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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   29 November [1857]1

Down Bromley Kent

Nov. 29th

My dear Gray

This shall be such an extraordinary note as you have never received from me, for it shall not contain one single question or request. I thank you for your impression on my views.2 Every criticism from a good man is of value to me. What you hint at generally is very very true, that my work will be grievously hypothetical & large parts by no means worthy of being called inductive; my commonest error being probably induction from too few facts.— I had not thought of your objection of my using the term “natural Selection” as an agent; I use it much as a geologist does the word Denudation, for an agent, expressing the result of several combined actions. I will take care to explain, not merely by inference, what I mean by the term; for I must use it, otherwise I shd. incessantly have to expand it into some such (here miserably expressed) formula as the following, “the tendency to the preservation (owing to the severe struggle for life to which all organic beings at some time or generation are exposed) of any the slightest variation in any part, which is of the slightest use or favourable to the life of the individual which has thus varied; together with the tendency to its inheritance”.3 Any variation, which was of no use whatever to the individual, would not be preserved by this process of “natural selection”. But I will not weary you by going on; as I do not suppose I cd make my meaning clearer without large expansion.— I will only add one other sentence: several varieties of Sheep have been turned out together on the Cumberland Mountains, & one particular breed is found to succeed so much better than all the others, that it fairly starves the others to death: I shd. here say that natural selection picks out this breed, & would tend to improve it or aboriginally to have formed it.—4

Many thanks for seed & specimens of Adlumia:5 I must confess from what I have seen in Bees whilst sucking Fumaria, I see no difficulty whatever in Bees crossing the individuals: & I would venture to predict that it has a nectary on both sides instead of on only one side, for the sort of cap of joined petals can be pushed with equal easiness both ways, but where there is only one nectary it can be pushed (as far as I have seen) only one way: Lecoq, I observe, brings forward Fumaria as a genus which cd never be crossed by natural means,6 whereas I suspect its structure is formed in direct relation to favour crossing!!7

I sent you Gardeners Chronicle with little notice on Kidney Beans:8 since writing it, I have received a most curious lot of Beans naturally crossed, & the seed-coats affected by the act of fertilisation like Gærtners Pea case.—9 By the way I must tell you what I heard yesterday, though not in your line, but on subject of the crossing of individuals. Barnacles (Balanus) are hermaphrodite & with their well shut up shell offer as great a difficulty to crossing as can well be conceived: I found an individual with monstrous & imperforate penis, but yet with fertilised ova; but I did not know whether it might not be case of parthogenesis or a strange accident of some floating spermatozoa;10 well yesterday I had an account by a man who watching some shells, saw one protrude its long probosciformed penis, & insert it in the shell of an adjoining individual!11 So here is a load off my mind.—

You speak of species not having any material base to rest on; but is this any greater hardship than deciding what deserves to be called a variety & be designated by a greek letter. When I was at systematic work, I know I longed to have no other difficulty (great enough) than deciding whether the form was distinct enough to deserve a name; & not to be haunted with undefined & unanswerable question whether it was a true species.12 What a jump it is from a well marked variety, produced by natural cause, to a species produced by the separate act of the Hand of God. But I am running on foolishly.— By the way I met the other day Phillips, the Palæontologist,13 & he asked me “how do you define a species?”— I answered “I cannot” Whereupon he said “at last I have found out the only true definition,—‘any form which has ever had a specific name”!

I am infinitely obliged to you for your offer (if you can ever find time, & how much overworked you seem to be) of considering again a list of close species, such as Hooker would perhaps lump together: you could not do me a more essential service.14

If you do it, will you please take, if in your power, large & small orders as they come, for possibly there may be some difference in the rule in large natural & small broken families. I intend to go into this with Ledebour, as far as mere varieties are concerned.15 In all Ledebour & many other Floras, I find the rule universal of the large genera presenting most varieties.16 In the British Flora, by Mr Watsons aid,17 I have struck out the most trifling varieties & I find the rule holds good, as it also does with the forms which most British Botanists rank as species, but which some one Botanist has considered a variety. This rule, as I must consider it of the large genera varying most, I look at as most important for my work & I believe it to be the foundation of the manner in which all beings are grouped in classes &c, together with what I rather vaguely call my principle of divergence ie the tendency to the preservation from extinction of the most different members of each group.—18 But I am amusing myself by scribbling away all my notions without any mercy.

