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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [30 July – 2 August 1845]

Down Bromley Kent


My dear Lyell

I have been wishing to write to you for a week past, but every five-minute’s worth of strength has been expended in getting out my Second Part. Your note pleased me a good deal more, I daresay, than my dedication did you,2 and I thank you much for it. Your work3 has interested me much, & I will give you my impressions, though as I never thought you would care to hear what I thought of the non-scientific parts, I made no notes nor took pains to remember any particular impression of 23 of the 1st Vol. The first impression, I shd say would be with most (though I have literally seen not one soul since reading it) regret at there not being more of the non-scientific: I am not a good judge, for I have read nothing ie non-scientific about N. America, but the whole struck me as very new, fresh & interesting. Your discussions bore to my mind the evident stamp of matured thought, & of conclusions drawn from facts observed by yourself & not from the opinions of the people whom you met; & this I suspect is comparatively rare.— Your slave discussion disturbed me much;4 but as you would care no more for my opinion on this head, than for the ashes of this letter, I will say nothing, except that it gave me some sleepless most uncomfortable hours.—

Your account of the religious state of the States particularly interested me: I was surprised throughout at your very proper boldness against the clergy. In your university chapter, the clergy & not the state of Education are most severely & justly handled; and this I think is very bold, for I conceive you might crush a leaden-headed old Don, as a Don, with more safety, than touch the finger of that corporate animal, the Clergy. What a contrast in education does England show itself! Your apology (using the term, like the old religionists who meant anything but an apology) for lectures struck me as very clever: but all the arguments in the world on your side are not equal to one course of Jamieson’s Lectures on the other side, which I formerly for my sins experienced.5 Although I had read about the coal-fields in N. America, I never in the smallest degree really comprehended their area, their thickness & favourable position: nothing hardly astounded me more in your book.—

Some few parts struck me as rather heterogenous, but I do not know whether to an extent that at all signified. I missed, however, a good deal some general heading, to the chapters, such as the two or three principal places visited. One has no right to expect an author to write down to the zero of geographical ignorance of the reader; but I, not knowing a single place, was occasionally rather plagued in tracing your course. Sometimes in the beginning of a chapter, in one paragraph your course was traced through a half-dozen places; anyone, as ignorant as myself, if he could be found, would prefer such a disturbing paragraph left out. I cut your map loose & I found that a great comfort: I could not follow your engraved track. I think in a second edition, interspaces, here & there of one line open, wd. be an improvement. By the way, I take credit to myself in giving my Journal a less scientific air in having printed all names of species & genera in Romans: the printing looks, also, better. All the Illustrations strike me as capital; & the map is an admirable volume in itself. If your Principles had not met with such universal admiration, I shd have feared there wd have been too much geology in this for the general Reader: certainly all that the most clear & light style could do, has been done. To myself, the geology was an excellent, well condensed well digested resumé of all that has been made out in N. America; & every geologist ought to be grateful to you. The summing up of the Niagara chapter appeared to me the grandest part: I was, also, deeply interested by your discussions on the origin of Silurian formations; I have made scores of scores marking passages hereafter useful to me.6

All the coal-theory appeared to me very good: but it is no use going on enumerating in this manner.— I wish there had been more Nat. Hist; I liked all the scattered fragments.—

I have now given you an exact transcript of my thoughts; but they are hardly worth your reading. I have a few remarks on particular passages, which; however, are very much in the same predicament.

Vol I.

p. 81. Are you sure of the resemblance of the corals, shells, & insects of Van Diemen’s Land & the N.? Surely the insects at least are different; & are not shells too similar all over the world to offer a good standard of comparison. You speak also of the analogy of the Arctic & Antarctic Faunas. In T. del. Fuego, the most southern land, certainly the mammals, birds, fish, insects & I should have thought shells and corals show little signs of relations with the N.— In plants there is not only an analogy, but some of the species are identical.— Perhaps you have better authority, however, than I am aware of: I shd very much like to know what your authority is about the insects, shells & coral of Van Diemen’s Land.7 (N.B. you spell it V. Dieman’s L.) and this is not, I think, usual.

p. 138 Would you please to tell me, whether there are any extinct species of Fulgur & Gnathodon in the U.S. or elsewhere?8

p. 150—bottom paragraph strikes me as obscure, in fact, I cannot understand it. I do not see the reason (& it ought to be made very obvious) why you do not mention in your present sources of Carbonic A. the breathing of all animals.9 Is it correct to say one gas absorbs another? I presume you are certain that the putrefaction of animal matter yields carbonic acid; I had fancied it yielded little: I think Liebig wd. quarrel with you for calling the slow combustion or decay (or erecaumosis or some such word) of vegetable matter, putrefaction.10

Might you not in this discussion, bring more prominently forward the absurdity of arguing from one quarter of the globe, without knowing what was going on in other parts; for instance, whether or not, peat was forming over 1000’s of miles in both the N. & S. hemispheres at that period.?

p. 181 Would it not have been better, if you had explained by what meansrain-water could carry away a seam of carbon; for I, for one, do not understandhow.—11

Vol II. p. 37 Dr. Morton is so far wrong, that the Fuegians have never used a hollowed tree, but bark sowed together: the Indian on W. coast have used immemorially planks sewed together.12

