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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [10 December 1859]1

Down Bromley Kent


My dear Lyell

Thank you much for your hints this morning received & all worked in. The Chapt. on Imperfection of G.R. was the first which I had to draw up merely from my copied notes: it was simply impossible for me to refer to works—2 About Missippi, I gave the 100,000 years3 from extract from De Verneuil or d’Archiac (I forget which) paper in the Bulletin, in which your estimate is not referred to.—4 I had fancied that your estimate was much less, & that was sole reason, why I put it in so doubtfully: I have now put it rather bolder.—5 My only wonder is that far more blunders of all kinds have not as yet been detected in all the latter chapters.— About richness of Purbeck beds, I have added for thickness of beds which was the idea in my mind, & I fancy true.6

On Friday I had interview with Sir H. Holland, & found him going immense way with us (ie all Birds from one)—good, as showing how wind blows.—7

I was excessively interested with your celts;8 would it not be worth while to enquire how those Esquimaux who have not iron cut holes in ice for catching fish & Seals, & dig snow-houses &c.— Could this explain your bigger tools? bearing in mind that these savages lived with glacial Elephant & Rhinoceros.—

I have very long interview with Owen, which perhaps you would like to hear about, but please repeat nothing. Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us.—9 He was quite savage & crimson at my having put his name with defenders of immutability. When I said that was my impression & that of others, for several had remarked to me, that he would be dead against me: he then spoke of his own position in science & that of all the naturalists in London, “with your Huxleys”, with a degree of arrogance I never saw approached.10 He said to effect that my explanation was best ever published of manner of formation of species. I said I was very glad to hear it. He took me up short, “you must not at all suppose that I agree with in all respects”.— I said I thought it no more likely that I shd. be right on nearly all points, than that I shd toss up a penny & get heads twenty times running.

I asked him which he thought the weakest parts,—he said he had no particular objection to any part.— He added in most sneering tone if I must criticise I shd. say “we do not want to know what Darwin believes & is convinced of, but what he can prove”.— I agreed most fully & truly that I have probably greatly sinned in this line, & defended my general line of argument of inventing a theory, & seeing how many classes of facts the theory would explain.— I added that I would endeavour to modify the “believes” & “convinceds”. He took me up short,—“You will then spoil your book, the charm of(!) it is that it is Darwin himself”.— He added another objection that the book was too “teres atque rotundus”,11 —that it explained everything & that it was improbable in highest degree that I shd. succeed in this”. I quite agree with this rather queer objection, & it comes to this that my book must be very bad or very good.— Lastly I thanked him him for Bear & Whale criticism, & said I had struck it out.— “Oh have you, well I was more struck with this than any other passage; you little know of the remarkable & essential relationship between bears & whales”.—12

I am to send him the reference, & by Jove I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales! I do not know whether I have wearied you with these details which do not repeat to any one.— We parted with high terms of consideration; which on reflexion I am almost sorry for.— He is the most astounding creature I ever encountered.

Farewell my dear Lyell | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

I have heard by round about channel that Herschel says my Book “is the law of higgledy-pigglety”.—13 What this exactly means I do not know, but it is evidently very contemptuous.— If true this is great blow & discouragement.


The date is the first Saturday following CD’s visit to Lyell in London on 8 December 1859 en route to Down from Ilkley (‘Journal’; Appendix II).
CD had not yet written the chapter on the imperfections of the geological record when he began to abstract the manuscript of Natural selection for publication as Origin. Under pressure to finish, CD did not augment his material by consulting additional printed works, as he did with the other chapters.
CD refers to the slow rate of deposition of sediment at the mouth of the Mississippi River. In Origin, p. 284, he gave a figure of 600 feet in 100,000 years.
CD refers to the French geologists Philippe Édouard Poulletier de Verneuil and Étienne Jules Adolphe Desmier de Saint-Simon d’Archiac. Although the exact reference has not been traced, CD probably refers to Verneuil 1847, in which the Mississippi deposits are discussed. CD may have confused Verneuil’s paper with Lyell’s account of the Mississippi delta. In a note in DAR 205.9: 220, dated August 1846, CD wrote ‘Lyell says he can prove delta of Mississippi is 100,000 old since post-pliocene.—’ This estimate was also given in C. Lyell 1849, 2: 250; the passage is marked in CD’s copy in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Lyell’s point was presumably that his estimate was fairly precise and, if CD was attributing the remark to him, he would like the hesitant wording in Origin to be changed. In Origin 2d ed., p. 284, CD changed ‘This estimate may be quite erroneous’ to ‘This estimate has no pretension to strict exactness’ (Peckham ed. 1959, p. 482). In the fourth and subsequent editions, the sentence was omitted.
Origin, p. 303. The sentence in Origin 2d ed., p. 304, reads: ‘And now one of the richest known accumulations of fossil mammals, for its thickness, belongs to the middle of the secondary series’ (see Peckham ed. 1959, p. 508).
CD refers to Lyell’s recent study of the antiquity of man. During a visit in July 1859 to sites in Amiens and Liège, Lyell collected a large number of shaped flints, which he and other geologists considered to be implements made by early man. Lyell reported on these finds at the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Aberdeen in September. CD and Lyell had probably discussed this work when they met on 8 December 1859.
CD had sent Richard Owen a copy of Origin (letter to Richard Owen, 11 November [1859]). Owen’s position on transmutation was left ambiguous in his response (letter from Richard Owen,12 November 1859).
Owen’s relationship with Thomas Henry Huxley had deteriorated sharply since 1856 (see Correspondence vol. 6). Since that time, Huxley had published a number of harsh and thinly veiled attacks on Owen’s scientific methodology. See A. Desmond 1982.
Horace in the Satires II. 7. 86–7 described the Stoic wise man as ‘totus teres atque rotundus’ (‘complete, polished, and round’).
Origin, p. 184. Owen ridiculed the bear–whale passage in his Edinburgh Review critique: ‘We look … in vain for any instance of hypothetical transmutation in Lamarck so gross as the one above cited’ ([R. Owen] 1860, p. 518). Lyell had suggested that CD omit this hypothetical case in the second edition of Origin (letter to Charles Lyell, 25 [November 1859]).


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

Desmond, Adrian. 1982. Archetypes and ancestors: palaeontology in Victorian London, 1850–1875. London: Blond & Briggs.

Lyell, Charles. 1849. A second visit to the United States of North America. 2 vols. London. [Vols. 4,7]

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 2d ed.: 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. 1860.

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.

[Owen, Richard.] 1860b. [Review of Origin & other works.] Edinburgh Review 111: 487–532.

Verneuil, Édouard Poulletier de. 1847. Note sur le parallélisme des roches des dépôts paléozoïques de l’America Septentrionale avec ceux de l’Europe. Bulletin de la Société Géologique de France 2d ser. 4, pt 1 (1846–7): 646–709.


Discuss CL’s suggestions for revisions to the chapter on the geological record [Origin, ch. 9].

Henry Holland’s reaction to the book.

Comments on CL’s work on flint tools of early men.

Describes at length a conversation with Owen concerning Origin. Notes "that at bottom he goes immense way with us", but emphasises Owen’s unfriendly manner. Remarks that Owen accepted a relationship between bears and whales. "By Jove I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales!"

Has heard Herschel considered his book "the law of higgledy-piggledy".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.184)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2575,” accessed on 20 April 2024,

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