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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [14] September [1838]

[36 Great Marlborough Street]

Friday night. September 13th 1

My dear Lyell

I was astonished & delighted at your gloriously long letter, & I am sure I am very much obliged to Mrs. Lyell for having taken the trouble to write so much.—2 I mean to have a good hours enjoyment & scribble away to you, who have so much geological sympathy, that I do not care how egotiscally I write. But first for the main object, which makes me write at once— it is about that unfortunate letter of Governor Prescott.—3 I only received one letter from you at Newcastle, & that came single by the post: you had then received the communication, but do not allude to the official document, or to any frank from Lord Northhampton.4 It is very provoking, for I do not know what I shall say to the Council, & no one would much like accepting the offer without actually seeing the very wording of the letter.— If you have not burnt my letter which accompanied it, will you send it to me, as I will endeavour to write the letter from memory with the aid of it.— Could Lord Northhampton have kept it by mistake? If you are sure he gave you a frank for the purpose, I would write to the Secretary of Post Office & find whether it is lying in the dead office from being misdirected.— Will you, also, just look over your papers, once again.— I am very sorry to trouble you— it is hard that all this plague should have been thrown on your shoulders,—but I yet hope the letter may be recovered.

I have got so much to say about all sort of trifling things, that I hardly know what to begin about:—but first pray give my best thanks to Mr Lyell, for his very kind invitation, which it would have been delightful to have accepted, but I am pledged to go to my Uncle’s & to home for a fortnight in end of October,5 & till then I must not give myself even a days holidays.— It is a very very great temptation which I must resist.— I need not say how pleased I am to hear that Mr Lyell likes my Journal— to hear such tidings is a kind of resurrection, for I feel towards my first born child, as if it had long since been dead, buried & forgotten,—but the past is nothing & the future everything to us geologists, as you show in your capital motto to the Elements.6 By the way have you read the article in the Edinburgh Review on M. Comte Cours de la Philosophie, (or some such title)— it is capital— there are some fine sentences, about the very essence of science being prediction,—which reminded me of “its law being progress”.—7

I will now begin & go through your letter seriatim.— I daresay your plan of putting the Elie de Beaumonts chapter separately & early will be very good.—8 anyhow it is showing a bold front in the first edition, which is to be translated into French.— it will be a curious point to geologists hereafter to note how long a man’s name, will support a theory, so completely exposed, as that of De Beaumonts has been by you.— You say, you “begin to hope that the great principles there insisted on will stand the test of time”. begin to hope,; why the possibility of a doubt has never crossed my mind for many a long day: this may be very unphilosophical, but my geological salvation is staked on it. After having just come back from Glen Roy, & found how difficulties smooth away under your Principles, it makes me quite indignant, that you should talk of hoping. With respect to the question how far my coral theory bears on De Beaumont’s theory,—I think it would be prudent to quote me with great caution, until my whole account is published,9 & then you (& others) can judge how far there is foundation for such generalization.— mind I do not doubt its truth,—but the extension of any view over such large spaces from comparatively few facts must be received with much caution.— I do not myself the least doubt that within the recent (or as you, much to my annoyment would call it, Newer Pliocene) period tortuous bands & not all the bands parallel to each other have been elevated, & corresponding ones subsided,—though within this same period, some parts probably remained for a time stationary, or even subsided.—10 I do not believe a more utterly false view could have been invented than great straight lines, being suddenly thrown up.—11

When my book on Volcanos–Coral reefs will be published I hardly know,—I fear it will be at least four or five months, though much the greater part is written,—I find so much time is lost in correcting details, & ascertaining their accuracy. The government Zoological work is a millstone round my neck,—& the Glen Roy paper has lost me six weeks.— I will not however say lost, for supposing I can prove to others satisfaction, what I have convinced myself is the case, the inferences, I think, you will allow to be important.— I cannot doubt the molten matter beneath the earths crust possesses a high degree of fluidity, almost like the sea beneath the Polar ice.—12 By the way I hope you will give me some Sweedish case to quote of shells being preserved on the surface, but not in contemporaneous beds of gravel.—13 I have received a most obliging letter from Sir. D. B.,14 & he communicated some information so useful, that I have written to him again.—

