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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. F. Barrett   6 May 1873

Woodlands | Isleworth

May 6. 1873

Dear Sir,

So many letters have lately appeared in “Nature” on Hereditary Instinct that I hardly like to add to their number.1 Perhaps however you will pardon my relating to you the following incident bearing on this subject,—though I fear hardly worth your notice.

Whilst residing 〈in〉 Demerara in 1846 my father on returning from an excursion to the interior came across a female alligator guarding her eggs.2 He shot the mother & the eggs he brought home placing them in a box in his study. Opening the box a few days after he found one or two had hatched meanwhile, these snapped & bit his fingers directly they came near. Taking up one of the remaining eggs he cut it round with a penknife & removed part of the leathery shell, instantly the blind young reptile within laid hold of his finger & attempted to bite.3 It was with some difficulty put back in its shell, & preserved in spirits

In this state some neighbouring friends now have it in their possession.

I am | Yours faithfully | W. F. Barrett.

Charles Darwin Esq F.R.S. | &c. &c. &c.


Letters and articles on instinct had been published in Nature, 20 February 1873, p. 303; 27 February 1873, pp. 322–3; 6 March 1873, p. 340; 13 March 1873, pp. 360–1; 20 March 1873, pp. 377–8, 384; 3 April 1873, pp. 424–5; 10 April 1873, pp. 437–8, 443–4; 1 May 1873, p. 6. The discussion had started with CD’s letter to the editor on inherited instinct, published in Nature, 13 February 1873, pp. 281–2 (see letter to Nature, [before 13 February 1873]). CD also intervened during the course of the debate (see first letter to Nature, [before 3 April 1873], and Nature, 3 April 1873, pp. 417–18).
Barrett’s father, William Garland Barrett, had been a missionary in Demerara, a region of South America that is now part of Guyana (see Sibree 1923, p. 34).
George John Romanes mentioned this example of alligator instinct in his work on animal intelligence (see Romanes 1882, p. 256). CD had lent him his collection of notes and clippings on the subject, including Bartlett’s letter (ibid., p. xi).


Because of current interest in hereditary instinct, relates incident about a baby alligator, just emerged from its shell, attempting to bite a human.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Fletcher Barrett
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160: 46
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8902,” accessed on 19 January 2019,

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