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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Octavius Pickard-Cambridge   [before 20 February 1874]

Down Beckenham Kent

My dear Sir

I am much obliged for the reference: I had forgotten what the point was, & I am delighted to recover, & be able to quote it.1

I will now discuss, as far as it can be done briefly, the point mooted in your letter;2 but brevity will make what I say seem dogmatic   I may premise that I have stated that all organs necessary for reproduction must be attributed to nat. selection; & that the term sexual selection is applicable only when an advantage is gained by a struggle between two or more individuals of the same sex.3 There is good evidence (& I have lately collected more) that males are generally more variable than females:4 you may consider this as due to masculine “vital force”; but as yet I shd. prefer to speak of it as variability, without pretending to say a word against your idea; though some authors hold an opposite view to yours.—5

But I do not think this variability or extra vital force will account for well-marked sexual differences of many kinds, even of colour, unless the variations are in some manner accumulated. In my judgment, (1) when the 2 sexes are alike, let them be ever so brilliantly coloured, there is no evidence (sometimes analogy may be a feeble guide) of the action of S. selection; unless indeed the two sexes closely resemble one sex of a closely allied form, in which the sexes differ.

(2.) If the two sexes differ much in colour, especially if the male is the more brilliant, then there seems to me some probability that the brighter colours have been gained by S. selection, in as much the two sexes have generally been exposed to identical conditions. no doubt the two sexes must differ somewhat in constitution, & though exposed to the same conditions, may come to differ somewhat, without any selection; & such cases can be shown to occur.

(3) The evidence of the action of s. selection becomes good only when the one sex, (generally the male) takes elaborate pains to display his colours or other ornaments to the other sex. For can we believe that the male would thus act, of which there is abundant evidence, unless such display was an advantage to him? & if it be an advantage to him we have the groundwork for S. selection.

I presume that you will hardly suppose that the elegantly constructed stridulating organs of insects, which often require two parts of the body to be modified in adaptation to each other, could have been formed by the masculine vital force, without any guiding power; & if these structures have been modified through sexual selection, why not colour?

As spiders (as far as I am aware) do not display themselves, the evidence that s. selection has been here at work is not strong; but Canestrini in recent Italian paper asserts positively that the female selects one out of several males;6 & why shd not colour guide her, as something must guide her.—

I fear that I shall have wearied you with my dreadfully bad writing & clumsily expressed letter; but I have little strength to spare. With many thanks | Believe me, my dear Sir, Yours very faithfully | Ch Darwin

P.S | I collected spiders largely during the voyage of the Beagle, & deposited them in the B. Museum;7 but I daresay they are all decayed now.—


See letter from Octavius Pickard-Cambridge, 17 February 1874. CD had asked Pickard-Cambridge for references to his observations on male spiders that were significantly smaller than the females.
In his letter to 17 February 1874, Pickard-Cambridge had suggested that ‘curious male structures’ might be accounted for by natural selection rather than sexual selection.
See Descent 1: 256–7.
See Descent 1: 275–6 and Descent 2d ed., p. 223.
On the ‘greater vitality of the female’, see, for example, Correspondence vol. 20, letter from D. T. Smith, 19 November 1872.
There is a heavily annotated copy of Giovanni Canestrini’s paper on the secondary sexual characteristics of spiders (Canestrini 1873) in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. CD noted on the front cover that it was ‘very valuable’, and there is a translation of a passage in another hand that reads, in part, ‘Up to the present time copulation has been observed in about 20 species of Aracnidæ, & it has been established that the female does not accept any male whatever, but rejects some of them resisting them in a threatening manner with open mandibles; after long hesitation and consideration she receives the chosen male.’ CD cited Canestrini for this information in Descent 2d ed., p. 272.
See Keynes ed. 2000 for CD’s notes on his specimens. According to K. G. V. Smith 1987, p. 56, ‘Some of Darwin’s spiders were reported on by White (1841, 1849) and there is unidentified material both dry and in spirit in the Zoology Department at the BM.’ Smith refers to A. White 1841 and 1849; Adam White of the British Museum described some of CD’s spider specimens. Most of CD’s collection is now at the Natural History Museum, London; however, it is not adequately labelled, and some of the glass tubes contain a mixture of spiders from different parts of the world (Paul Hillyard, personal information).


Canestrini, Giovanni. 1873. Caratteri sessuali secondarii degli aracnidi. Atti della Società Veneto-Trentina di Scienze Naturali 1: 45–52.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

Smith, Kenneth G. V. 1987. Darwin’s insects: Charles Darwin’s entomological notes. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History). Historical series 14: 1–143.

White, Adam. 1841. Descriptions of new or little known Arachnida. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 7: 471–7.


Discusses meaning of term "sexual selection".

Comments on variability in males.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Octavius Pickard-Cambridge
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.437)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9304,” accessed on 24 January 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 22