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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   11 October [1859]1

Ilkley Wells House | Otley. Yorkshire

Oct. 11th

My dear Lyell

I thank you cordially for giving me so much of your valuable time in writing me the long letter of 3d & still longer of 4th.—2 I wrote a line with the missing proof-sheet to Scarborough.— I have adopted most thankfully all your minor corrections in last Ch., & the greater ones as far as I could with little trouble.3 I damped the opening passage about the Eye, (in my bigger work I show the gradations in structure of eye) by putting merely “complex organs”. But you are a pretty Lord Chancellor to tell the barrister on one side how best to win the cause! The omission of “living” before eminent naturalists was a dreadful blunder.—

(Madeira & Bermuda Birds not peculiar.)4

You are right, there is screw out here; I thought no one would have detected it; I blundered in omitting a discussion, which I have written out in full. But once for all let me say as an excuse that it was most difficult to decide what to omit. Birds which have struggled in their own homes when settled in a body nearly simultaneously in new country, would not be subject to much modification, for their mutual relations would not be much disturbed. But I quite agree with you that in time they ought to undergo some. In Bermuda & Madeira they have, as I believe, been kept constant by the frequent arrival of, & the crossing with, unaltered immigrants of same species from the mainland. In Bermuda this canbe proved; in Madeira highly probable as shown me by letters from E. V. Harcourt.—5 Moreover there is ample grounds for believing that the crossed offspring of the new immigrants (fresh blood as breeders would say) & old colonists of same species would be extra vigorous & would be the most likely to survive: thus the effects of such crossing in keeping the old colonists unaltered would be much aided.—

(On Galapagos productions having American type on view of Creation.—)

I cannot agree with you that species if created to struggle with American forms would have to be created on the American type. Facts point diametrically the other way. Look at the unbroken & untilled ground in La Plata, covered with European products, which have no near affinity to the indigenous products: they are not American types which conquer the aborigines. So in every island througout the world. Alph. De. Candolle’s results (though he does not see its full importance) that thoroughily well naturalised are in general very different from the aborigines (belonging in large proportion of cases to non-indigenous genera)is most important always to bear in mind.6 Once for all I am sure you will understand that I thus write dogmatically for brevity sake.—

(On the continued creation of monads.)7

This doctrine is superfluous (& groundless) on the theory of natural selection, which implies no necessary tendency to progression. A monad, if no deviation in its structure profitable to it under its excessively simple conditions of life occurred, might remain unaltered from long before Silurian age to present day. I grant there will generally be a tendency to advance in complexity of organisation; though in beings fitted for very simple conditions it would be slight & slow. How could a complex organisation profit a monad? if it did not profit it, there would be no advance.—

The Secondary Infusoria differ but little from the living. The parent monad-form might perfectly well survive unaltered & fitted for its simple conditions, whilst the offspring of this very monad might become fitted for more complex conditions. The one primordial prototype of all living & extinct creatures may it is possible be now alive! Moreover as you say, higher forms might be occasionally degraded: the snake typhlops seems (??) to have habits of earth-worms.— So that fresh creations of simple forms seems to me wholly superfluous.—

(“Must you not assume a primeval creative power which does not act with uniformity, or how could man supervene?”)

I am not sure that I understand your remarks which follow the above. We must under present knowledge assume the creation of one or of a few forms,—in same manner as philosophers assume the existence of a power of attraction, without any explanation. But I entirely reject as in my judgment quite unnecessary any subsequent addition “of new powers, & attributes & forces”; or of any “principle of improvement”, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. But I have firm faith in it, as I cannot believe that if false it would explain so many whole classes of facts, which if I am in my senses it seems to explain. As far as I understand your remarks & illustrations, you doubt the possibility of gradations of intellectual powers. Now it seems to me looking to existing animals alone, that we have a very fine gradation in the intellectual powers of the Vertebrata, with one rather wide gap (not half so wide as in many cases of corporeal structure) between say a Hottentot & an Ourang, even if civilised as much mentally as dog has been from wolf.—

I suppose that you do not doubt that the intellectual powers are as important for the welfare of each being, as corporeal structure: if so, I can see no difficulty in the most intellectual individuals of a species being continually selected; & the intellect of the new species thus improved, aided probably by effects of inherited mental exercise. I look at this process as now going on with the races of man; the less intellectual races being exterminated. But there is not space to discuss this point.

If I understand you, the turning point in our difference must be that you think it impossible that intellectual powers of a species shd. be much improved by the continued natural selection of the most intellectual individuals. To show how minds graduate, just reflect how impossible every one has yet found it to define difference in mind of man & lower animals: the latter seem to have very same attributes in much lower stage of perfection than lowest savage. I would give absolutely nothing for theory of nat. selection, if it require miraculous additions at any one stage of descent. I think Embryology, Homology Classification &c &c show us that all Vertebrata have descended from one parent,—how that parent appeared we know not. If you admit in ever so little a degree the explanation which I have given of Embryology, Homology & Classification, you will find it difficult to say thus far the explanation holds good; but no further; here we must call in “the addition of new creative forces.” I think you will be driven to reject all or admit all: I fear by your letter it will be the former alternative; & in that case I shall feel sure it is my fault & not the theory’s fault, & this will certainly comfort me. With regard to the descent of the great Kingdoms (as Vertebrata, Articulata &c) from one parent; I have said in the Conclusion, that mere analogy makes me think it probable: my arguments & facts are sound in my judgment only for each separate kingdom.