Vol II. p 54. Although it may be strictly true that we seldom meet with wood or fruits floating on the sea, yet this cannot be at all in effect true: for on the Falklands, the Galapagos, the Radack & the Keeling islands drift-wood & fruit & seeds are thrown up abundantly: at Keeling the fruit &c &c almost certainly must have been transported 2000 miles. Heaven knows how many thousand the northern firs-trees must have travelled which are cast (together with bamboos & Palms) on the Radack Isd not far N. of the Equator.—

p. 65. Hearne in his Travels13 gives a grand account of the Buffaloes in the Prairies pushing each over the cliffs of the rivers when rushing to drink. Will the fact, which I give in my Journal bear on this subject, viz that in the droughts, the animals, which drink of the saline streams all perish on the spot.14

p. 189. Does not the present Arctic Flora, afford a parallel in extent of distribution, with your carboniferous Flora?15

These are my few & unimportant conjectural criticisms or rather queries,—to some of which I shd be very much obliged for answers.— I am doubtful how far you will think my very long letter worth the reading.

My wife & Baby are going on very well. Thank Mrs. Lyell for her beautiful letter; Kinnordy must be a quite charming looking place. I have got a fender-stool, in imitation of Hart Stt.—16 I hope you will find time to let me have a line: I am anxious to know when you return to London.

Farewell, I congratulate you on having brought out so capital a book as your Travels: I sincerely trust after your return that I shall have, for one, the great pleasure of reading another volume | Ever yours | C. Darwin

P.S. Have you any of my volumes of Lamarck??17


CD first wrote ‘Wednesday’, then deleted it and wrote ‘(Saturday)’. Saturday, 2 August 1845, seems to be the date that the second number of Journal of researches 2d ed. appeared (Freeman 1977, p. 35): the previous Wednesday was 30 July.
C. Lyell 1845a.
Though he criticised American racial attitudes, Lyell disapproved of the Abolitionist movement and took a pessimistic view of the possibility of emancipation (C. Lyell 1845a, 1: 181–95).
CD attended Robert Jameson’s lectures at Edinburgh University in 1827 (see Autobiography, pp. 52–3, and Ashworth 1935, pp. 99–101).
CD’s annotated copy is preserved in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Lyell emphasised the essential similarity existing among organisms of a given era, regardless of geographical distribution, asserting particularly the resemblance between the corals, shells, and insects of Tasmania and those of the northern temperate zone. The passages are marked in CD’s copy (Darwin Library–CUL) with ‘? ! ?’ and ‘? !! no’ (C. Lyell 1845a, 1: 81).
In a somewhat ambiguous passage, Lyell seems to say he has seen fossil shells identical to living members of these American genera.
Lyell argued against the theory of Adolphe Théodore Brongniart that in the earliest geological times the atmosphere had been very rich in carbon. Brongniart believed that excess carbon had been absorbed by plants and buried in the great deposits of the Carboniferous, at which time higher forms of animal life were introduced (Brongniart 1828, pp. 251–4). Lyell refuted this view by showing that modern plants do not alter the composition of the atmosphere since there is a constant replenishment of carbon from other sources.
Justus von Liebig employed the term ‘eremacausis’ for slow oxidation of organic matter (see Liebig 1840, p. 261).
Lyell was thinking of the carbon content of topsoil that had been subsequently covered by other deposits.
Lyell (1845a 2: 37) had cited Samuel George Morton’s mistaken assertion that canoes hollowed from logs were standard throughout the Americas. In his copy of Lyell’s work CD wrote ‘No’ against the passage.
Hearne 1795. Samuel Hearne was an explorer and Canadian administrator.
Lyell (1845a, 2: 188–9) had commented on the similarity between coal plants in North America and Europe, suggesting there was no parallel case at the present day.
Lyell’s address in London.
The Darwin Library–CUL contains only volumes two and four of the seven-volume first edition of Lamarck’s Histoire des animaux sans vertèbres (1815–22). They are annotated by CD. All eleven volumes of the second edition (1835–45) are preserved, but are not annotated.


Ashworth, J. H. 1935. Charles Darwin as a student in Edinburgh, 1825–1827. [Read 28 October 1935.] Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 55 (1934–5): 97–113.

Autobiography: The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. With original omissions restored. Edited with appendix and notes by Nora Barlow. London: Collins. 1958.

Brongniart, Adolphe Théodore. 1828. Considérations générales sur la nature de la végétation qui couvrait la surface de la terre aux diverses époques de formation de son écorce. Annales des Sciences Naturelles 15: 225–58.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.

Hearne, Samuel. 1795. A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean … in the years 1769, 1770, 1771, & 1772. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell.

Journal of researches 2d ed.: Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN. 2d edition, corrected, with additions. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1845.


Comments extensively on CL’s book [Travels in North America (1845)]. Lyell’s views on slavery, the clergy, education, and coalfields. Has difficulty in tracing Lyell’s course. Comments on geological portions, especially CL’s comparisons of living and fossil organisms to those of South America and Tasmania; animal formation of carbonic acid and effects of vegetable decay; Indians’ use of lumber. Discusses water-borne transportation of wood, fruit, and seeds. Notes distribution of Arctic flora.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.44)
Physical description
ALS 9pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 899,” accessed on 29 September 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3