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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   26 November [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent.

Nov. 26th

My dear Gray.

I have to thank you for two letters.2 The latter with corrections, written before you received my letter asking for an American Reprint & saying that it was hopeless to print your Reviews as a pamphlet, owing to impossibility of getting pamphlets known.—3 I am very glad to say that the August or second Atlantic Article has been reprinted in Annals & Mag of N. History;4 but I have not yet seen it there.

Yesterday I read over with care the third Article;5 & it seems to me, as before, admirable. But I grieve to say that I cannot honestly go as far as you do about Design. I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; & yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.—   To take a crucial example, you lead me to infer (p. 414) that you believe “that variation has been led along certain beneficial lines”.—6 I cannot believe this; & I think you would have to believe, that the tail of the Fan-tail was led to vary in the number & direction of its feathers in order to gratify the caprice of a few men. Yet if the fan-tail had been a wild bird & had used its abnormal tail for some special end, as to sail before the wind, unlike other birds, everyone would have said what beautiful & designed adaptation. Again I say I am, & shall ever remain, in a hopeless muddle.—

Thank you much for Bowen’s 4to Review.7 The coolness with which he makes all animals to be destitute of reason is simply absurd. It is monstrous at p. 103, that he should argue against the possibility of accumulative variation & actually leaves out entirely Selection!8 The chance that an improved Short-Horn, or improved Pouter-pigeon should be produced by accumulative variation, without Man’s selection is as almost infinity to nothing; so with natural species without natural selection. How capitally in the Atlantic, you show that Geology & Astronomy are according to Bowen Metaphysics;9 but he leaves out this rubbish in the 4to. Memoir.—

I have not much to tell you about my Book.—   I have just heard that Dubois Reymond agrees with me.10 The sale of my Book goes on well, & the multitude of Reviews has not stopped the sale. Murray sold a few days ago at his sale 700 copies; & he has not half; so I must begin at once on new corrected Edition.—   I will send you a copy; for chance of your ever rereading; but good Heavens how sick you must be of it.—

Hooker has returned “rosy fat & jolly”, I am glad to say; but I have not seen him & not heard much news; except that he found traces of Glacial action on Lebanon.—11 I have gone on working at Drosera, but shall not publish till next summer, as I am frightened at my results & must retest them; (By the way I have been rereading in consequence some part of your Lesson in Botany,12 & have been so much pleased with the extremely clear way you put things), but you may rely on the truth of the fact that the prolonged weight of an innutritious atom, placed with all care on one of the glands, though it weighed only 1/78,000 of one grain caused conspicuous movement. I got the weight by weighing a length of fine hair & cutting off atoms & measuring them with micrometer. This weight is 78 times less than that with which best balance will turn with; & yet you may rely on it, this suffices to start the movement. Moreover it produces such changes within the cells of the glandular hairs; that an hour after weight had been put on, I could distinguish which hair had carried this fairy weight from all the other 100 & more hairs on the leaf.—

I suppose in summer you take walks in the country: I see in your Flora, you say that Apocynum androsæmifolium is common & another species.13 Will you observe whether the flowers of both species catch numbers of flies by their probosces, as the former does in England. And whether Bees visit the flowers. I mean to get this plant, if I can, & observe it; as a Boy I was surprised at number of flies captured.14 Please make a memorandum about this plant & the Spiranthes.—15

My daughter improves very slowly & I have now the heart to work again nearly as hard (strictly as lightly) as I ever can.—

My dear Gray | Ever yours most truly | C. Darwin

Have you read Olmsted Journey in the Back Country; what a remarkably interesting Book.—16


Dated by the reference to reprinting the second part of [Gray] 1860b (see n. 4, below).
Neither of Gray’s letters has been found.
CD refers to the second part of Gray’s review of Origin published in the Atlantic Monthly ([Gray] 1860b, pp. 229–39). On CD’s recommendation, it was published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History 3d ser. 6 (1860): 373–86. See letter to Asa Gray, 26 September [1860].
CD received the third part of the article ([Gray] 1860b, pp. 406–25) in September. See letter to Asa Gray, 26 September [1860].
CD annotated this passage ([Gray] 1860b, p. 414) in his copy of the paper (Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL): ‘Look at variation in domestic productions leading to all sorts of mutations. Fantail    Pouter’.
Bowen 1860b. There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Francis Bowen stated that CD’s theory was unphilosophic in its dependence on accidental variations. In his copy of the paper, CD wrote (Bowen 1860b, p. 103): ‘Without selection it is fatal.’ At the top of the page, he added: ‘The chance of an improved Short-Horn being produced by accumulative variation, without man’s selection, is as nothing, so with species not acted on by natural selection’.
The third part of [Gray] 1860b, pp. 406–25, included a critique of an earlier review of Origin by Bowen ([Bowen] 1860a). The point mentioned by CD is in [Gray] 1860b, p. 419.
Emil Heinrich Du Bois-Reymond. According to the letter to T. H. Huxley, 16 November [1860], CD had learned about Du Bois-Reymond’s favourable opinion from Leonard Horner.
CD learned of the find in a letter from Joseph Dalton Hooker passed on to CD by Thomas Henry Huxley (see letter to T. H. Huxley, 1 November [1860]). CD added a sentence to the fourth edition of Origin describing Hooker’s assessment of evidence of glaciation in the Lebanon mountains (Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 591–2). See also letter to T. H. Huxley, 1 November [1860] and n. 4.
Gray 1857. CD’s copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Gray 1856, p. 350.
CD remembered the plant growing in the garden of his father, Robert Waring Darwin; he had ascertained its name by questioning Daniel Oliver. See letters to Daniel Oliver, 16 November [1860] and [21 November 1860], and letter from Daniel Oliver, 23 November 1860.
CD had sent Gray a memorandum outlining observations he hoped Gray would make on the American species of the orchid genus Spiranthes. See letter to Asa Gray, 31 October [1860] and the enclosure.
CD had read Frederick Law Olmsted’s two previous books about his tours through the slave states of America with great interest, remarking that Olmsted 1856 was ‘excellent’ (Correspondence vol. 4, Appendix IV, 128: 23, 25). Olmsted’s third book, A journey in the back country (Olmsted 1860), chronicled Olmsted’s travels from New Orleans to Richmond, Virginia. Many believed it to be an unbiased and accurate picture of conditions in the South. Gray knew Olmsted, having met him in England in 1850 (Dupree 1959, p. 192).


Bowen, Francis. 1860b. Remarks on the latest form of the development theory. [Read 27 March, 10 April, and 1 May 1860.] Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences n.s. 8 (pt 1) (1861): 97–122.

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.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1856. A journey in the seaboard slave states, with remarks on their economy. New York: Dix & Edwards. London: S. Low.

Olmsted, Frederick Law. 1860. A journey in the back country in the winter of 1853–4. London: Sampson, Low, Son & Co.

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.


Has reread AG’s third Atlantic Monthly article. It is admirable, but CD cannot go as far as AG on design.

Mentions other opinions and reviews of Origin.

Relates some experiments on Drosera showing its extreme sensitivity; requests some observations on orchids.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (27)
Physical description
ALS 4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2998,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

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