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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   24 November [1860]

Down Bromley Kent

Nov. 24th

My dear Lyell

I thank you much for your letter.1 I had got to take pleasure in thinking how I could best snub my Reviewers; but I was determined in any case to follow your advice, & before I had got to the end of your letter I was convinced of the wisdom of your advice.2 What an advantage it is to me to have such friend as you.— I shall follow every hint in your letter exactly.—

I have just heard from Murray; he says he sold 700 copies at his sale, & that he has not half the number to supply; so that I must begin at once.3 But I will & must finish my Drosera M.S. which will take me a week, for at this present moment I care more about Drosera than the origin of all the species in the world. But I will not publish on Drosera till next year, for I am frightened & astounded at my results.—4 I declare it is a certain fact, that one organ is so sensitive to touch that a weight of 1/78,000 of a grain (ie seventy-eight times less weight than that, viz 11000 of a grain, which will move the best chemical balance) suffices to cause conspicuous movement.—   Is it not curious that a plant shd be far more sensitive to a touch than any nerve in the human body! Yet I am perfectly sure that this is true.— When I am on my hobby-horse, I never can resist telling my friends, how well my hobby goes, so you must forgive the rider.—

Farewell my wisest & best of Lord Chancellors.

Yours most truly obliged | C. Darwin

Etty goes on pretty well. All the Doctors say any rapid progress is impossible.—

All this dreadful illness for last six months (& that wicked dear little Drosera) has made any progress in my larger Book almost nothing—

P.S. I must tell you one little fact which has pleased me. You may remember that I adduce Electrical Organs of Fish, as one of the greatest difficulties which had occurred to me, & Owen notices the passage in a singularly disingenous spirit.5 Well Mc.Donnell of Dublin (first rate man) writes to me that he felt the difficulty of whole case as overwhelming against me.6 Not only are the fishes which have electric organs very remote in scale; but the organ is near Head in some & near tail in others & supplied by wholly different nerves.—   It seems impossible that there could be any transition.

Some friend who is much opposed to me seems to have crowed over Mc.Donnell, who reports that he said to himself that if Darwin is right there must be homologous organs both near the Head & Tail in other non-electric fish. He set to work & by Jove he has found them. So that some of difficulty is removed, & is it not satisfactory that my hypothetical notions shd have lead to pretty discovery. Mc.Donnell seems very cautious; he says years must pass before he will venture to call himself a believer in my doctrine; but that on the subjects which he knows well viz morphology & embryology my views accord well & throw light on whole subject.—7


The letter has not been found.
See letter to Charles Lyell, 20 November [1860].
CD refers to the new, third edition of Origin, which John Murray had called for. See letters to T. H. Huxley, 22 November [1860], and to John Murray, 22 [November 1860].
In fact, CD delayed publication until 1875, when Insectivorous plants appeared. He did, however, read a paper on the subject at a meeting of the Philosophical Club of the Royal Society in February 1861 (Bonney 1919, p. 154). See also letter to Daniel Oliver, 16 November [1860].
The passage was rather in Samuel Wilberforce’s anonymous review of Origin ([Wilberforce] 1860, p. 246). Wilberforce had been primed on the scientific objections to CD’s views by Richard Owen. The passage reads, in part: ‘We see no possible solution on the Darwinian theory for the presence at once so marked and so exceptional of these organs.’ Wilberforce went on to state that CD’s confession of ignorance was ‘a solution which could of course equally make the scheme it is intended to serve compatible with any other contradiction.’ There is an annotated copy of [Wilberforce] 1860 in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
The letter from Robert M’Donnell has not been found, but see the letters to T. H. Huxley, 16 November [1860] and 22 November [1860].
M’Donnell described his discoveries in M’Donnell 1860 and 1861.


Comments on CL’s advice not to reply directly to reviews.

Describes work on his Drosera manuscript.

Work delayed on his "larger book" [Variation].

Comments at length on the evolutionary significance of Robert McDonnell’s investigations ["On an organ in the skate", Nat. Hist. Rev. (1861): 57–60].

Letter details

Letter no.
Darwin, C. R.
Lyell, Charles
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (234)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2996,” accessed on 22 January 2017,