skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   26 September [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent [Eastbourne]

Sept. 26th.

My dear Gray

I have a multitude of things to thank you for; & hardly know how to begin. I forward & stamped letter to Grisebach in yours of Sept. 2d.2 Always use me this way, when convenient; as a scrap from you, I consider very good payment. With respect to Von Baer’s statement about Guinea-pig; I shd. much like to know where it is;3 but it can hardly be trusted unless he has brought forward some quite new evidence with respect to the unknown wild type of Guinea-pig. I have seen some of the Hybrids of Rabbit & Hare;4 & believe case is to be trusted; but I do not know that the exact half-bloods are perfectly fertile inter se: it is a particularly curious case, because many have perseverinly tried & utterly failed even to unite these 2 species.

Your letter of the 2d. was very pleasant, & so was that to Hooker, (just received from Lady Hooker)5 which made us all (ie my family) laugh heartily. I have received the Dialogue from Silliman’s October nor.6 Also the Proofs of the 3d. Atlantic Article.7 These both seem to me very good; but if forced to choose, I think I shd pick out the 2d article as best.— (I don’t know though)    I do not pretend to be a good judge, as I have never attended to Logic, Philosophy &c; but it is my opinion that you are best reasoner, of any man, let him who he may, that I ever read. As for your metaphors & similes, they make me envious: I shd like to steal a few: yet you never are tempted to use them prodigally. The two last essays are far the best Theistic essays I ever read. But I must return to the metaphors— I like specially that of the woman & the cloth;8 and that of the rain-drops on the ocean.—9 I believe my chief difference with you, is that I (unfortunately) think more of the rain-drops on the ocean than on those on the land. All your arguments about Design seem to me excellent; but I must hereafter read all again. I have a feeling that the existence of the multitude of Stars & the motion of the planetary system &c are equally good with living beings to prove a First Cause; & yet if there were no living things, there could hardly be design.— But I well know that I am muddled-headed on this subject.—

I have sent the August nor of Atlantic to Annals & Mag. of N. History; & offered to pay for its printing, if its length prevented its insertion: I have affixed your name, as Lyell agreed that it so greatly added to its value:10 I do most sincerely hope that I have not done wrong. The Saturday Review has lately been discussing Design; so I will send the Dialogue to it, of course without your name; whether they will print, I doubt.—11 I wish I could think of any Journal to print the October number.—12

I have had a letter of 14 folio pages from Harvey against my Book, with some ingenious & new remarks; but it is an extraordinary fact that he does not understand at all what I mean by Nat. Selection.13 I have begged him to read the Dialogue in next Silliman, as you never touch the subject without making it clearer.14 I look at it as even more extraordinary that you never say a word or use an epithet which does not express fully my meaning. Now Lyell, Hooker & others, who perfectly understand my book, yet sometimes use expressions to which I demur. If I had to write my book again I would use “Natural Preservation” & drop “Selection”, but it is too late now. Dr. Gray of B. Museum says to me “it is, you know, obviously impossible that there can be any Selection in case of Plants”.15 I made no answer; for it is hopeless. Well, your extraordinary labour is over; if there is any fair amount of truth in my views, I am well assured that your great labour has not been thrown away. I am perfectly convinced that had it not been for yourself, Hooker, Huxley & Lyell; my Book would Scientifically have been a complete failure. You have been most generous & disinterested in your exertions; & I thank you from my heart.

Farewell, my dear Gray | Yours most truly | C. Darwin

P.S. Please observe that if the Appletons lose by the 2d Edition never selling, I shd. prefer repaying the money they have paid me.—16

I am writing this at Eastbourne, where we have come to sea-side for my girls health, & she has certainly profited by it.—   Consequently I shall not see Clark (Agassiz’s man).17

I have been infinitely amused by working at Drosera: the movements are really curious; & the manner in which the leaves detect certain nitrogenous compounds is marvellous.—   You will laugh; but it is at present, my full belief (after endless experiment) that they detect (& move in consequence of) the 12880 part of a single grain of Nitrate of Ammonia; but the Muriate & Sulphate of Ammonia bother their chemical skill, & they cannot make anything of the nitrogen in these salts!18

I began this work on Drosera in relation to gradation as throwing light on Dionæa.—19

Does Spiranthes (or any odd genus of Orchids) grow near you; if so, I would ask you next summer to make a few observations, which would not take 10 minutes for me. There is very curious contrivance in our S. autumnalis for insect fertilisation; viz a decked boat-full of viscid matter & on a touch the deck splits & leaves viscid matter exposed. But I would explain if you have a Spiranthes.—

I yet hope, & almost believe, that the time will come when you will go further in believing a very large amnt of modification of species, than you did at first or do now. Can you tell me whether you believe further or more firmly than you did at first? I shd really like to know this. I can perceive in my immense correspondence with Lyell, who objected to much at first, that he has, perhaps unconsciously to himself converted himself very much during last six months.— & I think this is case even with Hooker.—   This fact gives me far more confidence than any other fact.—

