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Darwin Correspondence Project

To J. D. Hooker   24[–5] February [1863]

Down Bromley Kent

Feb. 24th

My dear Hooker

I am astounded at your note.1 I have not seen the Athenæum, but I have sent for it, & may get it tomorrow; & will then say what I think.2 I have read Lyell’s book.3 The whole certainly struck me as a compilation; but of the highest class, for where possible the facts have been verified on the spot, making it almost an original work.4 The Glacial chapters seem to me the best, & in parts magnificent.5 I could hardly judge about Man, as all the gloss of novelty was completely worn off.6 But certainly the aggregation of the evidence produced a very striking effect on my mind. The Chapter comparing language & changes of species seems most ingenious & interesting.7 He has showed great skill in picking out salient points in the argument for change of species; but I am deeply disappointed (I do not mean personally) to find that his timidity prevents him giving any judgment.—8

The whole discussion I look at as of no more value than a very good Review.— From all my communications with him, I must even think that he has really entirely lost faith in the immutability of species; & yet one of his strongest sentences is nearly as follows “if it should ever be rendered highly probable that species change by variation & natural selection” &c &c”.—9 I had hoped he would have guided the public as far as his own belief went. On the contrary, as the Parthenon says, he leaves the Public in a fog.10 One thing does please me on this subject, is that he seems to appreciate your Work.—11 No doubt the public, or a part, may be induced to think that as he gives to us a larger space than to Lamarck he must think there is something in our views.—12 When reading the Brain chapter, it struck me forcibly that if he had said openly that he believed in change of species & as a consequence that man was derived from some Quadrumanum animal, it would have been very proper to have discussed by compilation the differences in the most important organ, viz the Brain. As it is, the chapter seems to me to come in rather by the head & shoulders.—13 I do not think (but then I am as prejudiced as Falconer & Huxley or more so) that it is too severe; it struck me as given with judicial force.—14 It might perhaps be said with truth that he had no business to judge on a subject, on which he knows nothing; but compilers must do this to a certain extent. (You know I value & rank high Compilers being one myself!)

I have taken you at your word, & scribbled at great length.15 If I get Athenæum tomorrow, I will add my impression of Owen’s letter.—

Thanks for answer about Glass-Man & Acropera &c.—16 You cannot imagine what pleasure your plants give me (far more than your dead Wedgwood ware can give you):17 Henrietta18 & I go & gloat over them; but we privately confessed to each other, that if they were not our own, perhaps we shd. not see such transcendent beauty in each leaf.— Have you Edwardsia tetraptera   from what Treviranus says I shd. much like to observe it.—19

If you ever observe any plant with glandular hairs which secrete by their tips much viscid matter, will you remember that I shd. like a specimen.—20

I wonder that you can endure to speak in friendly manner to Owen;21 but I daresay you are right; indeed, after more than twenty years experience, & permit me to add, admiration of the transparent honesty of your character, I have no doubt that you are right: I would rather trust to your instinctive conscience on such a point than to my own. I despise myself for hating him so much.—

The Lyells are coming here on Sunday Evening to stay till Wednesday.22 I dread it, but I must say how much disappointed I am that he has not spoken out on Species, still less on Man. And the best of the joke is that he thinks he has acted with the courage of a martyr of old.— I hope I may have taken an exaggerated view of his timidity, & shall particularly be glad of your opinion on this head.— When I got his book, I turned over pages & saw he had discussed subject of Species, & said that I thought he could do more to convert the Public than all of us;23 & now (which makes the case worse for me) I must in common honesty retract. I wish to Heaven he had said not a word on subject.—

Wednesday Morning. I have read the Athenæum. I do not think Lyell will be nearly so much annoyed as you expect. The concluding sentence is no doubt very stinging.24 No one, but a good anatomist, could unravel Owen’s long-winded & confused (as it seems to me) letter; at least it is quite beyond me. Nor do I trust a word he says without careful comparison with the papers he quotes. My impression, however, is clear that he has tacitly wholly changed his ground, & wishes every one falsely to believe that mere size of Brain was his object in the whole controversy.25 Certainly Owen has not shaken my conviction, after reading what all the many anatomists have written, that he has been grossly wrong; & that he knows it & speaks falsely. Lyell’s memory plays him false when he says all anatomists were astonished at Owen’s paper;26 it was often quoted with approbation. I well remember Lyell’s admiration at this new Classification!! (do not repeat this)   I remember it, because though I knew nothing whatever about the Brain,, I felt a conviction that a classification thus founded on a single character would break down; & it seemed to me a great error not to separate more completely the Marsupialia.—27

Owen is certainly a very clever fellow & whether right or wrong will completely bewilder the public; as I hear he has already bewildered Sir J. Lubbock.—28 What an accursed evil it is that there shd. be all this quarrelling within what ought to be the peaceful realms of Science.—

