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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hugh Falconer   3 January [1863]1

21 Park Crescent N.W.

3d. Jany.

My Dear Darwin

A happy new year to you—and many happy returns of the season to you and yours!

I ought long ago to have replied to your query about cases of dimorphism.2 I wanted to overhaul my notes—and see if they contained any thing worth sending to you. But I have found nothing sufficiently precise to bear upon the case. There is a large showy species of Linum, L. trigynum, common in India—with large yellow flowers—which is very variable in the number of the styles—and if my recollection is right—in their development also.3 You could easily get the plant through Hooker4—and it would not trouble you much to rear it, as it flowers with Green House heat. I have a notion that it might yield you something in your line worth observing.

Nor can I give you a more satisfactory reply, to your query, about ‘sporting buds’5   I have no case, that I can bring to mind.

I was sorry to hear from your brother, of the efflorescence which has been troubling you—and which he tells me is one of the reasons, that has prevented you from coming to town.6 You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archæopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about. Had the Solenhofen quarries been commissioned—by august command—to turn out a strange being ‘a la Darwin—it could not have executed the behest more handsomely—than in the Archæopteryx.7 This is sober earnest—and that you should not have been in to town—and see it and talk over it with me, is a criminal proceeding. You are not to put your faith in the slip-shod and hasty account of it given to the Royal Society.8 It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the the conception of the describer—who compares it with the Raptores & Passeres. & Gallinaceæ, as a round winged (like the last) ‘Bird of flight.’9 It actually had at least two long free digits to the fore limb—and those digits bearing claws as long and strong as those on the hind leg. Couple this with the long tail—and other odd things,—which I reserve for a jaw—and you will have the sort of misbegotten-bird-creature—the dawn of an oncoming conception ‘a la Darwin.10 But I will not say more about it till you show yourself in town. A ludicrous event has turned up. John Evans appears to have hit upon the very obvious cast of the interior of the skull—undetected by the describer, and before Owen’s paper is out, we have Mr. Mackie describing the hemispheres—and optic lobes of Archæopteryx! Look at the Geologist.11

The Germans generally have a spite at Darwinianism. It killed poor Wagner. but on his death-bed, he took consolation in denouncing it as a phantasia.12 Even Von Martius13 has a shot at you. I send the paper containing it—being a sort of éloge upon Wagner.14 Kindly return it when done with.

You will have seen my elephant paper out in the Nat Hist. Review15—with some of the evidence given which you thought to be wanting in what I sent you. I have not altered the latter, but I have gone into the value of the American measure of variety—and some other points.16

Lyell is hard at work in finishing his book.17 I fancy he has had much to alter and adjust—and I have got a quagmire-ish kind of feeling, that he—and the Subject Homo—will be bogged in it—alike.

