skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. D. Hooker   [6 May 1847]



My dear Hooker

You have made a savage onslaught,1 & I must try to defend myself. But first let me say that I never write to you except for my own good pleasure; now I fear that you answer me when busy & without inclination (& I am sure I shd. have none, if I was as busy as you): pray do not do so, as if I thought my writing entailed an answer from you nolens volens, it would destroy all my pleasure in writing.—

Firstly: I did not consider my letter as reasoning, or even as speculation, but simply as mental rioting & as I was sending Binney’s paper I poured out to you the result of reading it.—

Secondly, you are right indeed in thinking me mad, if you suppose that I would class any ferns as marine plants:2 but surely there is a wide distinction between the plants found upright in the coal beds & those not upright & which might have been drifted. Is it not probable that the same circumstances which have preserved the vegetation in situ, shd. have preserved drifted plants? I know calamites is found upright, but I fancied its affinities were very obscure like Sigillaria. As for Lepidodendron I forgot its existence, as happens when one goes riot & now know neither what it is, or whether upright. If these plants, ie calamites & Lepidodendron have very clear relations to terrestrial vegetables,, like the ferns have, & are found upright in situ, of course I must give up the ghost. But surely Sigilliria is the main upright plant, & on its obscure affinities I have heard you enlarge.—

Thirdly, it never entered my head to under=value botanical relatively to zoological evidence; except in so far as I thought it was admitted that the vegetative structure seldom yielded any evidence of affinity, nearer than that of families, & not always so much: & is it not in plants, as certainly it is in animals, dangerous to judge of habits without very near affinity. Could a Botanist tell from structure alone that the mangrove family, almost or quite alone in dicots:, could live in the sea—& the zostera family almost alone amongst the monocots:? Is it a safe argument, that because algæ are almost the only, or the only, submerged sea-plants, that formerly other groups had not members with such habits; with animals such an argument would not be conclusive, as I cd. illustrate by many examples;—but I am forgetting myself, I want only to some degree to defend myself, & not burn my fingers by attacking you.— The foundation of my letter, & what is my deliberate opinion, though I daresay you will think it absurd, is that I would rather trust, cæteris paribus, pure geological evidence than either Zoolog. or Botan. evidence: I do not say that I wd sooner trust poor geolog. evidence than good organic: I think the bases of pure geological reasoning is simpler, (consisting chiefly of the action of water on the crust of the earth, & its up & down movements) than bases drawn from the difficult subject of affinities & of structure in relation to habits.

I can hardly analyse the facts on which I have come to this conclusion; but I can illustrate it: Pallas’ account3 would lead anyone to suppose that the Siberian strata with the frozen carcasses had been quietly deposited & hence that the embedded animals had lived in the neighbourhood: but our zoological knowledge of 30 years ago, led everyone falsely to reject this conclusion.

Tell me that an upright fern in situ occurs with Sigilliria & Stigmaria, or that the affinities of Calamites & Lepidodendron (supposing that they are found in situ with Sigilliria) as so clear that they could not have been marine, like, but in a greater degree, than the mangrove & sea-wrack, & I will humbly apologise to you & all Botanists, for having let my mind run riot on a subject on which assuredly I know nothing. But till I hear this, I shall keep privately to my own opinion, with the same pertinacity & as you will think with the same philosophical spirit, with which Kœnig4 maintains that Cheirotherium-footsteps are fuci.

Whether this letter will sink me still lower in your opinion, or put me a little right, I know not, but hope the latter. Anyhow I have revenged myself with boring you with a very long epistle.

Farewell & be forgiving— Ever yours C. Darwin

When will you return to Kew? I have forgotten one main object of my letter, to thank you much for your offer of the Hort. Journal, but I have ordered the two numbers with Herbert,5 whose writing I always like.—


Hooker’s letter appears not to have survived, but CD did not forget this ‘onslaught’. In his Autobiography, p. 105, he recalled: [Hooker] is in all ways very impulsive and somewhat peppery in temper; but the clouds pass away almost immediately. He once sent me an almost savage letter from a cause which will appear ludicrously small to an outsider, viz. because I maintained for a time the silly notion that our coal-plants had lived in shallow water in the sea.
Hooker argued that Sigillaria was related to tree-ferns, see J. D. Hooker 1848a, p. 417.
See Pallas 1771–6, 3: 97–8.
Charles Dietrich Eberhard König, keeper of the mineralogical department (which included fossils) of the British Museum.
William Herbert. See Correspondence vol. 3, letters to J. D. Hooker, [8? February 1846], and to Robert Hutton, [April 1846], for CD’s comments on Herbert 1846. Herbert 1847 is in the second volume of Journal of the Horticultural Society of London.


CD defends his position on submarine coal formation and coal-plants against JDH’s strong objections.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 114: 91
Physical description
4pp & C

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1086,” accessed on 15 November 2018,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4