I will go to my own present subject of Inheritance & forget it all for a time.29

Farewell | My dear old friend | C. Darwin


In his letter of [23 February 1863], Hooker asked CD for his reaction to the letter published by Richard Owen in the Athenæum, 21 February 1863, pp. 262–3, objecting to remarks made by Charles Lyell in a section of Antiquity of man entitled ‘Whether the structure of the human brain entitles man to form a distinct sub-class of the Mammalia’ (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 480–93).
C. Lyell 1863a.
Hugh Falconer criticised Antiquity of man for its reliance on work done by other scientists (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 February 1863] and n. 5).
Chapters 12 to 18 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 206–368) discussed the geological evidence of the Pleistocene glacial period, and examined the chronological relations between human and glacial history.
CD refers to chapter 24 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 471–506), ‘Bearing of the doctrine of transmutation on the origin of man, and his place in the creation’.
CD refers to chapter 23 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 454–70), ‘Origin and development of languages and species compared’. See also letter to Asa Gray, 23 February [1863].
CD expressed his disappointment at what he considered to be Lyell’s ‘excessive caution’ in his letter to Asa Gray of 23 February [1863]. See also n. 9, below.
Lyell concluded chapter 23 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, p. 469) with the statement that ‘by no means’ should one undervalue the importance of the step which will have been made, should it ever become highly probable that the past changes of the organic world have been brought about by the subordinate agency of such causes as ‘Variation’ and ‘Natural Selection.’ CD underlined this passage in his copy of the book, which is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 526–7).
In a review of C. Lyell 1863a published in the Parthenon, 21 February 1863, pp. 233–5, the anonymous author commented (p. 234) that readers would be in a ‘fog of bewilderment’ as to the value of the evidence in support of the ‘development theory’, because Lyell had been so ‘cautious and sparing of conclusion’.
Lyell cited Hooker extensively in Antiquity of man, particularly as an authority on variation in plants (see, for example, C. Lyell 1863a, p. 418).
In chapter 20 of Antiquity of man, Lyell discussed older theories of organic transmutation, and particularly the theory propounded by Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 389–406). This chapter formed a preface to an extended discussion of CD’s theory of the origin of species by natural selection and Hooker’s supporting evidence (ibid., pp. 407–23).
In chapter 24 of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 471–506), Lyell discussed the dispute between Owen and Thomas Henry Huxley concerning the comparative anatomy of human and simian brains, an account Hooker suggested was ‘virtually Huxley’s writing’ (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 February 1863]).
See letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 February 1863] and n. 3. At this time Huxley and Falconer were both engaged in disputes with Owen (see n. 13, above, letter from Hugh Falconer, 3 January [1863], and letter to Hugh Falconer, 5 [and 6] January [1863]).
See letter from J. D. Hooker, [23 February 1863] and nn. 10–13. The reference is to the glass manufacturers James Powell & Sons of Fleet Street, Whitefriars, London.
On 20 February 1863, by arrangement with Hooker, CD received a cart-load of plants for his hothouse from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (see letters to J. D. Hooker, 15 February [1863] and [21 February 1863]). CD also refers to Hooker’s interest in collecting Wedgwood ware (see letter from J. D. Hooker, [16 February 1863] and n. 8).
In a section discussing Orchids, the German botanist Ludolph Christian Treviranus provided a description of how the flowers of Edwardsia tetraptera (a synonym of Sophora tetraptera) secreted nectar after their stamens fell (Treviranus 1863a, p. 10). CD’s annotated copy of Treviranus 1863a is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. CD was interested in using the case to confirm his hypothesis that nectar could be present in cellular tissue, rather than contained in a nectary (see Orchids 2d ed., p. 41 n.). This was significant in explaining why many common orchids requiring insects to effect pollination nevertheless had nectaries which did not contain nectar. See also letter to Roland Trimen, 16 February [1863] and n. 4.
CD had been working intermittently on insectivorous plants, especially Drosera rotundifolia, since the summer of 1860 (see Correspondence, vols. 8–10); however, he did not work extensively on the subject until 1872 (LL 3: 322). See also Correspondence vol. 10, letter to J. D. Hooker, 9 [April 1862]
Charles and Mary Elizabeth Lyell had been invited to Down House for a few days, from 1 to 4 March 1863, but CD became ill with ‘much sickness & weakness’, and was obliged to retract the invitation (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 5 March [1863]).
See letter to Charles Lyell, 4 [February 1863]. CD gave his full reaction to C. Lyell 1863a in his letter to Charles Lyell, 6 March [1863].
Owen concluded his letter to the Athenæum (see n. 2, above), with the statement: The tree is known by its fruit; and if such be the produce of the fair tree of knowledge which Lyell has so skilfully decked and set off to the world, it cannot be a sound and wholesome one.
Owen’s original claim was that on the basis of structural differences in the brain, the genus Homo should be classified as a distinct sub-class of the mammalia (see n. 27, below).
In his letter to the Athenæum (see n. 2, above), Owen accused Lyell of implying that the anatomical world had been shocked by the inclusion of erroneous data in his reclassification of the mammalia according to cerebral characteristics (Owen 1857). In fact, Lyell did not comment on the initial reception of Owen’s paper in Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a, pp. 480–5).
In Owen’s reclassification of the mammalia (Owen 1857, p. 37), he divided the class into four sub-classes according to the structure of the brain: the ‘Lyencephala’, the ‘Lissencephala’, the ‘Gyrencephela’, and the ‘Archencephala’. Humans were placed in the distinct sub-class of ‘Archencephala’, based principally on three cerebral characteristics that Owen argued belonged exclusively to humans (ibid., pp. 19–20). See also letter to J. D. Dana, 5 April [1857], and letter to J. D. Hooker, 5 July [1857] (Correspondence vol. 6).
John William Lubbock, CD’s neighbour in Down; his son, John Lubbock, may have discussed his father’s views with CD when he dined at Down House on 22 February 1863 (see letter to John Lubbock, 23 [February 1863]).
CD was writing a draft of the chapters on inheritance for Variation (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 11, Appendix II)).


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

LL: The life and letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. Edited by Francis Darwin. 3 vols. London: John Murray. 1887–8.

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.

Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

Orchids: On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1862.

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


CD’s opinion of Lyell’s Antiquity of man and of Owen’s comment on it.

Disappointed Lyell has not spoken out on species and on man.

Pleasure of new hothouse and the plants JDH supplied for it.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 115: 183
Physical description
ALS 10pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4009,” accessed on 29 May 2023,

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