skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   25 March [1865]1

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

March 25th

My dear Lyell

I have been glad to see the enclosed correspondence & thank you for sending it & for your note.2 I presume I may quote Miss Buckley about the roosting in trees (which is only new point) as “from information received through Sir C. Lyell”. If you think I ought to name Miss. B; please tell me, otherwise I will quote as above.—3

In Upper Egypt where natives live in conical mud hovels, the pigeons regularly settle in flocks on low trees, but not on the Palms.4 The Duke making such a point on this rests on the Lamarckian belief that everything in structure & habits must change:5 I have put the case that such a change, if not selected or induced by compulsion, would be a downright difficulty on my notions.6

Here is a more curious case     from compulsion the domestic pigeons settle on the Nile, & float down the stream, whilst they drink, in districts where the banks are absolutely perpendicular; so that they look like a flock of Gulls.—7

I have read most of H. Spencer’s Biology & agree with you.8 Some of his remarks are very clever & suggestive, but somehow I seldom feel any wiser after reading him, but often feel mistified. His style is detestable in my opinion; & no wonder as he dictates & never alters. Hooker agrees that his last nor is best he ever wrote.—9

I finished your Elements with uncommon interest; but have nothing to remark:10 I was, however, particularly struck by your summing up on the Laurentian stages.11

My health keeps much the same; but I have of late had fewer black days & generally do my two hours work & am making considerable progress in getting ready for press my “Domesticated animals & Cultivated Plants”12

My dear Lyell | Yours ever very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to the sixth edition of Lyell’s Elements of Geology (C. Lyell 1865), which was published in January 1865 (Publishers’ Circular 28: 60). See n. 10, below.
The note from Lyell and the enclosures have not been found; however, the letter indicates that the enclosures included a message from Arabella Burton Buckley (see n. 3, below), and a letter from George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll (see n. 5, below). The first extant letter in the correspondence between CD and Buckley is the letter to A. B. Buckley, 18 December [1871] (Calendar no. 6508).
CD refers to observations of the roosting habits of ‘half-bred’ carrier pigeons; CD used this information, communicated ‘through Sir C. Lyell from Miss Buckley’, in Variation 1: 181 n. 2.
CD quoted this observation, provided by Robert Scot Skirving, in a discussion of the habits of pigeons (see Correspondence vol. 8, 2d letter from R. S. Skirving, [1860?], and Variation 1: 181). See also n. 7, below.
The reference is to remarks made on the perching habits of pigeons by Campbell in a letter to Lyell dated 22 March 1865; a portion of the letter was published in I. E. Campbell ed. 1906, 2: 486. CD also refers to Jean Baptiste de Lamarck’s hypothesis of change in habits leading to progressive change in the structure of species (Lamarck 1809 and 1815–22). CD’s annotated copies of the first volume of Lamarck 1809, and of Lamarck 1815–22, and later editions, are in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 476–80).
See Variation 1: 180–1 and 222–3. CD discussed the Lamarckian theory of progressive development in Origin 3d ed., pp. xiii and 134–5, pointing out that his own theory of evolution by natural selection did not include a necessary law of change or progression (see Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 60, 222–3). CD made a further public statement emphasising this difference between Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution in his letter to the Athenæum, 18 April [1863] (Correspondence vol. 11). CD had corresponded with Lyell on Lamarckian evolution on several occasions, and in particular following the publication of Antiquity of man (C. Lyell 1863a), which CD felt had insufficiently distinguished the two theories (see Correspondence vol. 11, letter to Charles Lyell, 12–13 March [1863], and letter from Charles Lyell, 15 March 1863).
This instance of behavioural change in pigeons observed by Skirving is cited in Variation 1: 181. CD was evidently collecting information on ‘Gradation & Abnormal Habits’; see annotations to the letter from E. P. Wright, 24 March 1865 and nn. 6–8.
The reference is to Herbert Spencer’s Principles of biology (Spencer 1864–7), which was issued in instalments as a continuation of First principles (Spencer 1860–2). See also Correspondence vol. 12, letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 January 1864, and letters to J. D. Hooker, [10 and 12 January 1864] and 3 November [1864]. CD’s annotated copy of Spencer 1864–7 is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 769–73).
CD refers to number 13 of Spencer’s Principles of biology, which was published in January 1865 (Spencer 1864–7, 2: 1–80). This number contained the first part of Spencer’s discussion of morphological development in plants and animals. Joseph Dalton Hooker may have discussed Spencer’s work with CD when he visited Down House between 4 and 6 March 1865. For Hooker’s opinion of earlier instalments, see Correspondence vol. 12, letters from J. D. Hooker, 24 January 1864 and 26[–8] October 1864.
C. Lyell 1865. There is an annotated copy of this work in the Darwin Library–Down (see Marginalia 1: 524–5). For CD’s earlier comments on C. Lyell 1865, see the letter to J. D. Hooker, 15 [February 1865], and the letter to Charles Lyell, 21 February [1865].
C. Lyell 1865, pp. 578–80. In his discussion of the Laurentian series of rocks, north of the St Lawrence river, Quebec, Canada, Lyell summarised the researches of the stratigrapher William Edmond Logan. These researches were thought by some to provide evidence of life in the lower Laurentian strata dating from long before the Cambrian period. This would have confirmed CD’s suggestion in Origin, p. 307, that the presence of phosphatic nodules and bituminous matter in some of the lowest azoic rocks indicated the existence of life before the Cambrian. For CD’s interest in this discussion, see Marginalia 1: 525. See also Correspondence vol. 8, letter to Asa Gray, 25 April [1860] and n. 5, and Correspondence vol. 12, letter to A. C. Ramsay, 12 July [1864] and n. 8. CD modified the fourth edition of Origin (pp. 371–2) to incorporate Logan’s observations of the Eozoon fossils in the Laurentian series (see Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 514–15). The findings of Logan and others were, however, controversial and by 1874 CD inferred that the Laurentian did not contain organic remains (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 25 March [1874], Calendar no. 9372). CD did not change later editions of Origin. See also O’Brien 1970, and Burkhardt 1974, pp. 43–5.
The reference is to Variation; CD had been revising the early chapters since mid-November 1864, and was currently working on the chapters on domestic animals (see CD’s ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 12, Appendix II, and this volume, Appendix II)).


Mentions Miss Buckley’s information on roosting in trees [see Variation 1: 181 n.].

Refers to Duke [of Argyll] and his Lamarckian view of change.

Roosting habits and behaviour of pigeons in Egypt.

Criticises Herbert Spencer’s works.

Has finished Elements; comments on Laurentian stages.

Remarks on his health

and forthcoming work [Variation].

Letter details

Letter no.
Darwin, C. R.
Lyell, Charles
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (307)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4794,” accessed on 22 January 2017,