The Winters Bark 15 is a tree, vegetables even in Patagonia not usually being furnished with bark. — I cannot give you the scientific name at present, though it is a well known form.— Speaking of parrots you may say (to avoid S. lat. S. America) in Tierra del Fuego, or near Cape Horn.— In the sentence you ask me to alter, (read)—“….in Tierra del Fuego, including the wooded part immediately north of the Stt of Mag: as well as in the Falkland Isd. no reptile…..yet we meet with in the former country…..the guanaco, (a kind of Llama), a deer, fox, puma several small rodents…..& in the Falkland Islands some of these animals”—16 This sentence is now correct, you must harmonize it— Port Famine is in Lat. 53o ’ 38’ S.—

I have forwarded your letter (P. paid) to Dr. Richardson at Portsmouth.— I see you there, tell him to write to you at Kinnordy, any time before the end of November. I hope this is a mistake, & you meant to say October.— I shall be grieved if it is true; I trust you will want books, or something will bring you back before then.—17 Remember, what I have often heard you say—the country is very bad for the intellects.— the Scotch mists will put out some volcanic speculations— you see I am affecting to become very cocknefyed, & to despise the poor country folk, who breath fresh air instead of smoke, & see the goodly fields instead of the brick-houses in Marlborough St,—the very sight of which I confess I abhor.—

I am glad to hear what a favourable report you give of the British association; I am the more pleased, because I have been fighting its battle with Basil Hall, Stokes,18 & several others,—having made up my mind from the report in the Athenæum, that it must have been an excellent meeting.— I have been much amused with an account I have received of the wars of Don Roderick & Babbage—19 what a grievous pity it is that the latter should be so implacable, & if one might so call the calculating machine, so very silly.— One regrets such a contest so much the more, from knowing the incomparable superiority, (except in finesse) of the one over the other.—

This is a most rigmarole letter, for after each sentence, I take breath, (& you will have need of it in reading it) & look to yours.— With respect to Blainvilles paper, I saw only an abstract, which would not serve your purpose to quote, so I will not make any full abstracts.— Owen must be a very much superior authority on Marsupials, (if not on every subject) than Blainville,20 whom I have heard is superficial.— I suppose Owen has pointed out to you the internal process in the Stonesfield jaws, which amongst Mammalia, is exclusively confined to the Marsupiata.— By the way Owen talks of the Ornithoryhncus21 as leading off into the reptiles, so that I should think, it was not impossible that some reptiles formerly might have approached nearer to the Mammalian type, than any existing ones now do.—

I suppose you have plenty of work in hand in putting the Principles to rights, after the parturition of the Elements. I see so few people, that I have not heard anything about the latter in the shape of criticism,—but judging from some very unlikely people who have bought it, I should think it must be selling well. Charlesworth, I think, is annoyed that you have not quoted him more about the embedding of of the older shells in the newer beds.—22 But poor Charlesworth is of an unhappy discontented disposition.— he is, moreover, very much to be pitied— the Zoological Soc: are going to give up the Assit. Secretary’s place, & it is feared, that he has a disiase of the heart,—so that altogether he is greatly to be pitied.— My younger sister writes to me from home, that she finds the Elements requires hard reading— I am glad of this, for few are so silly as really to like a very easy book, as everyone has a sort of consciousness, that in such case the subject must be shirked. (videlicet the popularity of Herschels treatise on Nat. Phil. & the still more abstruse one on astronomy).23 NB. Whilst I think of it; do not quote (if by any chance you had so intended) Gould’s case of Water-wagtails, one species peculiar to this country & one to France— the case does not hold good.—24 Will you have the kindness to write soon on the subject of the Newfoundland letter (I wish it was at the bottom of the Polar Sea) & return mine, in case you can find no clue to the real one.—

