skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   23 January 1860


Jany. 23, 1860

My Dear Darwin

You have my hurried letter telling you of the arrival of the remainder of the sheets of the reprint, and of the stir I had made for a reprint in Boston.1 Well, all looked pretty well, when, lo, we found that a 2d New York publishing house had announced a reprint also! I wrote, then to both N.Y. publishers, asking them to give way to the author & his reprint of a revised edition. I got answer from the Harpers’ that they withdrew,—from the Appletons that they had got the book out—(and the next day I saw a copy); but that “if the work should have any considerable sale we certainly shall be disposed to pay the author reasonably & liberally”.2

The Appletons being thus out with their reprint, the Boston house declined to go on.— So I wrote to the Appletons.—taking them at their word—offering to aid their reprint,—to give them the use of the alterations in the London reprint, as soon as I find out what they are &c    And I sent them the 1ry leaf, and asked them to insert, in their future issue the additional motto, from Butler—which tells just right.3

So there the matter stands. If you furnish any new matter in advance of London 3d edition, I will make them pay for it.— 4 I may get something for you—all got is clear gain—but it will not be very much, I suppose.

Such little notices in the papers here as have yet appeared are quite handsome and considerate.

I hope next week to get printed sheets of my review from New Haven and send to you,5 and will ask you to pass them on to Dr. Hooker.

To fulfil your request I ought to tell you what I “think the weakest, & what the best parts of your book. But this is not easy, nor to be done in a word or two. The best part, I think, is the whole, i.e. its plan & treatment,—the vast amount of facts and acute inferences handled as if you had a perfect mastery of them. I do not think 20 years too much time to produce such a book in.

Style clear & good, but now & then wants revision for little matters. (p. 97, self-fertilises itself—&c)

Then your candor is worth everything to your cause. It is refreshing to find a person with a new theory who frankly confesses that he finds difficulties—insurmountable, at least for the present. I know some people who never have any difficulties, to speak of.

The moment I understood your premises, I felt sure you had a real foundation, to build on. Well, if one admits your premises, I do not see how he is to stop short of your conclusions, as a probable hypothesis, at least.

It naturally happens that my review of your book does not exhibit any thing like the full force of the impression the book has made upon me. Under the circumstances I suppose I do your theory more good here, by bespeaking for it a fair and favorable consideration, and by standing non-committal as to its full conclusions, than I should if I announced myself a convert,—nor could I say the latter, with truth.

Well, what seems to me the weakest point in the book is the attempt to account for the formation of organs,—the making of eyes, &c by natural selection. Some of this reads quite Lamarckian.

The Chapter on Hybridism is not a weak, but a strong chapter. You have done wonders, there. But still you have not accounted as you may be held to account, for divergence up to a certain extent producing increased fertility of the crosses—but carried one short, almost imperceptible step more, giving rise to sterility, or reversing the tendency   Very likely you are on the right track; but you have something to do yet in that department.

Enough for the present.

By the way, Wyman—the person best prepared to criticise your book of any one in America—for all matters of embryology, zoology, anatomy &c—and as cautious as possible—could give you many interesting facts & hints.6 He promised me he would write to you; but he has gone to Florida for winter vacation—to be absent till March.

He says it is all gammon about Agassiz, not knowing to what class an unticketed embryo belonged.7 Agassiz denies that he ever said so, only that he could not tell whether bird or reptile. Pray send me a reference to the authority of the statement on p. 439, line 13, &c. I dare say you have it complete.8 A. often says too much and the reporters take it down.

Wyman can give you plenty of cases of barred or striped horses, &c—and other interesting facts picked up on your own ground in S. America, &c—

Hooker was quite right in letting me know frankly your opinion & Lyell’s about warmer period after glacial; and you quite wrong in wishing he had not.9

I relied wholly on Dana for all this,10—and it still seems to me that the facts look that way moderately    It is hard to believe that elephants, ever so woolly could live in our present Arctic regions—or the Mastodon in New England and New York with such winters as we have. I see well enough that the difference could not have been very great,—but, in spite of the musk-ox—which is a stumper—I should expect something of a case to be made out. But this is all out of my line. I do not pretend to have any right to speak or think about it. Dana, unfortunately is ill—quite broken down & in Italy. Next spring when I hope he will be well again, and in England, you must see him; and I shall write him that he must give you good grounds for his opinion, or give it up.11 He is a capital fellow, generally very sober-minded, a good investigator—but as a reasoner apt to be seduced by fallacious analogies.—

I know from you that the Forbesian doctrine about alpine plants &c, &c originated with you, and have always put your name forward in relation to it.12

I am not insensible to your compliments—the very high compliment which you pay me in valuing my opinion. You evidently think more of it than I do—tho‘ from the way I write you, and especially Hooker, this might not be inferred from the reading of my letters.

I am free to say that I never learned so much from one book as I have from yours. There remain 1000 things I long to say about it.—

Ever Yours | Asa Gray.

