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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. D. Hooker   6 August 1881

Down Beckenham

Aug. 6th 1881

My dear Hooker.—

For Heaven sake never speak of boring me, as it wd. be the greatest pleasure to aid you in the slightest degree, & your letter has interested me exceedingly.—1 I will go through your points seriatim, but I have never attended much to the history of any subject, & my memory has become atrociously bad. It will therefore be a mere chance whether any of my remarks are of any use.— Your idea to show what travellers have done seems to me a brilliant & just one, especially considering your audience.

(1) I know nothing about Tourneforth’s work, but your remark that we now understand the meaning of the resemblance between height & latitude on Plants seems very appropriate2

(2) I believe that you are fully right in calling Humboldt the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived. I have lately read 2 or 3 Volumes again.3 His geology is funny stuff; but that merely means that he was not in advance of his age. I shd. say he was wonderful more for his near approach to omniscience than for originality.— Whether or not his position as a scientific man is as eminent as we think, you might truly call him the parent of a grand progeny of scientific travellers, who taken together have done much for science.—4

(3) It seems to me quite just to give Lyell (& secondarily E. Forbes) a very prominent place.5

(4) Dana was I believe the first man (as he has rather angrily & lately reclaimed) who maintained the permanence of continents & the great oceans. I knew nothing about Dana’s, views when I propounded the doctrine in my Coral Book, & am now sorry that I cared so little about priority that I did not take the trouble to compare the date (now forgotten) of Dana’s publication with that of my Coral Book.6 When I read the Challenger’s conclusion that sediment from the land is not deposited at greater distances than 200 to 300 miles from the land, I was much strengthened in my old belief.—7 Wallace seems to me to have argued the case excellently.8 Nevertheless, I wd. speak, if I were in your place, rather cautiously; for T. Mellard Reade has argued lately with some force against the view;9 but I cannot call to mind his arguments. If forced to express a judgment, I shd. abide by the view of approximate permanence since Cambrian days.

(6) The extreme importance of the Arctic fossil plants is self-evident. Take the opportunity of groaning over our ignorance of the Lignite plants of Kerguelen Land or any Antarctic land—10 It might do good.—

(7) I cannot avoid feeling sceptical about the travelling of plants from the North, except during the Tertiary period.11 It may of course have been so & probably was so from one of the two Poles at the earliest period, during Pre Cambrian ages; but such speculations seem to me hardly scientific, seeing how little we know of the old Floras

I will now jot down without any order a few miscellaneous remarks. I think you ought to allude to Alph. De Candolle’s great book, for though it (like almost everything else) is washed out of my mind, yet I remember most distinctly thinking a very valuable work. Anyhow you might allude to his excellent account of the history of all cultivated plants.12

How shall you manage to allude to your New Zealand & Tierra del Fuego work;13 if you do not allude to them, you will be scandalously unjust.—

The many angiosperm plants in the Cretaceous beds of the U. States (& as far as I can judge the age of these beds has been fairly well made out) seems to me a fact of very great importance. So is their relation to the existing flora of the U. States under an evolutionary point of view.14 Have not some Australian extinct forms been lately found in Australia? Or have I dreamed it?

Again the recent discovery of plants rather low down in our Silurian beds is very important.)15

(Nothing is more extraordinary in the history of the Vegetable Kingdom as it seems to me, than the apparently very sudden or abrupt development of the higher plants. I have sometimes speculated whether there did not exist somewhere during long ages an extremely isolated continent, perhaps near the S. Pole. Hence I was greatly interested by a view which Saporta propounded to me a few years ago at great length in M.S, & which I fancy he has since published, as I urged him to do,—viz that as soon as flower-frequenting insects were developed, during the latter part of the Secondary period, an enormous impulse was given to the development of the higher plants, by cross-fertilisation being thus suddenly favoured.16

A few years ago I was much struck with Axel Blytt’s essay, showing from observations on the peat-beds in Scandinavia that there had apparently been long periods with more rain & others with less rain (Perhaps connected with Crolls recurrent astronomical periods) & that these periods had largely determined the present distribution of the plants of Norway & Sweden. This seemed to me a very important essay.—17

(I have just read over my remarks & I fear that they will not be of the slightest use to you.). I cannot but think that you have got through the hardest or at least the most difficult part of your work in having made so good & striking a sketch of what you intend to say; but I can quite understand how you must groan over the great necessary labour.—

I most heartily sympathise with you on the successes of Brian & Reginald:18 as years advance what happens to oneself becomes of very little consequence, in comparison with the careers of our children.— Keep your spirits up, for I am convinced that you will make an excellent address.