(The forms which are beaten,—inheriting some inferiority in common.)8

I daresay I have not been guarded enough; but might not term inferiority include less perfect adaption to physical conditions? My remarks apply not to single species, but to groups or genera; the species of most genera are adapted at least to rather hotter & rather less hot—to rather damper & dryer climates—& when the several species of a group are beaten & exterminated by the several species of another group it will not, I think generally be from each new species being adapted to the climate, but from all the new species having some common advantage in obtaining sustenance or escaping enemies. As groups are concerned, a fairer illustration than negro & white in Liberia would be,9 the almost certain future extinction of genus Ourang by genus Man, not owing to man being better fitted for climate, but owing to the inherited intellectual inferiority of the Ourang-genus,—man-genus by his intellect inventing fire-arms & cutting down forests. I believe from reasons given in my discussion that Acclimitisation is readily effected under nature.10 It has taken me so many years to disabuse my mind of the too great importance of climate—its important influence being so conspicuous, whilst that of the struggle between creature & creature is so hidden—that I am inclined to swear at the North Pole & as Sydney Smith said, even to speak disrespectfully of the Equator.11 I beg you often to reflect (I have found nothing so instructive) on case of thousands of plants in middle point of their respective ranges, & which, as we positively know, can perfectly well withstand a little more heat and cold,—a little more damp & dry—but which in the metropolis of their range do not exist in vast numbers, although, if many of the other inhabitants were destroyed, would cover the ground: we thus clearly see that their numbers are kept down in almost every case, not by climate, but by the struggle with other organisms. All this you will perhaps think very obvious; but until I repeated it to myself thousands of times, I took, as I believe, a wholly wrong view of the whole economy of nature.—

(Primrose & Cowslip)12

I have whole case in (I think) 8 or 10 pages fairly written out.—13 I believe you will agree that evidence bears out my conclusion: if you like, when I return home I can send the M.S. It took me some trouble to collect evidence. I began experimentising; but my confounded health & so many irons in fire stopped them.— Would not Bunbury try?14 cowslip root ought to be well manured for two years & perhaps planted in shade: covered with gauze when in flower; & I think it would be well if self-fertilisation were aided by camel-pencil.— I am assured if you sow lots of Polyanthus seed (but then these ought to have been secured from cross, & if starved plants the better) & sown in poor soil, you will get sometimes primroses & cowslips.— Best way to starve a plant, let it grow amongst weeds.—


I am so much pleased that you approve of this chapter: you would be astonished at labour this cost me; so often was I on what I believe was wrong scent.

(Rudimentary organs.)

On theory of Nat. Select. there is wide distinction between rudimentary organs & what you call germs of organs & what I call in my bigger book, “nascent” organs. An organ should not be called rudimentary unless it be useless,—as teeth which never cut through the gums—the papilla representing the pistil in male flowers—wing of Apteryx, or better, little wings under soldered elytra. These organs are now plainly useless, & a fortiori they would be useless in a less developed state. Natural Selection acts exclusively by preserving successive slight, useful modifications, hence nat. select. cannot possibly make a useless or rudimentary organ. Such organs are solely due to inheritance (as explained in my discussion) & plainly bespeak an ancestor having the organ in a useful condition.— They may be, & often have been worked in for other purposes; & then they are only rudimentary for the original function, which is sometimes plainly apparent. A nascent organ, though little developed, as it has to be developed, must be useful in every stage of development. As we cannot prophecy we cannot tell what organs are now nascent; and nascent organs will rarely have been handed down by certain members of a class from a remote period to present day, for beings with any important organ but little developed will generally have been supplanted by their descendants with the organ well developed. The mammary glands in Ornithorhynchus may perhaps be considered as nascent compared with the udders of cow.— ovigerous frena in certain cirripedes are nascent branchiæ.— in Ameiva the swim-bladder is almost rudimentary for this purpose, & is nascent as a lung. The small wing of Penguin, used only as a fin might be nascent as a wing; not that I think so; for whole structure of bird is adapted for flight, & a penguin so closely resembles other birds that we may infer that its wings have probably been modified & reduced by nat. select. in accordance with its sub-aquatic habits. Analogy thus often serves as guide in distinguishing whether an organ is rudimentary or nascent. I believe os coccyx gives attachment to certain muscles, but I cannot doubt that it is a rudimentary tail. The bastard-wing of birds is rudimentary digit; & I believe that if ever fossil birds are found very low down in series, they will be seen to have a double or bifurcated wing. Here is a bold prophecy! To admit prophetic germs is tantamount to rejecting theory of Natural Selection.—

I am very glad you think it worth while to run through my Book again, as much or more for the subject-sake than for my own sake. But I look at your keeping the subject for some little time before your mind,—raising your own difficulties & solving them—as far more important than reading my Book. If you think enough, I expect that you will be perverted; & if you ever are, I shall know that the theory of Nat. Selection is in the main safe; that it includes, as now put forth, many errors is almost certain, though I cannot see them.— Do not, of course, think of answering this; but if you have other occasion to write again just say, whether I have in ever so slight a degree shaken any of your objections.

