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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. M. Moorsom   13 September [1877]1


Sep. 13.

Dear Sir,

I am very much obliged to you for your courtesy in replying to my note— I am disappointed at having to consign the elephant story to the region of myths, but I unfortunately have only my memory of what the book said to trust to—2 If I come across it again I will send you all particulars—

The idea which I want to get people to attend to is that the passion for Alcohol in excessive quantity is natural to mankind and when surrounding circumstances are favourable to the indulgence of this passion, all human beings will indulge except those who are more developed in the higher moral qualities than the mass of mankind are or are likely to be for a long time to come— If this be so we are wrong in looking to Education (in the every day sense of the word) as a remedy, better sanitary arrangements may do a good deal for us, but so long as the stuff itself is openly sold as a drink by respectable people in profuse quantity, so long it is vain to expect that the mass will resist the temptation to drink to excess—

To my mind we might as well expect chastity among men in a country where brothels were at every corner held by respectable people and licensed by the state— If then the passion for Alcohol in excess, be not a disease in its first beginnings (though if indulged it may produce disease) neither due to physical nor moral derangement, but a natural desire; it is evident that it must have irresistible power over the majority—

Although we may do much in individual cases, yet it will be very long before the majority will be sufficiently elevated morally to resist the passion— Meantime the indulgence produces disease which intensifies the passion & when transmitted to children makes them almost inevitable victims to a desire which in them is unnaturally strong & so the evil must increase in every generation—among the masses—3 The conclusion to which I am driven is that the public sale of Alcohol except as a “Poison”, should be forbidden—

This would reduce the temptations enormously & would give time for other influences directed to physical, mental & moral improvement, to take effect.

As a follower of Stuart Mill in his Economical ideas & in his principles of Liberty and also as one who believes in the principles of developement set forth by Herbert Spencer in “Social Statics” &c, it is with great reluctance that I have come to adopt such a view as this—4 But the facts seem to me to point to a gradual deterioration of our nation by Alcohol, unless we restrict its sale in public—

You have expressed so great an interest in the Temperance movement, that I have been emboldened to bore you thus with a long letter  Pray forgive me for doing so.

Your opinion that most monkeys would take Alcohol (I presume in excess?) if they could get it; is exactly to the point—

Am I at liberty to quote what you have written to me as to

1 your interest in the question,

2 your opinion as to monkey’s tastes

3 & the publican & his monkeys?

A Post Card with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ will be quite enough—5

I am Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | W M Moorsom

C. Darwin Esqr


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to W. M. Moorsom, 11 September [1877].
On Victorian debates about the causes and hereditary transmission of intemperance, see Bynum 1984b, B. H. Harrison 1994, and Valverde 1997.
Moorsom was a member of the Church of England Temperance Society. Both John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer advocated free trade and freedom from state interference except where the actions of one individual impinged on the rights of another, Mill most notably in successive editions of Principles of political economy (Mill 1848). In Social statics: or, the conditions essential to human happiness specified (Spencer 1851), Herbert Spencer argued that, according to his ‘law of equal freedom’, restrictions on trade were not only detrimental to the economy but immoral (see, for example, ibid., pp. 459–60).
See letter to W. M. Moorsom, 11 September [1877]. No reply to Moorsom has been found, nor any evidence that CD complied with this request. Emma Darwin was a supporter of the temperance society in Down (Correspondence vol. 23, letter from Emma Darwin to J. B. Innes, 25 December [1875] and n. 6).


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

Drummond, William Henry. 1875. The large game and natural history of South and South-East Africa. From the journals of the Hon. W. H. Drummond. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.

Harrison, Brian Howard. 1994. Drink and the Victorians: the temperance question in England, 1815–1872. 2d edition. Staffordshire: Keele University Press.

Mill, John Stuart. 1848. Principles of political economy: with some of their applications to social philosophy. 2 vols. London: John W. Parker.

Spencer, Herbert. 1851. Social statics: or, the conditions essential to human happiness specified, and the first of them developed. London: John Chapman.

Valverde, Mariana. 1997. ‘Slavery from within’: the invention of alcoholism and the question of free will. Social History 22: 251–68.


Pleased with CD’s interest in temperance. Can he quote CD? Sorry the elephant story is a myth. It fits his argument for temperance: a passion for alcohol is natural [primitive]. Only the morally developed can resist. Moral development will take a long time. Thus education cannot cure alcoholism now. Thus public sale of alcohol must be outlawed. Although he is a follower of J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer he has been forced to this conclusion.

Letter details

Letter no.
Warren Maude Moorsom
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 171: 235
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11137,” accessed on 4 December 2020,