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Darwin Correspondence Project

From ?   13 June 1877

Tuesday 13 June 1877


Will you allow me who have not the honour to know you except from your books, to call your attention to a passage in one of them, which would, as I respectfully submit to you, be better left out.

It is, so far as I am aware, the only passage in your writings which is calculated to wound the feelings of any man of common sense. Furthermore, this single objectionable passage is not of your own composition at all, but is a quotation, which you have incorporated in your book, from some ephemeral production of Mr Greg; nor is it in the slightest degree necessary to your argument, but a mere illustration

The passage to which I refer occurs on page 174 of the 1st Volume of the “Descent of Man”, 1st Edition and begins thus “or as Mr Greg puts the case ‘The careless, squalid unaspiring Irishman &c &c.... .1

Now Sir, I am an Irishman accustomed to see, and not much vexed at seeing, this sort of thing in a newspaper. But your book is not newspaper. It is a great Scientific work destined to go to all Time and into all languages, and the passage to which I refer you, is, I take the liberty of saying, quite unworthy of such a book, and of you. You are in it allowing Mr Greg to do for you, what in no instance, as far as I am aware, have you done for yourself—viz generalize from insufficient data

That there are in the large English and Scotch towns, Irishmen who are “careless squalid and unaspiring” is unfortunately true. But such is not the character of the Irish race as a whole, nor even of the majority of the Irishmen who come to this country. No unprejudiced man who has lived among or studied them would so describe them

Therefore I respectfully invite you for the sake of your own fame as well as of our feelings, to leave this passage out in the next Edition of your great book, for the qualities displayed in which, as in all your books, you have no more sincere admirer than the Irishman who now addresses you.

As for Mr Greg—the fly whom I invite you to take out of Amber—I bear him no malice. Indeed I have a sneaking kindness for him. True he is the sworn foe of every thing Celtic. Yet he writes with such pungency and smartness, that I’ll engage Sir, if we had his pedigree before us, we’d find a Mac2 in it somewhere, as indeed so we would in the pedigrees of most Scotchmen & not a few Englishmen too

May be there is a Mac in yourself, Sir. I would be proud to believe there was, and would even have more satisfaction than I have now in signing myself, your warm admirer and obedient Servant | An Irishman


In Descent 1: 174, CD quoted from William Rathbone Greg’s article, ‘On the failure of “natural selection” in the case of man’ ([Greg] 1868, p. 361). CD omitted several of Greg’s more extreme remarks, which are given here in square brackets. The passage reads: The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman [fed on potatoes, living in a pig-stye, doting on a superstition,] multiplies like rabbits [or ephemera]: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts—and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal ‘struggle for existence’, it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed—and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults [by reason not of its stronger vitality but of its weaker reticence and its narrower brain].
‘Mac’, meaning ‘son’, is common in Irish and Scottish surnames of Celtic origin (OED).


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

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.


Objects to the passage about the Irish quoted by CD in Descent [1: 174].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 69: A12–13
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10998,” accessed on 16 August 2022,