P.S. 2d | How does Dana get on? I wrote to him, a month or two ago.—20


The year is given by the reference to [Gray] 1860c.
The letter from Gray mentioned by CD has not been found. August Heinrich Rudolf Grisebach was professor of botany at Göttingen University. CD had used his flora of the Balkans in 1856 (see Correspondence vol. 6).
Maria Hooker had apparently sent CD a letter that Gray had written to her son Joseph Dalton Hooker (see letter to Asa Gray, 10 September [1860]). Hooker had just left for Syria (L. Huxley ed. 1918, 1: 528).
CD refers to the article entitled ‘Discussion between two readers of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species, upon its natural theology’, published in the September issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts ([Gray] 1860c). There is a copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL, on which CD wrote: ‘Asa Gray(?)’. Gray’s authorship is confirmed by his biographer, A. Hunter Dupree (Dupree 1959, pp. 288–9). According to Dupree, the ‘Discussion’ was a record of an actual debate that took place between Gray and his friend Daniel Treadwell, formerly Rumford professor at Harvard University. Gray described Treadwell as a ‘skeptical neighbor of mine, a man who hangs doubtfully on the skirts of atheism, and thinks Darwin’s book will give him a firmer hold’ (Dupree 1959, p. 289). In the debate, the first reader was Treadwell and the second Gray.
The third and final part of [Gray] 1860b was published in the October issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The article was entitled ‘Darwin and his reviewers’. There is an annotated copy of Gray’s articles for the Atlantic Monthly in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
The passage occurs in [Gray] 1860c, p. 239. It describes the way that a ‘woman of a past generation’ would believe the wool or cotton forming a piece of cloth was carded, spun, and woven by hand rather than by machine. If you patiently explained to her the theory of carding machines, spinning jennys, and powerlooms, would her reception of your explanation weaken her conviction that the cloth was the result of design? It is certain that she would believe in design as firmly as before, and that this belief would be attended by a higher conception and reverent admiration of a wisdom, skill, and power so greatly beyond anything she had previously conceived possible.
The passage occurs in the third part of [Gray] 1860b, p. 417: The whole animate life of a country depends absolutely upon the vegetation; the vegetation upon the rain. The moisture is furnished by the ocean, is raised by the sun’s heat from the ocean’s surface, and is wafted inland by the winds. But what multitudes of rain-drops fall back into the ocean, are as much without a final cause as the incipient varieties which come to nothing!
See letter from Charles Lyell, 25 September 1860. The paper was reprinted in the November issue of Annals and Magazine of Natural History, pp. 373–86.
See letter to Charles Lyell, 3 October [1860]. The article was not published in the Saturday Review.
CD refers to the third part of [Gray] 1860b. It was not reprinted in an English journal.
See n. 6, above. William Henry Harvey and Gray corresponded about CD’s theory. After reading Gray’s ‘Dialogue’ ([Gray] 1860c) and the articles in the Atlantic Monthly ([Gray] 1860b), Harvey wrote to Gray on 3 November 1860: ‘“Almost thou persuadest me to be a Darwinite“—not quite so, but thou persuadest me to be a Grayite.‘ (Gray Herbarium, Harvard University).
See letter from Asa Gray, 20 February 1860, and letter to Asa Gray, 22 May [1860]. In May 1860, CD recorded in his journal the sum of £21 17s. 6d., which represented CD’s share of the profits of the American edition of Origin. See ‘Journal’ (Appendix II).
Henry James Clark was Louis Agassiz’s personal assistant at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, and a contributor to Agassiz’s Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America (Agassiz 1857–62). In June 1860, he was appointed assistant professor of zoology in the Scientific School of Harvard University. Following his appointment, he travelled for his health’s sake in England, France, Germany, and Switzerland. See Winsor 1991.
CD continued his experiments on Drosera throughout his stay in Eastbourne. His notes on these experiments are in DAR 60.1.
Dionaea is a member of the Droseraceae. In Insectivorous plants, CD stated of D. muscipula: ‘This plant, commonly called Venus’ fly-trap, from the rapidity and force of its movements, is one of the most wonderful in the world‘ and ’is one of the most beautifully adapted plants in the vegetable kingdom‘ (Insectivorous plants, pp. 286, 358).
James Dwight Dana returned to the United States in August 1860, having spent over a year in Europe recuperating from a breakdown in his health (American Journal of Science and Arts 30 (1860): 308). See letter to J. D. Dana, 30 July [1860].


Agassiz, Louis. 1857–62. Contributions to the natural history of the United States of America. 4 vols. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown & Company. London: Trübner.

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

Dupree, Anderson Hunter. 1959. Asa Gray, 1810–1888. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Gray, Asa. 1860a. Discussion between two readers of Darwin’s treatise on the origin of species, upon its natural theology. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 30: 226–39.

[Gray, Asa.] 1860c. Darwin on the origin of species. Atlantic Monthly 6: 109–16, 229–39; Darwin and his reviewers. Atlantic Monthly 6: 406–25.

Gunther, Albert E. 1975a. A century of zoology at the British Museum through the lives of two keepers, 1815–1914. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall.

Huxley, Leonard, ed. 1918. Life and letters of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, OM, GCSI. Based on materials collected and arranged by Lady Hooker. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Insectivorous plants. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1875.

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.

Winsor, Mary Pickard. 1991. Reading the shape of nature. Comparative zoology at the Agassiz museum. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


Has read sheets of AG’s third Atlantic Monthly article [Oct 1860] and praises it and AG’s other reviews and articles highly.

Is surprised at the inability of others to grasp the meaning of natural selection.

Has been testing the sensitivity of Drosera, which he finds remarkable.

Asks if AG will be able to make some observations on orchids for him.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Eastbourne Down letterhead
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (28)
Physical description
ALS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2930,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

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