I wish with all my heart that my Geological book was out— I have every motive to work hard, & will, following your steps, work just that degree of hardness to keep well,—I should like my volume to be out before your new edition of Principles appears.— Besides the Coral theory,—the volcanic chapters, will, I think, contain some new facts.— I have lately been sadly tempted to be idle, that is as far as pure geology is concerned, by the delightful number of new views, which have been coming in, thickly & steadily, on the classification & affinities & instincts of animals—bearing on the question of species—note book, after note book has been filled, with facts, which begin to group themselves clearly under sub-laws.—25

Good night, my dear Lyell, I have filled my letter, & have enjoyed my talk to you, as much as I can, without having you in propriâ personâ. Think of the bad effects of the country. so once more | good night | Ever yours | Chas. Darwin—

Pray again give my best thanks to Mr. Lyell.


Friday was the 14th of September.
Since Lyell suffered from weak eyesight, he dictated many of his letters.
Henry Prescott, governor of Newfoundland. The letter requested the aid of the Council of the Geological Society ‘in finding some fit person’ to make a geological survey of the colony, its legislature having granted a sum towards defraying the expenses (Geological Society of London, Council Minutes, 7 November 1838, CM 1/5, p. 59).
Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2d Marquess of Northampton had been elected a vice-president of the British Association at the Newcastle meeting.
CD did not, in fact, go until 9 November; the occasion was his proposal to Emma Wedgwood (‘Journal’; Correspondence vol. 2, Appendix II).
‘It is a philosophy which never rests—its law is progress: a point which yesterday was invisible is its goal to-day, and will be its starting post to-morrow.’ The statement, quoted from the Edinburgh Review, appears on the title page.
[Brewster] 1838. This was a review of the first two volumes of Auguste Comte’s Cours de philosophie positive (Paris, 1830–5). For discussions of CD’s reaction to the review see Schweber 1977 and Manier 1978, pp. 40–7.
Refers to Lyell’s revisions for the sixth edition of Principles (C. Lyell 1840). See letter from Charles Lyell, 6 and 8 September 1838.
CD presented a brief statement of his theory of coral reefs to the Geological Society on 31 May 1837 (Collected papers 1: 46–9) and in Journal and remarks, pp. 554–69. He had not yet begun to write his longer work on the subject. His ‘Journal’ entry for 5 October 1838 reads: ‘Began Coral Paper: requires much reading’ (Correspondence vol. 2, Appendix II).
This was Élie de Beaumont’s view.
A hypothesis discussed in ‘On the connexion of certain volcanic phenomena in South America’, Collected papers 1: 53–86.
CD likened the evidence for subsidence and elevation in Scotland to that which Lyell had observed in Sweden; however, his theory that the roads of Glen Roy were the remains of marine beaches faced a difficulty in that no marine shells could be found on them. To overcome this problem he referred to observations by Lyell that shells were not always preserved in Swedish gravel beds where they might have been expected. See ‘Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy’, Collected papers 1: 108–14, 134.
David Brewster informed CD about ‘roads’ in the valley of the Spey similar to those of Glen Roy. See Collected papers 1: 93.
See Journal and remarks, p. 342. The subject discussed in this paragraph must have been raised in the letter to Richardson, which Lyell had enclosed for CD to read and forward.
C. Lyell 1840, 1: 241–2. CD discussed the fauna of the region in Journal and remarks, pp. 300–2.
The Lyells remained at Kinnordy until 14 November, when they departed for London (Wilson 1972, p. 483).
Late in 1837, Roderick Murchison, who was General Secretary of the British Association, had offered Charles Babbage the position of President for the 1839 meeting. However, when John Herschel returned to England in May 1838 after his astronomical observations at the Cape, Murchison changed his mind and offered the position to Herschel. When this double manoeuvre became known at the August meeting in Newcastle, Herschel and Babbage both refused the position, and the angry Babbage left the meeting, never to participate in the Association again. (Orange 1975, p. 291.)
The question involved a fossil marsupial unearthed in the Oolitic strata at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire. Until this discovery, mammals were unknown in Secondary strata. Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, who believed in a progressive sequence of fossil forms, argued that the creature was in fact a reptile (Blainville 1838a and 1838b; Appel 1980). Lyell, who opposed the notion of progressive development, was naturally pleased with Owen’s views, which he probably heard at the Newcastle meeting (Owen 1838a; see also Owen 1841, pp. 391–4, and C. Lyell 1840, 1: 235–40).
For CD’s description see Journal and remarks, p. 526.
In arguing against Lyell’s dating of the crag, Edward Charlesworth insisted that erosion of fossil-bearing strata would intermingle fossils of different periods, making it impossible to date Tertiary beds by Lyell’s method of counting the percentage of still living representatives (Charlesworth 1837). In the Elements (C. Lyell 1838, pp. 300–8) Lyell accepted Charlesworth’s division of the red and coralline crag but ignored his views on dating methods.
Herschel 1831 and 1833. For Herschel’s influence on CD see Autobiography, pp. 67–8, Ruse 1975b, and Manier 1978, pp. 47–51.
By September 1838 CD had filled the second half of the Red notebook, Notebooks B, C, and most of D and M (see Notebooks). All these notes were made before reading Malthus’ An essay on the principle of population during that month (Notebook D: 134e–5e). For an analysis of CD’s thinking and method of work on his ‘path to natural selection’ during this period, see Kohn 1980.