Forgive me, & believe | My dear Gray | Yours heartily obliged | C. Darwin

How I wish I knew what large, (for large it must be) Moth or Humble Bee visits & fertilises Lobelia fulgens in its native home: do you know any southern young Botanist who wd look to this? I would cover a plant with a very coarse gauze cap, & then not a pod would set I believe. But by Jove I have broken my vow by a sort of question or request!


Dated by the relationship to the letter to Asa Gray, 5 September [1857].
Gray’s letter has not been found. It evidently responded to CD’s explanation of his theory of natural selection, as put forward in letter to Asa Gray, 5 September [1857].
CD included a definition of natural selection along these lines in Natural selection, p. 175, and Origin, p. 61.
This case is also cited in Natural selection, p. 200.
Lecoq 1845, p. 61.
See Natural selection, pp. 53–4, in which CD discussed the visiting of Fumaria by bees. See also letter to Asa Gray, 20 July [1857], in which CD gives other examples to illustrate his view.
See letter to Gardeners’ Chronicle, 18 October [1857].
See letters from Henry Coe, 4 November 1857 and 14 November 1857. CD refers to the cases of seed-coats being affected by pollen from a different species reported in Gärtner 1849 (see letter to M. J. Berkeley, 29 February [1856]).
CD described this case in Living Cirripedia (1854): 102 and referred to it in both Natural selection, p. 45, and Origin, p. 101. See also Correspondence vol. 4, letter to Louis Agassiz, 22 October 1848.
CD may have spoken to John Phillips at the meeting of the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society on 19 November 1857 at which both were present (Royal Society Philosophical Club minutes).
Gray had already provided CD with a list of ‘close species’ (see Correspondence vol. 5, letter to Asa Gray, 8 June [1855], and letter from Asa Gray, 30 June 1855). The manuscript list is in DAR 165: 92/3.
See Natural selection, pp. 148–54.
See letters from H. C. Watson, 14 December [1857] and 20 December [1857].
See Natural selection, pp. 227–51, and Origin, pp. 111–26.


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

Gärtner, Karl Friedrich von. 1849. Versuche und Beobachtungen über die Bastarderzeugung im Pflanzenreich. Mit Hinweisung auf die ähnlichen Erscheinungen im Thierreiche, ganz umgearbeitete und sehr vermehrte Ausgabe der von der Königlich holländischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Stuttgart: E. Schweizerbart.

Lecoq, Henri. 1845. De la fécondation naturelle et artificielle des végétaux et de l’hybridation, considérée dans ses rapports avec l’horticulture, l’agriculture et la sylviculture … Contenant les moyens pratiques d’opérer l’hybridation et de créer facilement des variétés nouvelles. Paris: Audot.

Ledebour, Karl Friedrich von. 1842–53. Flora Rossica sive enumeratio plantarum in totius imperii Rossici provinciis Europaeis, Asiaticis et Americanis hucusque observatarum. 4 vols. Stuttgart. [Vols. 6,7]

Living Cirripedia (1854): A monograph of the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species. The Balanidæ (or sessile cirripedes); the Verrucidæ, etc. By Charles Darwin. London: Ray Society. 1854.

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.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.


Thanks AG for his criticisms of CD’s views; finds it difficult to avoid using the term "natural selection" as an agent.

Discusses crossing in Fumaria and barnacles.

Has received a naturally crossed kidney bean in which the seed-coat has been affected by the pollen of the fertilising plant.

Finds the rule of large genera having most varieties holds good and regards it as most important for his "principle of divergence".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Archives of the Gray Herbarium, Harvard University (18)
Physical description
ALS 12pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2176,” accessed on 13 July 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 6