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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Alphonse de Candolle   14 January [1863]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Jan. 14th

My dear Sir

I thank you most sincerely for sending me your Memoir.—2 I have read it with the liveliest interest, as is natural for me; but you have the art of making subjects, which might be dry, run easily. I have been fairly astonished at the amount of individual variability in the oaks.3 I never saw before the subject in any department of nature worked out so carefully. I noted with delight case of achenia &c &c.—4 What labour it must have cost you! You spoke in one letter of advancing years; but I am very sure that no one would have suspected that you felt this.—5 I have been interested with every part; though I am so unfortunate as to differ from most of my contemporaries in thinking the the vast continental extensions of Forbes, Heer & others are not only advanced without sufficient evidence, but are opposed to much weighty evidence.—6

You refer to my work in the kindest & most generous spirit.— I am fully satisfied at the length in belief to which you go, & not at all surprised at the prudent reservations which you make.7 I remember well how many years it cost me to go round from old beliefs. It is encouraging to me to observe that everyone who has gone an inch with me; after a period goes a few more inches or even feet.— But the great point, as it seems to me, is to give up the immutability of specific forms; as long as they are thought immutable, there can be no real progress in ‘epiontology”.8 It matters very little to anyone except myself, whether I am a little more or less wrong on this or that point; in fact I am sure to be proved wrong in many points. But the subject will have, I am convinced, a grand future.—

Considering that Birds are the most isolated group in the animal kingdom, what a splendid case is this Solenhofen bird-creature with its long tail & fingers to its wings!9 I have lately been daily & hourly using & quoting your Geograph. Bot., in my book on “Variation under Domestication”.10

with cordial thanks & sincere respect | I remain Dear Sir | Yours very faithfully | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to A. de Candolle 1862a (see n. 2, below).
A. de Candolle 1862a. At some point, CD also received A. de Candolle 1862b, a shorter notice on oaks. Candolle originally undertook the review of Quercus, the oak genus, and its relatives, as part of his work for Prodromus systematis naturalis regni vegetabilis (A. P. de Candolle and A. de Candolle 1824–73). In his letter of 18 September 1862 (Correspondence vol. 10), Candolle promised CD copies of the publications on Quercus. CD’s annotated copies of Candolle’s accounts of the oak family are in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
CD cited A. de Candolle 1862a in Variation 1: 387, in regard to changes in oaks with age.
CD refers to the discussion of the acorn in A. de Candolle 1862a, pp. 222–5; this section is heavily annotated in CD’s copy of the work, which is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
For Candolle’s discussion of the distribution of the Cupuliferae, see A. de Candolle 1862a, pp. 326–53. CD refers to Edward Forbes’s account of European flora and fauna distribution patterns, in which he proposed that in the Miocene era there existed a land-bridge connecting the Iberian peninsula with the Azores and with Ireland (E. Forbes 1846). Similarly, working on the biogeography of Madeira, Oswald Heer invoked the theory of a former land-extension linking that island with the European mainland (Heer 1855). Charles Lyell was also a supporter of a land-bridge theory, and Joseph Dalton Hooker used it to explain distribution patterns in the southern Pacific (J. D. Hooker 1844–7 and 1853–5). CD did not completely oppose the concept of land-bridges and accepted, for example, the probability that such a connection formerly linked North America and Asia. However, he vigorously criticised what he thought was the ad hoc invocation of former land-extensions, even former continents, without fully considering other means that might account for observed plant and animal distributions. CD had been debating the land-bridge theory with Hooker since 1846 and with Lyell since 1856 (see Correspondence vols. 3 and 6). See especially Correspondence vol. 6, letters to Charles Lyell, 16 [June 1856] and 25 June [1856], and Origin, pp. 352–6. See also Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 4 November [1862] and n. 6; for CD’s comments to Hooker on A. de Candolle 1862a, see the letter to J. D. Hooker, 13 January [1863].
A. de Candolle 1862a, pp. 354–61, 363. Candolle described CD’s account of the origin of species as the most modern, and, at the same time, the most ingenious and complete of the systems founded on what he termed an ‘évolution’ of organised beings over the course of time (A. de Candolle 1862a, p. 354). His reservations concerned what he saw as a lack of direct evidence that natural selection was the only means by which modified forms were slowly changed through what seemed to be confoundingly vast periods of time (A. de Candolle 1862a, pp. 358–61, 363). See Intellectual Observer 3 (1863): 81–6, for a translation of the last portion of A. de Candolle 1862b. See also Correspondence vol. 10, letter from Alphonse de Candolle, 13 June 1862.
Attempting to unify biogeography and the ‘geography of organic beings’, Candolle defined ‘épiontologie’ as the study of the distribution and succession of organised beings from their origin up to the present time (A. de Candolle 1862a, pp. 363–5).
CD refers to the reptile-like fossil bird Archaeopteryx, found in the Jurassic rocks of the Solenhofen quarries, Bavaria, in 1861. See letter from Hugh Falconer, 3 January [1863].
On 21 December 1862, CD began the chapter of Variation discussing bud-variation (see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II). However, his frequent references to A. de Candolle 1855 appear in the two previous chapters on cultivated plants (Variation 1: 305–72); he had started working on those sections in October 1862 (see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix II). CD’s annotated copy of A. de Candolle 1855 is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 106–53).


Candolle, Alphonse de. 1855. Géographie botanique raisonnée ou exposition des faits principaux et des lois concernant la distribution géographique des plantes de l’époque actuelle. 2 vols. Paris: Victor Mason. Geneva: J. Kessmann.

Candolle, Augustin Pyramus de and Candolle, Alphonse de. 1824–73. Prodromus systematis naturalis regni vegetabilis, sive enumeratio contracta ordinum generum specierumque plantarum huc usque cognitarum, juxta methodi naturalis normas digesta. 19 vols. Paris: Treuttel & Würtz [and others].

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

Forbes, Edward. 1846. On the connexion between the distribution of the existing fauna and flora of the British Isles, and the geological changes which have affected their area, especially during the epoch of the Northern Drift. Memoirs of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, and of the Museum of Economic Geology in London 1: 336–432.

Heer, Oswald. 1855. Ueber die fossilen Pflanzen von St. Jorge in Madeira. [Read 5 November 1855.] Neue Denkschriften der allgemeinen Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für die gesammten Naturwissenschaften n.s. 5 (1857): paper 2.

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1844–7. Flora Antarctica. 1 vol. and 1 vol. of plates. Pt 1 of The botany of the Antarctic voyage of HM discovery ships Erebus and Terror in the years 1839–1843, under the command of Captain Sir James Clark Ross. London: Reeve Brothers.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Thanks AdeC for his memoir ["Étude sur l’espèce", Ann. Sci. Nat. (Bot.) 4th ser. 18 (1862): 59–110].

CD astonished at the amount of variability in the oaks.

CD differs from most contemporaries in thinking that the vast continental extensions of Forbes, Heer, and others are not only advanced without sufficient evidence but are opposed to much weighty evidence.

AdeC’s comment on CD’s work [Origin] is generous.

CD is satisfied at the length AdeC goes with him and is not surprised at his prudent reservations. He remembers how many years it took him to change his old beliefs. The great point is to give up immutability. So long as species are thought immutable there can be no progress in "epiontology" [see ML 1: 234 n.]. CD is sure to be proved wrong in many points but the subject will have "a grand future".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alphonse de Candolle
Sent from
Source of text
Archives de la famille de Candolle (private collection)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3917,” accessed on 1 April 2023,

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