Appel, Toby A. 1980. Henri de Blainville and the animal series: a nineteenth-century chain of being. Journal of the History of Biology 291–319.

[Brewster, David]. 1838. M. Comte’s ""Course of Positive Philosophy"". Edinburgh Review 67: 271–308.

Charlesworth, Edward. 1837. On some fallacies involved in the results relating to the comparative age of Tertiary deposits, obtained from the application of the test recently introduced by Mr Lyell and M. Deshayes. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 22: 110–16.

Collected papers: The collected papers of Charles Darwin. Edited by Paul H. Barrett. 2 vols. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 1977.

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

Gould, John. 1832–7. The birds of Europe. 5 vols. London.

Herschel, John Frederick William. 1831. A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy. In Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet cyclopædia. London. [Vols. 1,2,6,7,8,9]

Kohn, David. 1980. Theories to work by: rejected theories, reproduction, and Darwin’s path to natural selection. Studies in History of Biology 4: 67–170.

Lyell, Charles. 1838. Elements of geology. London: John Murray.

Manier, Edward. 1978. The young Darwin and his cultural circle: a study of influences which helped shape the language and logic of the first drafts of the theory of natural selection. Dordrecht, Holland and Boston, Mass.: D. Reidel.

Notebook D. See de Beer 1960; de Beer and Rowlands 1961; de Beer, Rowlands, and Skramovsky 1967; Notebooks.

Notebooks: Charles Darwin’s notebooks, 1836–1844. Geology, transmutation of species, metaphysical enquiries. Transcribed and edited by Paul H. Barrett et al. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the British Museum (Natural History). 1987.

Orange, A. D. 1975. The idols of the theatre: the British Association and its early critics. Annals of Science 32: 277-94.

‘Parallel roads of Glen Roy’: Observations on the parallel roads of Glen Roy, and of other parts of Lochaber in Scotland, with an attempt to prove that they are of marine origin. By Charles Darwin. [Read 7 February 1839.] Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 129: 39–81. [Shorter publications, pp. 50–88.]

Schweber, Silvan S. 1977. The origin of the Origin revisited. Journal of the History of Biology 10: 229–316.

Wilson, Leonard Gilchrist. 1972. Charles Lyell. The years to 1841: the revolution in geology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.


Comments on an article in Edinburgh Review [by David Brewster, 67 (1838): 271–308] on Comte’s Philosophie positive.

Discusses falsity of Élie de Beaumont’s views of contemporaneous parallel lines of elevation and subsidence.

Owen’s views of relationship of reptiles to birds.

On "question of species" CD has filled notebook after notebook with facts, "which begin to group themselves clearly under sub-laws".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
London, Gt Marlborough St, 36
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.11)
Physical description
ALS 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 428,” accessed on 24 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2