puts a high value on his argument from the survival of the dwarfed trees on the mountain side, having repeated it before scientific people.1 Can you conceive such a state of mind.

I can’t fire off my cracker here, for obvious reasons,—nor anywhere with my initials appended. So I send it to amuse you.

Consign it to the fire,— or if you choose to send it to Nature—don’t give my name with it.2 A pretty person to talk about “hasty generalising”!

Ever Yours | A. G.


The doctrine of the “survival of the fittest” must be strangely understood in some quarters. The American papers report Prof. Agassiz as having expressed himself in this wise at a recent meeting of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture, of which he is a member:—“I do not know how animals originated; a brilliant imagination that of Darwin; a very necessary faculty in the scientist. The sense I know too well to misquote him. Hasty generalising of observation is Darwin all over. Natural selection is out of generation. Natural necessity, what is it? Do we find that only the strong beget families? Observe plants at the foot of the White mountains, where are large trees, and so up to the summit, where they are mere shrubs. The weak may and do survive as well as the strong. Ignorance lies at the base of the discussion.”

Probably no one naturalist, however eminent, can be expected to know everything, or even all simple things. Can it be possible that Prof. Agassiz supposes (as his argument seems to require) that the dwarf trees in question grow and survive near the top of the mountain, notwithstanding they are not the fittest, rather than because they are the fittest, for the conditions? And does he conceive the doctrine of natural selection to be founded upon some idea of an abstract fitness, irrespective of the conditions, and not upon the survival of the fittest under and in consequence of the conditions? Surely the argument brought against the doctrine is a good illustration in its favour, only an extremely simple and elementary one.

We never could quite comprehend why Prof. Agassiz should give himself so heartily and persistently to the work of demolishing the doctrine of the derivation of species, in all its forms, considering how large and honourable a part he has himself taken in laying the foundation upon which the modern doctrine has been built. Of these foundations none is stronger than the capital one, generally supposed to be established by him, that the succession of species in time corresponds mainly with that in systematic rank, and is also somehow paralleled in the development of each individual of the higher ranks. So that, in view of his continued but unsuccessful efforts to drive the incoming doctrine out of the land, we could imagine him addressing his own important discoveries in the words used by Balak to Balaam:— “What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and behold, thou hast blessed them altogether.”3


Gray refers to the comments made by Louis Agassiz at a meeting of the Massachusetts State Board of Agriculture on 4 December 1872. The speech was published along with comments from other board members in the Twentieth annual report of the secretary of the Board of Agriculture to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, pp. 102–8.
CD evidently sent Gray’s squib to Nature; it appeared under the title ‘Survival of the fittest’, with no signature, in Nature, 27 March 1873, p. 404.
Numbers 23: 11.


Sends "squib" he has written exposing the folly of some of Louis Agassiz’s ideas. AG cannot "fire off [his] cracker" in U. S. so sends it to amuse CD. If it is sent to Nature, CD must not give AG’s name. [See "Survival of the fittest", Nature 7 (1873): 404].

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 165: 183; Nature, 27 March 1873, p. 404
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8786,” accessed on 14 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21