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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Charles Lyell1   28 August 1860

Augt 28. 1860

The grand argument from absence of mammalia & batrachians in Oceanic islands is probably felt to be strong by Owen as he has not ventured to impugn it and therefore declined to bring it into notice.2

It is a very telling argument & I think just & true, tho‘ if I had been helping Owen & the Bishop I fancy I could have suggested objections but I have not thought them out yet, & have not therefore troubled you with them, thinking I shd be able to answer them myself.

I remember however it struck me that the putting it even as possible that the Galapagos or Cape de Verds could have been joined to the nearest Continent was dangerous, as in the case (p. 390) they must have retained some of the smaller mammalia. Also if atolls be remnants of sunk continents would not some of the old continental land quadrupeds have survived or have been slowly modified into amphibious & volant species.3

Also, if as I believe the Canaries & Madeiras have been islands ever since the Miocene period (& the Azores), would not the theory of Nat. Selection have time to modify any vertebrate animal into the lowest of the Lyencephala in such a lapse of ages.4 Or if not, does it not give us a sort of scale for the vast geological time required for such a transmutation. No Galapagos saurian, having risen to a mammal. Perhaps you will say that this would be a greater puzzle to the out-&-out progressionists who may be converted by you to transmutation. Bronn,5 e.g., for you do not believe in that constant advance, as an ever working tendency, & allow for stationary & retrograde movements.

You would prefer I conceive to derive Eocene mammalia from the Microlestes of the Trias rather from any reptilian of however high a grade e.g. a deinosaurian. You wd rather conceive a bird to be turned into a mammal than derive the latter from a reptile. The Microlestes, or its nearest living analogues (marsupials) wd. in its embryology go through the bird-state or likeness before it became even a non-placental mammifer?

But if an island be very ancient the bats would be modified into mammalia of other genera & orders long before any bird could be turned into a mammal. Here comes the question, how old is the oldest isolated Oceanic island? The miocene littoral shells of Grand Canary & of Porto Santo give a miocene date to those lands, already in all probability separated from the Continent as now. But there are no bats there.

New Zealand is so large it probably existed from Eocene times as land?? Why did not bats getting there diverge into a dominant mammalian volant fauna & some lose their wings & become non-volant mammalia? Or why did not seals & marine mammalia turn terrestrial in their habits if they had such a geological period as the post-miocene for natl. selection to work in. The seals swarmed in Madeira before Man drove them away. This difficulty strikes me as greater in as much as the rate of change in mammalia is more rapid than in inferior grades & there have been in Europe several changes of mammalia since the Upper Miocene period. The adaptation of a seal which is already half terrestrial, requires less time than the conversion of Hearn’s bear into a whale which they are never tired of quizzing you for.6 I shall be glad if you will tell me whether these objections are of any value. Probably you have not thought the evidence of the antiquity of any islands good for much. Yet it seems necessary to grant a good deal of time to cause so many endemic shells in Madeira & Porto Santo & land shells would change much more slowly than mammalia. Still I grant that the conversion of a phoca into a terrestrial quadruped is very different from one helix into another, but ought not the seals to have begun in ancient islands to keep somewhat longer out of water. These are perhaps unfair, imaginary difficulties & ought not to weigh against an hypothesis which explains so much as does transmutation in the case of absence of mammalia & frogs from remote islands while they swarm in islands which we know have been united in newer pliocene times.

If there was time in Galapagos to convert a marine Amblyrhincus into a land species or vice versa. why not a phoca into a land species or other cetaceae into terrestrial. Did the land Amblyrhincus come first into being & of what S. American Saurian was he or his aquatic congener a modification? If all these questions apply equally against independent acts of Creation they will not be very damaging. But when the free agency of the First Cause is allowed to come into play, it may be said that no mammalia were wanted because it was foreseen that Man would come with his attendant train of useful mammals, taking even the camel with success into the Canaries.


The text of the letter has been taken from a draft, in Mary Elizabeth Lyell’s hand, in Lyell’s scientific journal. It is also printed in Wilson ed. 1970, pp. 467–9. The copy is headed: ‘Letter to Darwin from Rudolstadt’. Lyell was travelling on the Continent: from 2 to 8 August 1860 he was in Rudolstadt, Germany (ibid., p. 490 n. 88).
CD discussed the geographical distribution of Mammalia and batrachians in Origin, pp. 393–5. Lyell refers to Richard Owen’s assistance in the writing of Samuel Wilberforce’s review of Origin ([Wilberforce] 1860).
Lyell refers to CD’s theory of the origin of coral reefs, according to which coral atolls had been formed as the seabed subsided (see Coral reefs). Apparently Lyell had forgotten that CD no longer believed that groups of atolls indicated the location of a former landmass (see Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Charles Lyell, 17 June 1856, and letter to Charles Lyell, 25 June [1856]).
According to Richard Owen, Lyencephala, including the monotremes and marsupials, were the most primitive mammals (R. Owen 1859a).
Heinrich Georg Bronn, who prepared the German translation of Origin, gave his reasons for believing in the progressive introduction of species in Bronn 1858b. See also Junker 1991.
The bear–whale story in the first edition of Origin, p. 184, was derived from a remark in a book by Samuel Hearne (Hearne 1795).


Coral reefs: The structure and distribution of coral reefs. Being the first part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1842.

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

Hearne, Samuel. 1795. A journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort, in Hudson’s Bay, to the Northern Ocean … in the years 1769, 1770, 1771, & 1772. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell.

Junker, Thomas. 1991. Henrich Georg Bronn und die Entstehung der Arten. Sudhoffs Archiv Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftsgeschichte 75: 180–208. [Vols. 8,10]

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.

[Wilberforce, Samuel.] 1860. [Review of Origin.] Quarterly Review 108: 225–64.


Objections to Origin which Owen and Wilberforce could have used. Why have incipient mammalian forms not arisen from lower vertebrates on islands separated since Miocene period? Knows CD would not derive Eocene Mammalia from higher reptiles, but would bats not be modified into other mammalian forms on an ancient island? This is not the case in New Zealand. Why have island seals not become terrestrial? Assumes rate of change is greatest in mammals. Difficulties are small compared with ability to explain absence of Mammalia in pre-Pliocene islands. Asks about descent of Amblyrhynchus. Believes objections apply equally well to independent creation of animal types, but not if the First Cause is allowed completely free agency.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
The University of Edinburgh Centre for Research Collections (Lyell collection Coll-203/A3/6: 164–71)
Physical description
CC 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2900A,” accessed on 23 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8