Farewell with my cordial thanks for your long letters & valuable remarks, | believe me, Yours most truly | C. Darwin

Remember me most kindly to Bunbury & Mrs. Bunbury.—15

You often allude to Lamarck’s work; I do not know what you think about it, but it appeared to me extremely poor; I got not a fact or idea from it.—16

This is an awfully long letter, but I could not answer your remarks briefly.


The year is given by CD’s discussion of the proof-sheets of Origin. There is part of an undated draft of this letter in DAR 205.2, marked ‘18’ in brown crayon, and a further page of the draft in DAR 205.3, marked ‘11’ in brown crayon. These numbers refer to CD’s portfolios of notes on the means of dispersal of plants and animals and on classification, respectively.
This and the following headings were points raised by Lyell in the letters from Charles Lyell, 3 October 1859 and 4 October 1859.
Edward William Vernon Harcourt had discussed Madeiran birds in some detail with CD. See Correspondence vol. 6, letter from E. W. V. Harcourt, 31 May 1856. CD cited Harcourt in Origin,p. 391.
A. de Candolle 1855. In his discussion of naturalised plants in Natural selection, p. 232, CD cited A. de Candolle 1855, pp. 745, 759, and 803.
For Lyell’s notes on this point, see Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 294–5. Lyell had discussed in C. Lyell 1853, p. 574, the necessity of the continual creation of monads in Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck’s theory of transmutation.
This phrase is used in CD’s discussion of extinction (Origin, pp. 321, 322, and 327).
This analogy was Lyell’s. It does not occur in Origin.
Origin, pp. 139–43.
A well-known expression of Sydney Smith’s, recounted in S. Holland 1855, 1: 17.
Lyell cited these forms of the primrose as affording ‘no ground for questioning the instability of species, but rather the contrary; they present us with a class of phenomena which, when they are more thoroughly understood, may afford some of the best tests for identifying species, and proving that the attributes originally conferred endure so long as any issue of the original stock remains upon the earth.’ (C. Lyell 1853, p. 590).
CD refers to his analysis of the relationship between primroses and cowslips in Natural selection,pp. 128–33. The discussion was greatly compressed in Origin, pp. 49–50. For CD’s experiments on species of Primula, see Correspondence vol. 5, letter to J. S. Henslow, 2 July [1855].
Charles James Fox Bunbury, the botanist, was Lyell’s brother-in-law.
The Lyells were preparing to visit the Bunburys in Mildenhall, Suffolk (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, Middle life 3: 194). Frances Joanna Bunbury was Mary Lyell’s sister.
CD’s annotated copies of Lamarck 1815–22 and Lamarck 1830 are in the Darwin Library–CUL. CD recorded having read these works in 1842 and 1839, respectively (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 119: 12a, 5a) and he discussed Lamarck’s views at length in his transmutation notebooks (Notebooks).


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.

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

Holland, Saba. 1855. A memoir of the Reverend Sydney Smith … With a selection from his letters, edited by Mrs. Austin. 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine. 1830. Philosophie zoologique, ou exposition des considérations relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux; à la diversité leur organisation … et les autres l’intelligence de ceux qui en sont doués. New edition. 2 vols. Paris: J. B. Baillière.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de. 1815–22. Histoire naturelle des animaux sans vertèbres, présentant les caractères généraux et particuliers de ces animaux, leur distribution, leurs classes, leurs familles, leurs genres, et la citation des principales espèces qui s’y rapportent; précédée d’une introduction offrant la détermination des caractères essentiels de l’animal, sa distinction du végétal et des autres corps naturels, enfin, l’exposition des principes fondamentaux de la zoologie. 7 vols. Paris: Verdière [and others].

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.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

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.


CL’s comments on Origin. Mentions corrections to last chapter suggested by CL.

Comments on lack of peculiar bird species on Madeira and Bermuda. Emphasises importance of American types in Galapagos.

Denies necessity of continued creation of primitive "Monads".

Denies need for new powers and any principle of improvement.

Discusses gradations of intellectual powers.

Adaptive inferiority and extinction of groups of species and genera.

Asserts that climate is less important than the struggle with other organisms.

Suggests an experiment involving primroses and cowslips.

The chapter on hybridisation.

Rudimentary organs.

Gives opinion of Lamarck’s work.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.172)
Physical description
ALS 22pp, CL note & ADraft 4pp inc † (by CD)

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2503,” accessed on 23 June 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7