Ever yours affectionately | Charles Darwin

N.B. I have taken this paper as it makes me write a little better19

Do not waste your time in acknowledging this or writing to me.—


Hooker had sent an outline of his upcoming presidential address for the geography section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at York (Hooker 1881; see letter from J. D. Hooker, 4 August 1881).
CD had taken volumes of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal narrative (Humboldt 1814–29) on the Beagle voyage.
In the address, Hooker described Humboldt as the ‘most accomplished and prolific of modern travellers’ and praised his ‘powers of observation and reflection, astonishing industry, [and] conscientious exactitude in the collection of data’ (Hooker 1881, pp. 730–1).
James Dwight Dana defended his long-held views on the permanence of continents in Nature, 3 March 1881, p. 410; he claimed to have held these views for forty years; however, the earliest publications he cited were from 1846 and 1847. Coral reefs was published in 1842; however, it does not mention the permanence of continents.
John Murray (1841–1914) reported on the extent of shore deposits as surveyed by HMS Challenger (see Murray 1876, p. 519).
Alfred Russel Wallace discussed the permanence of continents and oceans in Island life (Wallace 1880a, pp. 81–102).
For Thomas Mellard Reade’s arguments against the permanence of continents and oceans, see Reade 1880. CD and Reade had discussed the topic; see Correspondence vol. 28, letter to T. M. Reade, 9 December 1880, and letter from T. M. Reade, 10 December 1880.
Hooker discussed the discovery of fossil plants in the Arctic that were native to warm temperate zones in Hooker 1881, pp. 733–4. Lignite: brown coal from naturally compressed peat, formed during the Tertiary period.
For CD’s views on the ancient migration of plants from north to south temperate regions, see Natural selection, ch. 11; for his earlier discussions with Hooker on the subject, see Correspondence vol. 6, letters to J. D. Hooker, 13 July [1856] and [16 October 1856], and letter from J. D. Hooker, 9 November 1856).
Hooker referred to Alphonse de Candolle’s Géographie botanique raisonnée (A. de Candolle 1855) as one of most important general works on distribution of the past fifty years, mentioning the chapters on the history of cultivated and introduced plants (Hooker 1881, pp. 737–8).
On the flora of New Zealand, see Hooker 1853; on the flora of Tierra del Fuego, see Hooker 1844–7; see also Hooker 1881, pp. 736–7.
Hooker briefly mentioned work by Asa Gray and others on the history of North American flora from the Cretaceous period to the present (Hooker 1881, p. 734).
CD was aware of Gaston de Saporta’s recent work on ancient fossil plants (Saporta 1879, Saporta and Marion 1881). See Correspondence vol. 27, letter to Gaston de Saporta, 19 January 1879, and this volume, letter to Gaston de Saporta, 13 [May] 1881.
Saporta had discussed his views on the mutual evolution of angiosperms and pollinating insects in his letter of 16 December 1877 (Correspondence vol. 25); see also ibid., letter to Gaston de Saporta, 24 December 1877. See letter from J. D. Hooker, 4 August 1881 and n. 10.
Axel Blytt had sent CD his Essay on the immigration of the Norwegian flora (Blytt 1876; see Correspondence vol. 24, letter to Axel Blytt, 28 March 1876). James Croll had argued that glacial periods occurred in alternate hemispheres during prolonged periods of high eccentricity of the earth’s orbit (see Correspondence vol. 16, letter from James Croll, [2 December 1868], Correspondence vol. 28, letter to A. R. Wallace, 3 November 1880 and n. 11, and Croll 1868).
The letter is written on large sheets of blue paper, which CD often used for manuscripts intended for publication.


Blytt, Axel. 1876. Essay on the immigration of the Norwegian flora during alternating rainy and dry periods. Christiania: Albert Cammermeyer.

Candolle, Alphonse de. 1855. Géographie botanique raisonnée ou exposition des faits principaux et des lois concernant la distribution géographique des plantes de l’époque actuelle. 2 vols. Paris: Victor Mason. Geneva: J. Kessmann.

Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Croll, James. 1868. On geological time, and the probable date of the Glacial and the Upper Miocene Period. Philosophical Magazine 4th ser. 35: 363–84; 36: 141–54, 362–86.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1844–7. Flora Antarctica. 1 vol. and 1 vol. of plates. Pt 1 of The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM discovery ships Erebus and Terror in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. London: Reeve Brothers.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1853. Introductory essay to the flora of New Zealand. London: Lovell Reeve.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1881. On geographical distribution. Presidential address, section E, geography. [Read 1 September 1881.] Report of the 51st Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at York, Transactions of the sections, pp. 727–38.

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1814–29. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent, during the years 1799–1804. By Alexander de Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland. Translated into English by Helen Maria Williams. 7 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown; J. Murray; H. Colburn.

Murray, John. 1876. Preliminary report on specimens of the sea-bottoms obtained in the soundings, dredgings, and trawlings of H.M.S. ‘Challenger’, in the years 1873–75, between England and Valparaiso. [Read 16 March 1876.] Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 24 (1875–6): 471–532.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

Reade, Thomas Mellard. 1880. Oceans and continents. Geological Magazine n.s. 2d decade 7: 385–91.

Saporta, Gaston de. 1879. Le monde des plantes avant l’apparition de l’homme. Paris: G. Masson.

Saporta, Gaston de and Marion, Antoine-Fortuné. 1881. L’évolution du règne végétal. Les cryptogames. Paris: G. Baillière et Cie.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1880a. Island life: or, the phenomena and causes of insular faunas and floras, including a revision and attempted solution of the problem of geological climates. London: Macmillan.


Responds to JDH’s outline history of plant geography.

Considers Humboldt the "greatest scientific traveller who ever lived".

Discusses the origin and rapid radiation of angiosperms in Cretaceous period.

Comments on importance of work of Alphonse de Candolle, Saporta, Axel Blytt.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 95: 518–23
Physical description
ALS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 13277,” accessed on 3 February 2023,