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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [1 August 1861]1

2. Hesketh Crescent. Torquay


My dear Lyell

Emma has gone a little tour with Etty,2 but I have forwarded Lady Lyell’s letter with the sad account of Mrs. Longfellow.—3 I am sorry to have troubled you, but shd. be much obliged for Dutch Translat. to be left at Q. Anne St.—4 I am surprised at a Dutch Translation—5

I declare that you read the Reviews on the Origin more carefully than I do.— I agree with all your remarks.— The point of correlation struck me as well put, & on varieties growing together; but I have already begun to put things in train for information on this latter head, on which Bronn also enlarges.—6

With respect to Sexuality, I have often speculated on it, & have always concluded that we are too ignorant to speculate— no physiologist can conjecture why the two elements go to form the new being; & more than that why nature strives at uniting the two elements from two individuals; what I am now working at, viz Orchids, is admirable illustration of the law.— I shd. certainly conclude that all Sexuality had descened from one prototype.7 Do you not underrate the degree of lowness of organization at which sexuality occurs, viz in Hydra: & still lower in some of the one-celled free Confervæ which “conjugate”, which good judges (Thwaites) believe is simplest form of true sexual generation.8 But the whole case is a mystery.—

There is another point on which I have occasionally wished to say a few words.— I believe you think with Asa Gray that I have not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a Higher power.—9 I have had lately a good deal of correspondence on this head.10 Herschel in his Phy. Geograph. has sentence with respect to the Origin something to the effect that the higher law of providential arrangement shd. always be stated.11 But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet & planet.— The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make natural selection entirely superfluous, & indeed takes whole case of appearance of new species out of the range of science. But what makes me most object to Asa Gray’s view, is the study of the extreme variability of domestic animals.— He who does not suppose that each variation in the Pigeon was providentially caused, by accumulating which variations man made a Fantail, cannot, I think, logically argue that the tail of the Woodpecker was formed by variations providentially ordained.— It seems to me that variations in the domestic & wild conditions are due to unknown causes & are without purpose & in so far accidental; & that they become purposeful only when they are selected by man for his pleasure, or by what we call natural selection in the struggle for life & under changing conditions. I do not wish to say that God did not foresee everything which would ensue; but here comes very nearly the same sort of wretched embroglio as between free-will & preordained necessity.

I doubt whether I have made what I think clear; but certainly A. Gray’s notion of the course of variation having been led, like a stream of water by Gravity, seems to me to smash the whole affair. It reminds me of a Spaniard whom I told I was trying to make out how the Cordillera were formed; & he answered me that it was useless for “God made them”. It may be said that God foresaw how they would be made. I wonder whether Herschel would say that you ought always to give the higher providential Law, & declare that God had ordered all certain changes of level that certain mountains should arise.— I must think that such views of Asa Gray & Herschel merely show that the subject in their minds is in Comte’s theological stage of science.—12

I have one other very distinct subject. William will, I apprehend, now certainly join Mr. Atherley’s Bank, & it would be of real importance to him to get any good introduction in or near Southampton:13 can you aid me? it would be a real service.—

Of course I do not want any answer to my quasi theological discussion: but only for you to think of my notions, if you understand them.

I hope to Heaven your long & great labours on your new Edit. are drawing to a close.14

Farewell | My dear Lyell | Yours most truly | C. Darwin

Very kind remembrances to all your party.—15


Dated by the endorsement. The first of August fell on a Thursday in 1861.
Emma Darwin’s diary records that she and Henrietta Emma Darwin, accompanied by Hope Elizabeth Wedgwood (the youngest daughter of Hensleigh and Fanny Mackintosh Wedgwood), went on a tour of the Dartmoor area of Devon from 30 July until 5 August. Their tour included visits to Ashburton, Holne Chase, Lushleigh, Whyddon Park, Chagford, Fingle Bridge, and Drewsteignton. According to Henrietta Litchfield, this was the only tour Emma Darwin ‘ever took without the family in all her married life.’ (Emma Darwin (1915) 2: 178).
Frances Elizabeth Longfellow, wife of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was burned to death in her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after her dress caught fire. She was the sister of Mary Mackintosh, the wife of Robert Mackintosh, who was the brother of Fanny Mackintosh Wedgwood.
The address is that of CD’s brother, Erasmus Alvey Darwin, where CD stayed when in London.
Winkler trans. 1860. The Dutch palaeontologist Tiberius Cornelius Winkler had sent a copy of the translation to Lyell to be forwarded to CD. See letter from T. C. Winkler, 7 July 1861.
CD probably refers to George Maw’s review of the third edition of Origin (Maw 1861a). The points he refers to are addressed in Maw’s review and in Heinrich Georg Bronn’s criticism of Origin in chapter 15 of Bronn trans. 1860. See letters to George Maw, 13 July [1861], and to H. C. Watson, [17 July 1861].
On CD’s views on the origin and functional importance of sexual dimorphism in evolution, see Ghiselin 1969 and Hodge 1985.
Asa Gray argued in A. Gray 1861a that natural selection and natural theology were consistent if one conceived of the ‘stream’ of variations, from which nature selects, as having been ‘guided’ or ‘designed’. For the correspondence between Gray and CD on this point, see Correspondence vol. 8, letters to Asa Gray, 3 July [1860], and 26 November [1860]. See also letters to Asa Gray, 5 June [1861] and 21 July [1861].
In addition to the letters to Gray (see n. 9, above), see the letters to J. F. W. Herschel, 23 May [1861], and to F. J. Wedgwood, 11 July [1861].
Herschel 1861, p. 12 n.
Auguste Comte viewed the development of knowledge as having progressed through three stages: theological, metaphysical, and positive. CD had read an extensive review of the first two volumes of Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive (Comte 1830–42) in 1838 (see Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Charles Lyell, [14] September [1838]).
William Erasmus Darwin was preparing to become a partner in the Southampton and Hampshire Bank.
The sixth edition of Lyell’s Elements of geology did not in fact appear until 1865. The delay was due to Lyell’s eventual decision to publish the results of his study of the antiquity of man as a separate volume (C. Lyell 1863) rather than as a section within Elements.
The Lyells were staying in Folkestone, Kent. Among their party was George Bentham (K. M. Lyell ed. 1881, 2: 347–8).


Comte, Auguste. 1830–42. Cours de philosophie positive. 6 vols. Paris.

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

Emma Darwin (1915): Emma Darwin: a century of family letters, 1792–1896. Edited by Henrietta Litchfield. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1915.

Ghiselin, Michael T. 1969. The triumph of the Darwinian method. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Herschel, John Frederick William. 1861. Physical geography. From the Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh.

Hodge, M. J. S. 1985. Darwin as a lifelong generation theorist. In The Darwinian heritage, edited by David Kohn. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press in association with Nova Pacifica (Wellington, NZ).

Maw, George. 1861. The pavements of Uriconium. Journal of the British Archaeological Association 17: 100–10.

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.

Thwaites, George Henry Kendrick. 1847. On conjugation in the Diatomaceæ. Report of the 17th meeting of the British Association held at Oxford, Transactions of the sections, p. 87. [Vols. 5,6,9]


Mentions Dutch translation [of Origin].

Discusses evolutionary origin of sexuality.

Asa Gray’s suggestion that variation was directed by a higher power and Herschel’s view of providential arrangement in nature.

Compares variation in domestic and wild species.

Asks CL for introductions for his son William in Southampton, where he has joined a bank.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.259)
Physical description
ALS 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3223,” accessed on 9 June 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 9