CD annotations

0.1 My Dear … Dr. Hooker. 5.2] crossed pencil
2.3 give them the use … are &c 2.4] cross added, brown crayon
7.1 (p. 97, … &c) 7.2] cross added, brown crayon
10.2 Under … consideration, 10.4] cross added, brown crayon
10.5 nor could I … truth. 10.6] cross added, brown crayon
11.1 Well, … organs,— 11.2] cross added, pencil; circled pencil
12.2 But still … divergence 12.3] cross added, pencil; circled pencil
12.5 Very likely … department. 12.6] cross added, brown crayon
14.3 He promised … you;14.4] cross added, brown crayon
15.3 Pray send … &c. 15.4] cross added, brown crayon
16.1 striped horses,] cross added, brown crayon
18.7 Dana, … ill—] cross added, brown crayon


Letter from Asa Gray, [10 January 1860]. Gray refers to the proof-sheets of the second edition of Origin sent to him by John Murray. See also letter from Asa Gray, [17 January 1860].
Gray refers to the New York publishing firms Harper & Brothers and D. Appleton & Co. His quotation is taken from a letter from D. Appleton & Co. to Asa Gray, dated 19 January [1860], in the Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University. The letter reads: We have stereotyped & printed the ‘Origin of Species’ and could publish it almost any day. We dont know what may be the changes in the 2d edn. or if they could appear at the end— If the work shd have any considerable sale we certainly shall be disposed to pay the author reasonably & liberally
A quotation from Joseph Butler’s Analogy of revealed religion (1736) was added to the frontispiece of the second English edition. It reads: The only distinct meaning of the word ‘natural’ is stated, fixed, or settled; since what is natural as much requires and presupposes an intelligent agent to render it so, i.e., to effect it continually or at stated times, as what is supernatural or miraculous does to effect it for once.
The third edition of Origin was published in April 1861 (Freeman 1977, p. 78). Appleton distributed four separate printings of Origin in 1860. Although the text of the first three printings is identical to that of the first English edition, the second printing included the quotation from Butler (Freeman 1977, p. 83). The fourth printing, which was issued in May 1860 (see ‘Journal’; Appendix II), is described on the title page as ‘a new edition, revised and augmented by the author’. It differs textually from the first and second English editions of Origin by including the ‘historical sketch’ as a preface, a section added to the end of chapter four responding to certain criticisms of CD’s theory, and a supplement containing further ‘additions and alterations … received too late to be incorporated in their proper places’. See letter to Asa Gray, 1 February [1860], and Appendix IV. This edition is hereafter referred to as the revised American edition (Origin US ed.). For the financial arrangements that Gray negotiated, see Dupree 1959, pp. 270–2.
Gray’s review of Origin ([Gray] 1860a) was published in the American Journal of Science and Arts, whose editorial office was in New Haven, Connecticut.
Jeffries Wyman, Hersey professor of anatomy at Harvard, wrote to CD later in the year (letter from Jeffries Wyman, [c. 15] September 1860). He had recently returned from a scientific expedition to South America.
In Origin, p. 439, CD mentioned Louis Agassiz in support of his statement that the embryos of distinct animals of the same class are often strikingly similar: ‘a better proof of this cannot be given, than a circumstance mentioned by Agassiz, namely, that having forgotten to ticket the embryo of some vertebrate animal, he cannot now tell whether it be that of a mammal, bird, or reptile.’
In the revised American edition and the third English edition of Origin, CD replaced the statement attributed to Agassiz with a quotation to the same effect from Karl Ernst von Baer (Origin US ed., pp. 381–2; Origin 3d ed., p. 471; Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 685–6). See also letter to Asa Gray, [15? February 1860].
CD was critical of the geological argument Gray had advanced in Gray 1859 to explain the distribution of northern plant species, and he had mentioned this to Joseph Dalton Hooker. See letter to Asa Gray, 7 January [1860] and n. 4.
James Dwight Dana believed that there was evidence in North America of a post-glacial warm period, which would account for Gray’s postulated second commingling of the Arctic and northern flora of Asia and America (Gray 1859, pp. 447–8).
Gray eventually relinquished the idea of a second mingling (Dupree 1959, pp. 251–2).
Edward Forbes was the first to publish the theory that alpine plants, following the worldwide cold period, would have remained on mountain tops in temperate regions (E. Forbes 1846). CD had earlier developed the same view as an explanation for certain patterns of geographical distribution. In a letter to Asa Gray, 11 August [1858] (Correspondence vol. 7), CD told Gray that he had ‘written out’ such a theory some four years before Forbes published. On this basis, Gray credited CD as being the originator of the theory in Gray 1859, p. 446 (ibid., letter to Asa Gray, 24 December [1859]).


American edition of Origin. AG’s assessment of the book’s weak and strong points. Suggests Jeffries Wyman would be a useful source of facts and hints for CD.

Letter details

Letter no.
Gray, Asa
Darwin, C. R.
Sent from
Cambridge Mass.
Source of text
DAR 98 (ser. 2): 22–5
Physical description
8pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2663,” accessed on 2 December 2016,