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Darwin Correspondence Project

From H. C. Watson   21 November [1859]

Thames Ditton

21 Novr.

My dear Sir

Once commenced to read the ‘Origin’ I could not rest till I had galloped through the whole. I shall now begin to re-read it more deliberately. Meantime I am tempted to write you the first impressions, not doubting that they will in the main be the permanent impressions.

1st. Your leading idea will assuredly become recognized as an established truth in science, i.e. “natural selection”.— (It has the characteristics of all great natural truths, clarifying what was obscure, simplifying what was intricate, adding greatly to previous knowledge. You are the greatest Revolutionist in natural history of this century, if not of all centuries.

2d. you will perhaps need in some degree to limit or modify, possibly in some degree also to extend your present applications of the principle of ‘natural selection’.— (Without going to matters of more detail, it strikes me that there is one considerable primary inconsistency, by one failure in the analogy between varieties & species; another by a sort of barrier assumed for nature on insufficient grounds, and arising from “divergence”. These may, however, be faults in my own mind, attributable to yet incomplete perception of your views. And I had better not trouble you about them before again reading the volume.1

3d.— Now these novel views are brought fairly before the scientific public, it seems truly remarkable how so many of them could have failed to see their right road sooner.— (How could Sir C. Lyell, for instance, for thirty years read, write, & think, on the subject of species & their succession, & yet constantly look down the wrong road!2

A quarter century ago you & I must have been in something like the same state of mind, on the main question. But you were able to see & work out the quo modo of the succession, the all-important thing, while I failed to grasp it. I send by this post a little controversial pamplet of old date,—Combe & Scott.3 If you will take the trouble to glance at the passages scored on the margin, you will see that, a quarter century ago, I was also one of the few who then doubted the absolute distinctness of species & special creations of them. Yet I, like the rest, failed to detect the quo modo which was reserved for your penetration to discover, & by your discernment to apply.

You answered my query about the hiatus between Satyrus & Homo as was expected. The obvious explanation really never occurred to me till some months after I had read the papers in Linnean Proceedings; & I feel no doubt that its then occurrence was due to those papers.4 The first species of Fere-homo would soon make direct & exterminating war upon his Infra-homo cousins. The gap would thus be made, & then go on increasing into the present enormous & still-widening hiatus.— But how greatly this, with your chronology of animal life, will shock the ideas of many men!

very sincerely | Hewett C. Watson C. Darwin | Esqe

CD annotations

Top of first page: ‘Keeppencil
Verso of letter: ‘HC Watson’pencil


Watson wrote a long letter to CD on these points in January 1860 (see Correspondence vol. 8, letter from H. C. Watson, [3? January 1860]).
Charles Lyell discussed the nature and geographical distribution of species, including theories of the transmutation of species, in the first part of Book III of his Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3). He incorporated new material in successive editions of the work, the most recent being the ninth edition published in 1853.
Watson 1836. A copy of the pamphlet, annotated by Watson as mentioned in the letter, is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. Watson was a prominent advocate of phrenology and a strong supporter of George Combe’s writings. In this pamphlet, Watson criticised William Scott’s attack on Combe (see Scott 1836).
Darwin and Wallace 1858. Watson also believed in species transmutation. His comments in the letter indicate that CD’s remarks in Origin about the absence of transitional forms explained, to Watson’s satisfaction, the apparent gap between Simia satyrus (a synonym of Pan troglodytes subsp. troglodytes, the central chimpanzee) and humans.


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

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

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.

Scott, William. 1836. The harmony of phrenology with scripture: shewn in a refutation of the philosophical errors contained in Mr Combe’s "Constitution of man’. Edinburgh.

Watson, Hewett Cottrell. 1836. An examination of Mr Scott’s attack upon Mr Combe’s "Constitution of man’. London.


Believes natural selection will become recognised as an established truth in science, though it will shock the ideas of many men.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hewett Cottrell Watson
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Thames Ditton
Source of text
DAR 98: B9–10
Physical description
ALS 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2540,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

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