My Dear Darwin | Yours very Sinly | H Falconer

P.S. The last parag. is entre nous—so please do not repeat it.—


The year is established by the reference to Falconer 1863a (see n. 16, below).
In his letter of 14 November [1862] (Correspondence vol. 10), CD asked Falconer whether he knew of any cases of dimorphism in plants analogous to those described in his paper, ‘Dimorphic condition in Primula.
CD told Falconer that he was preparing a paper on dimorphism in species of Linum in his letter of 14 November [1862] (Correspondence vol. 10). However, he made no reference to Linum trigynum in his paper, ‘Two forms in species of Linum (see letter to Asa Gray, 2 January [1863] and n. 8).
Joseph Dalton Hooker was assistant director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (R. Desmond 1994).
Falconer refers to the fossil, recently described by Richard Owen (Owen 1862a), that displayed both reptilian and bird-like features, including feathers connected to a long, jointed tail. The specimen was found in 1861 in the Jurassic lithographic limestone near Solenhafen, Bavaria, and was named Archæopteryx macrura by Owen (ibid., p. 33). The fossil had already achieved considerable notoriety as a ‘feathered reptile’ (Mackie 1863, p. 2); it was purchased by Owen on behalf of the British Museum for the sum of £400, and was brought to London in October 1862 (Rupke 1994, pp. 71–4). See also A. Desmond 1982, pp. 124–31. There is an annotated copy of Owen 1862a, published later in 1863 (Royal Society, Register of papers), in the Darwin Library–CUL. An abstract was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 12 (1863): 272–3.
Owen’s paper on Archaeopteryx, read before the Royal Society of London on 20 November 1862 (Owen 1862a), was the earliest account of the fossil based on first-hand observation. Owen compared Archaeopteryx with pterodactyls and birds, concluding that: ‘The best-determinable parts of its preserved structure declare it unequivocally to be a Bird, with rare peculiarities indicative of a distinct order in that class’ (ibid., p. 46). Falconer’s objections to Owen’s conclusions emerged in his role as one of the paper’s referees; he protested that the author overemphasised the ornithological evidence (see Rupke 1994, pp. 73–4).
In his paper (Owen 1862a), Owen frequently compared features of Archaeopteryx with those of familiar and extant birds; for example, he noted that it was similar in size to the peregrine falcon and rook (p. 34), representing Falconer’s ‘Raptores & Passeres’, and he believed that the wings corresponded in form and proportion to those of gallinaceous birds, such as the quail or grouse (p. 36).
Unlike Owen, Falconer was impressed by indications of the fossil’s intermediate position between reptiles and birds. After hearing Owen’s paper (Owen 1862a), Hooker reported that the ‘general opinion was that Owen demonstrated its ornithic affinity and proved it to be a bird with the tail-feathers set on a jointed tail instead of the truculent hump that most birds have, but some say that there are peculiar bones or organs amongst the bones that may yet prove it to be Reptilian’ (L. Huxley ed. 1918, 2: 32).
Owen reported in his paper that the head of Archaeopteryx was absent from the specimen (Owen 1862a, p. 34). However, John Evans, an archaeologist and geologist who examined the fossil shortly after hearing Owen’s account, claimed to have discovered the cast of the specimen’s skull. He did not publish an account of his findings for two years (John Evans 1865), but the geologist and palaeontologist Samuel Joseph Mackie reported in the January 1863 issue of The Geologist that Evans had found portions of the skull in the fossil slab (Mackie 1863, pp. 7–8; see also Joan Evans 1943, pp. 115–16). Owen made reference to Evans’s findings at the end of the published version of his paper (Owen 1862a, p. 46), but did not express an opinion as to their validity. He also added engravings of the skull to plate 1, fig. 1, n and n (Owen 1862a). See also De Beer 1954.
The German zoologist and palaeontologist Johann Andreas Wagner was known for his opposition to the theory of the transmutation of species, and to Origin (see J. A. Wagner 1861a, and Gregory 1977, pp. 35, 38–9). Wagner, who had for many years studied fossil remains from the Solenhofen stone, published a description of Archaeopteryx based on the verbal report of a friend who examined the specimen (J. A. Wagner 1861b). The paper was later translated and published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History with the title, ‘On a new fossil reptile supposed to be furnished with feathers’ (J. A. Wagner 1862). He named the creature Griphosaurus, meaning a saurian that is an ‘enigma’. Wagner concluded (J. A. Wagner 1862, pp. 266–7): I must add a few words to ward off Darwinian misinterpretations of our new Saurian. At the first glance of the Griphosaurus we might certainly form a notion that we had before us an intermediate creature, engaged in the transition from the Saurian to the bird. Darwin and his adherents will probably employ the new discovery as an exceedingly welcome occurrence for the justification of their strange views upon the transformations of animals. But in this they will be wrong.... I am entitled to ask of the Darwinians … to show me, first of all, the intermediate steps by which the transition of some one living or extinct animal from one class into another was effected. If they cannot do this (as they certainly cannot), their views must be at once rejected as fantastic dreams, with which the exact investigation of nature has nothing to do. See also n. 14, below.
Wagner died on 19 December 1861 (ADB), only weeks after the reading of his Archaeopteryx paper on 9 November (J. A. Wagner 1861a; see n. 12, above). Martius was responsible for delivering eulogies following the death of distinguished associates of the Royal Bavarian Academy (DSB); his eulogy upon Wagner discussed the palaeontologist’s insistence on the immutability of species, his diluvialism, and his use of the Bible in arguing against CD’s views (Martius 1862, pp. 8–10).
Falconer’s paper on American fossil elephants (Falconer 1863a) was published in the January 1863 number of the Natural History Review, CD’s annotated copy of which is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
Falconer had sent CD a manuscript portion of his paper on the American fossil elephants in September 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Hugh Falconer, 24–7 September [1862]). In the published paper (Falconer 1863a), Falconer emphasised the lack of variability in the European fossil elephants. Moreover, while praising CD and avowing a belief in the development of species by modified descent, he questioned the adequacy of natural selection as the sole mechanism for species change (Falconer 1863a, pp. 77–81). In response to the manuscript copy sent by Falconer, CD had urged him to consider the importance of variability to natural selection: ‘when you speak of “moderate range of variation”, I cannot but think that you ought to remind your readers … what the amount is, including case of the American Bog Mammoth’ (see Correspondence vol. 10, letter to Hugh Falconer, 1 October [1862]; see also letter to Charles Lyell, 1 October [1862]). The published paper included a section in which Falconer discussed possible varieties of American fossil elephants in addition to the two generally recognised species (Falconer 1863a, pp. 63–7).
Charles Lyell’s Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a) was published on 9 February 1863 (Athenæum, 7 February 1863, p. 176).


