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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   21 August [1861]

2. Hesketh Crescent | Torquay

Aug 21.

My dear Lyell

I know the page well & like many others I remember somewhere quoting it.—1 You are very honest to append a note; for when I skimmed it first over, I did not see any was necessary for those who believe in the modification of species.— But you show it is perhaps necessary.—2 The most trifling modification (& leaving out “Hence”) of present sentence would make it strictly correct; for the adaptation of species to travel widely over existing continents, will necessarily adapt them for occasional still wider transportation to new lands. I have used in Origin this argument to account for very wide range of F. Water productions.3 Your note strikes me as very good & very true: I have really no criticism, except a trifling one near end in pencil, which I have inserted on account of dominant & important species generally varying most.— You speak of “their views” rather as if you were a 1000 miles from such wretches; but your concluding paragraph shows that you are one of the wretches.—

I am pleased that you approve of Hutton’s Review.4 It seemed to me to take a more philosophical view of the manner of judging the question than any other Review.— The sentence you quote from it seems very true: but I do not agree with the theological conclusion.—5 I think he quotes from Asa Gray, certainly not from me;6 but I have neither A. Gray or Origin with me.— Indeed I have over & over again said in Origin that n. selection does nothing without the variability: I have given whole chapter on laws & used strongest language how ignorant we are on these laws.— But I agree that I have somehow (Hooker says it is owing to my title)7 not made the great & manifest importance of previous variability plain enough.— Breeders constantly speak of Selection as the one great means of improvement; but of course they imply individual differences; & this I shd. have thought would have been obvious to all in Nat. Selection; but it has not been so.—

I have just said that I cannot agree with “which variations are the effects of an unknown law, ordained & guided without doubt by an intelligent cause on a preconceived & definite plan”. Will you honestly tell me (& I should really be much obliged) whether you believe that the shape of my nose (eheu) was “ordained & guided by an intelligent cause”8   By the selection of analogous & less differences, fanciers make almost generic differences in their pigeons, & can you see any good reason why the natural selection of analogous individual differences should not make new species? If you say that God ordained that at some time & place a dozen slight variations should arise, & that one of them alone should be preserved in the struggle for life, & that the other eleven should perish in the first, or few first, generations; then the saying seems to me mere verbiage.— It comes to merely saying that everything that is, is ordained.

Let me add another sentence.— Why should you or I speak of variation as having been ordained & guided more than does an astronomer in discussing the fall of a meteoric stone. He would simply say that it was drawn to our earth by the attraction of gravity, having been displaced in its course by the action of some quite unknown laws.— Would you have him say that its fall at some particular place & time was “ordained & guided without doubt by an intelligent cause on a preconceived & definite plan”? Would you not call this theological pedantry or display? I believe it is not pedantry in the case of species, simply because their formation has hitherto been viewed as beyond law,— in fact this branch of science is still with most people under its theological phase of development.—9 The conclusion which I always come to after thinking of such questions is that they are beyond the human intellect; & the less one thinks on them the better. You may say, then why trouble me? But I shd. very much like to know clearly what you think.

Ever yours | C. Darwin

The sentence at your page 3. marked X by me, reads rather roughly; but it is highly presumptuous in to criticise the style of one who unintentionally always writes Miltonic verses!

(We return Home on Monday 26th


The page referred to can be identified from the annotation Lyell made on the cover of CD’s letter: ‘C. Darwin | returning M.S. on Sicily newer than species inhabiting it— & on deification & Natural Selection—’. The fact of the flora and fauna of Sicily being of greater antiquity than the country itself is discussed in the fifth edition of Lyell’s Manual of elementary geology (C. Lyell 1855a), p. 160. In the sixth edition, which Lyell was then preparing, he added a note to a subsequent sentence on the same page, indicating that his views on the creation and immutability of species had been modified since CD’s theory of natural selection had been made known to him (see n. 2, below).
The note referred to was appended to the following passage (C. Lyell 1855a, p. 160 and C. Lyell 1865, p. 194): It is obviously expedient that the terrestrial and fluviatile species should not only be fitted for the rivers, valleys, plains, and mountains which exist at the era of their creation, but for others that are destined to be formed before the species shall become extinct; and, in like manner, the marine species are not only made for the deep and shallow regions of the ocean existing at the time when they are called into being, but for tracts that may be submerged or variously altered in depth during the time that is allotted for their continuance on the globe. The note reads (C. Lyell 1865, pp. 194–5 n.): The three last pages, on “The Newer Pliocene Strata of Sicily,” are given verbatim as they appeared thirty years ago in the first edition of the Principles of Geology (vol. iii. p. 115., 1833). The last sentence, marked with inverted commas, was couched in language implying my adherence to the theory that each species was originally created such as it now exists, and was incapable of varying so as to pass into a new and distinct species. In my recent work on the Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, I have shown (chaps. xxi. to xxiv.) that Mr. Darwin’s theory of natural selection removes many of the principal difficulties which stood in the way of Lamarck’s doctrine of transmutation; and had I inclined as much in 1833 towards embracing Mr. Darwin’s views as I do now, I should have expressed myself somewhat differently. But I have thought it best not to re-cast a passage which has been so often cited, both by writers who opposed and approved of it. The main proposition which seemed so startling in 1833, namely, that species in general may be older than the lands and seas they inhabit, is now the creed of almost every geologist, whether he adopts or rejects the theory that species may be indefinitely modified in their organization under the influence of new conditions in the animate and inanimate world.
See Origin, pp. 383–8.
Hutton 1861. A lightly annotated presentation copy of Frederick Wollaston Hutton’s review is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Hutton’s review of Origin (Hutton 1861) was published in the April and May 1861 issues of the Geologist. In the June issue a letter criticising Hutton’s article was published, to which Hutton replied in the July issue (Geologist 4 (1861): 247–50, 286–8). Hutton stated that his review had concentrated only on ‘the scientific arguments both for and against’ CD’s theory and had not touched on ‘points connected with theology’, but that to respond to his critic he felt compelled to discuss the theological implications of the theory (ibid., p. 286).
In his letter, Hutton stated (Geologist 4 (1861): 286): I cannot understand why natural selection has been so often mistaken for a cause, when it is evidently the effect of the “struggle for life” acting on variations in species, which variations are the effects of an unknown law ordained and guided, without doubt, by an Intelligent Cause “on a preconceived and definite plan.” He referred any reader interested in ‘proofs’ for this argument to Asa Gray’s series of articles on Origin (A. Gray 1861a), but his quotation is not taken from this article.
Joseph Dalton Hooker’s comment does not appear to have been made in a letter. For an earlier expression of CD’s doubt as to whether he had selected the right term for his theory, see Correspondence vol. 8, especially the letter to Asa Gray, 26 September [1860].
See n. 6, above.


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

Hutton, Frederick Wollaston. 1861. Some remarks on Mr Darwin’s theory. Geologist 4: 132–6, 183–8.

Lyell, Charles. 1865. Elements of geology, or the ancient changes of the earth and its inhabitants as illustrated by geological monuments. 6th edition, revised. London: John Murray.

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.


Suggests change in a passage [in MS] of CL’s [Antiquity of man (1863)] dealing with adaptations for travel.

Comments on review of Origin by F. W. Hutton [Geologist (1861): 132–6, 183–8].

Emphasises importance of variability for natural selection.

Discusses possiblity of intelligent causes in variation.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
AU 21 61
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.261)
Physical description
ALS 8pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3235,” accessed on 29 November 2022,

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