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Darwin Correspondence Project

To T. H. Huxley   10 May [1862]1

Down Bromley Kent

May 10th

My dear Huxley

I have been in London, which has prevented my writing sooner.2 I am very sorry to hear that you have been ill;3 if influenza I can believe in any degree of prostration of strength; if from over-work for God’s sake do not be rash & foolish.

You ask for criticisms, I have none to give only impressions.—4 I fully agree with “your skimming-of pot-theory” & very well you have put it.—5 With respect contemporaneity, I nearly agree with you, & if you will look to the d—d— Book 3d Edit p. 349, you will find nearly similar remarks.6 But at p. 22 of your Address in my opinion you push your ideas too far: I cannot think that future geologists would rank the Suffolk & St. Georges strata as contemporaneous, but as successive sub-stages;7 they rank N. American & British Stages as contemporaneous, notwithstanding a percentage of different species (which they, I presume, would account for by geographical difference) owing to the parallel succession of the forms in both countries.

For terrestrial productions I grant that great errors may creep in; but I shd. require strong evidence before believing that in countries at all well known so-called Silurian, Devonian & Carboniferous strata could be contemporaneous.8 You seem to me on the third point, viz on non-advancement of organisation, to have made a very strong case.9 I have not knowledge or presumption enough to criticise what you say. I have said what I could at p. 363 of origin.10 It seems to me that the whole case may be looked at from several points of view. I can add only one miserable little special case of advancement in cirripedes. The suspicion crosses me that if you endeavoured your best, you would say more on the other side. Do you know well Bronn in his last Entwickelung (or some such word) on this subject;11 it seemed to me very well done: I hope before you publish again you will read him again & consider the case as if you were a Judge in a court of Appeal: it is a very important subject: I can say nothing against your side, but I have an “inner consciousness” (a highly philosophical style of arguing!) that something could be said against you; for I cannot help hoping that you are not quite as right as you seem to be.—

Finally I cannot tell why, but when I finished your Address, I felt convinced that many would infer that you were dead against change of species; but I clearly saw that you were not.—12

I am not very well—so good night & excuse this horrid letter. Ever yours | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship to the letter from T. H. Huxley, 6 May 1862.
According to Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242), CD was in London from 6 to 9 May 1862.
CD refers to Huxley’s anniversary address to the Geological Society of London (T. H. Huxley 1862d), later republished as T. H. Huxley 1862b. See letter to T. H. Huxley, 30 April [1862], and letter from T. H. Huxley, 6 May 1862.
See letter from T. H. Huxley, 6 May 1862 and n. 2. Huxley’s metaphor for the imperfection of the geological record did not feature in his address.
CD refers to a section with the sub-heading ‘On the forms of life changing almost simultaneously throughout the world’ (Origin 3d ed., pp. 349–56), which begins, in contrast to Huxley’s views: ‘Scarcely any palæontological discovery is more striking than the fact, that the forms of life change almost simultaneously throughout the world.’ CD subsequently restricted this observation to marine forms, arguing that insufficient data existed to judge whether land and freshwater forms ‘change at distant points in the same manner’, and stating: ‘We may doubt whether they have thus changed’ (ibid., p. 350). He then qualified his position further, stating: When the marine forms of life are spoken of as having changed simultaneously throughout the world, it must not be supposed that this expression relates to the same thousandth or hundred-thousandth year, or even that it has a very strict geological sense; … Nevertheless, looking to a remotely future epoch, there can, I think, be little doubt that all the more modern marine formations, namely, the upper pliocene, the pleistocene and strictly modern beds, of Europe, North and South America, and Australia, from containing fossil remains in some degree allied, and from not including those forms which are only found in the older underlying deposits, would be correctly ranked as simultaneous in a geological sense. See also letter from T. H. Huxley, 6 May 1862 and n. 2.
Huxley, in a reductio ad absurdam of the commonly held view that similarity of organic contents afforded proof of the synchrony of the deposits that contain them, had stated (T. H. Huxley 1862b, p. xlv): suppose that, a million or two of years hence, when Britain has made another dip beneath the sea and has come up again, some geologist applies this doctrine, in comparing the strata laid bare by the upheaval of the bottom, say, of St. George’s Channel with what may then remain of the Suffolk Crag. Reasoning in the same way, he will at once decide the Suffolk Crag and the St. George’s Channel beds to be contemporaneous; although we happen to know that a vast period (even in geological sense) of time, and physical changes of almost unprecedented extent, separate the two.
In his address to the Geological Society, Huxley stated (T. H. Huxley 1862b, p. xlvi): For anything that geology or palæontology are able to show to the contrary, a Devonian fauna and flora in the British Islands may have been contemporaneous with Silurian life in North America, and with a Carboniferous fauna and flora in Africa. Geographical provinces and zones may have been as distinctly marked in the Palæozoic epoch as at present, and those seemingly sudden appearances of new genera and species, which we ascribe to new creation, may be simple results of migration.
In T. H. Huxley 1862b, pp. xlviii–liv, Huxley emphasised the persistence of forms from all sections of the animal and plant kingdoms in the geological record, and presented what he described as an ‘impartial survey of the positively ascertained truths of palæontology’, which, he claimed, refuted ‘the common doctrines of progressive modificaton, which suppose that modification to have taken place by a necessary progress from more to less embryonic forms, or from more to less generalized types, within the limits of the period represented by the fossiliferous rocks’ (ibid., p. liii). For an account of Huxley’s opposition to the idea of progressive divergence and specialisation, see A. Desmond 1982, pp. 85–112. See also M. Bartholomew 1975 and 1976.
In a section under the sub-heading ‘On the state of development of ancient compared with living forms’ (Origin 3d ed., pp. 363–7), CD stated: natural selection will constantly tend … to render the organisation of each being more specialised and perfect, and in this sense higher; not but that it may and will leave many creatures with simple and unimproved structures fitted for simple conditions of life, and in some cases will even degrade or simplify the organisation, yet leaving such degraded beings better fitted for their new walks of life. He continued: on the theory of natural selection the more recent forms will tend to be higher than their progenitors; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms.... modern forms ought on the theory of natural selection to stand higher than ancient forms. As to whether this was in fact the case, CD wrote that, although a ‘large majority of palæontologists’ believed so, he himself ‘could concur only to a limited extent’. CD’s copy of the third edition of Origin is at CUL; the pages carrying this discussion are heavily marked and annotated for revision.
Bronn 1858.


Bartholomew, Michael J. 1975. Huxley’s defence of Darwin. Annals of Science 32: 525–35.

Desmond, Adrian. 1982. Archetypes and ancestors: palaeontology in Victorian London, 1850–1875. London: Blond & Briggs.

Origin 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

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.


Nearly agrees on contemporaneity, but THH pushes his ideas too far. Would require strong evidence before believing that the so-called Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous strata could be contemporaneous. Thinks THH’s case on advancement of organisation is strong. But he should read Bronn, before publishing again, and say more on other side. Cannot help hoping he is not as right as he seems to be.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Thomas Henry Huxley
Sent from
Source of text
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine Archives (Huxley 5: 171)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3542,” accessed on 8 February 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 10