ADB: Allgemeine deutsche Biographie. Under the auspices of the Historical Commission of the Royal Academy of Sciences. 56 vols. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. 1875–1912.

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

De Beer, Gavin. 1954. Archeopteryx lithographica. A study based upon the British Museum specimen. London: British Museum (Natural History).

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

Desmond, Ray. 1994. Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturists including plant collectors, flower painters and garden designers. New edition, revised with the assistance of Christine Ellwood. London: Taylor & Francis and the Natural History Museum. Bristol, Pa.: Taylor & Francis.

‘Dimorphic condition in Primula’: On the two forms, or dimorphic condition, in the species of Primula, and on their remarkable sexual relations. By Charles Darwin. [Read 21 November 1861.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 6 (1862): 77–96. [Collected papers 2: 45–63.]

DSB: Dictionary of scientific biography. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie and Frederic L. Holmes. 18 vols. including index and supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1970–90.

Evans, Joan. 1943. Time and chance. The story of Arthur Evans and his forebears. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Evans, John. 1865. On portions of a cranium and of a jaw, in the slab containing the fossil remains of the Archæopteryx. Natural History Review n.s. 5: 415–21.

Gregory, Frederick. 1977. Scientific materialism in nineteenth century Germany. Dordrecht, Netherlands, and Boston, Mass.: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Mackie, Samuel Joseph. 1863. The aeronauts of the Solenhofen age. Geologist 6: 1–8.

Martius, Karl Friedrich Philipp von. 1862. Denkrede auf Joh. Andreas Wagner. Gehalten in der öffentlichen Sitzung am 28. November 1862. Munich: [Könighlich-bayerische] Akademie [der Wissenschaften].

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.

Rupke, Nicolaas A. 1994. Richard Owen, Victorian naturalist. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press.

‘Two forms in species of Linum’: On the existence of two forms, and on their reciprocal sexual relation, in several species of the genus Linum. By Charles Darwin. [Read 5 February 1863.] Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society (Botany) 7 (1864): 69–83. [Collected papers 2: 93–105.]

Wagner, Johann Andreas. 1862. On a new fossil reptile supposed to be furnished with feathers. Annals and Magazine of Natural History 3d ser. 9: 261–7. Translated by W. S. Dallas. [Originally published as ‘Ein neues, angeblich mit Vogelfedern versehenes Reptil’ Sitzungsberichte der königl. bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München 2 (1861): 146–54.]


Describes an astounding "sort of mis-begotten-bird-creature", the Archaeopteryx, a grand Darwinian case.

His elephant paper is out in Natural History Review [(1863): 43–114].

Letter details

Letter no.
Hugh Falconer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Park Crescent, 21
Source of text
DAR 164: 10
Physical description
ALS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3899,” accessed on 28 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 11