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Darwin Correspondence Project


From James Shaw   20 November 1865

Tynron Parish School | Dumfriesshire.

Novr. 20— 1865.


Here in the solitude of a remote glen your noble work has reached me and is another proof to me that the Age of Romance has not perished but that Truth is indeed stranger than Fiction.1 You have given articulation to a thousand things lying dumb within me. When the Vestiges was attacked by friends and foes I used to skirmish in its defence2 (vide my letter pub. by Lewis then Ed. of the Leader)3 but never at least within the present century did I expect so scientific an exposition of the grandest general facts—of the deepest truth—yet presented to the human mind to contemplate. Never before have I conceived so clearly the wonderful relation of the individual to the august whole. Those dim ages when nature was silently strewing on her barren shores the dust of future continents and making out of her dead organisms quarries from which Ionic & Doric columns should be wrought are no longer in imagination spectral gleams but wear rather all the interest of history. I am a Man, said the Roman, and everything human has an interest for me.4 I a humble student of that Nature with which we are all so strangely knit and everything natural has an interest for me. The comparative anatomy of brain or pelvis—a thousand things hard to understand—hard to attract—have now by a light which never before shone on sea or land assumed a meaning and an interest which never attached to them before. Newton’s ocean of wonder on whose shore he gathered shells seems no longer a dark unnavigable sea crested with howling breakers.5 Here and there through its awful bosom the strong vision with which you have supplied us enables us to see at least that there are other islands whose conditions are explicable by our own. It was a grand moment in the history of discovery when Lord Rosse was able to stand at one end of his magnificent tube and command the belt of Orion to swim forward millions of leagues nearer him as it were through unfathomable Space.6 Grander still was that hour when using the plumb-line of generalization you enabled us to dip back into the far Past and bring it home to our hearths and our hearts. Wisdom says the inspired man dwelt with the Creator ere he laid the foundations of the world. By wisdom, toil, patience, perseverance the race has arrived at a point when a foremost man here and there looking back from the amazing pinnacle, can construct a chart of the lands over which Life has travelled and of the epochs through which it has progressed, and then spreading his wings in flight can conduct us through those unvisited regions until we stand like archangels at the gates of morning and at the Creation of rock of river and of hill, & of the tenants which therein are.

Some strictures were lately passed on your hypothesis by the Duke of Argyll.7 I endeavoured to point out where his Lordship was at fault.8 Of some of my objections to his criticism he took notice but to other of my objections he was silent. Out of that communication there is only one suggestion which I think is worth transmitting to you, but if the smallest scintillation of mine is acceptable for the light which you have shed on me you are welcome.

His Lordship (vide Good Words 1865) is puzzled to understand why there is so much beauty in the world—beauty in the shell—beauty in the flower—exquisite beauty, wonderful patterns of colour, in the plumes of humming birds. Then he proceeds to account for it not on your hypothesis but on the hypothesis that beauty affords a direct pleasure to its creator, remarking that your hypothesis is not yet wide enough to treat this subject. Now I have no objection to the Creator being delighted with beauty and making it to please himself, but not being taken in to his confidence at the creation of it, I cannot give an opinion on the subject.9

But to return to observation. Does his Grace deny all sense or love of beauty in the brutes? (To this query he returns no answer) Comte says the religion of brutes is the reverence gratitude and obedience which they display towards their masters.10 If dogs be credited with religion why should birds be denied all aesthetical faculty? Birds like benighted Africans are fond of glittering pieces. Witness how larks in France are caught by twirling for them. The gorgeous Birds of Paradise are extremely attentive to their plumage and exceedingly sensitive concerning its cleaness &c &c   His Grace points to the savage as an example of the width of range of the love of ornament,11 and Carlyle suggests that rather than the desire of comfort the love of ornament was the first step towards clothes.12 Strange if a passion diffused throughout all humanity should have no counterpart in other regions of life. Beauty like song is developed in the male chiefly at the breeding season. If the female give preference to the male of gaudiest hue or richest plumage it will be a chance for the preservation of such. The question propounded concerning the beautiful in Nature is I grant wider than this answer—but I think this answer ought not to be forgot in favour of your hypothesis.

I am, | Sir, | Yours most respectfully, | Jas. Shaw.

Charles Darwin Esqre. F.RS.

I had yr address as given in a letter to the Athenaeum but have laid it aside therefore I have taken the liberty of sending this on to your publisher.13 J.S.


Shaw refers to Origin.
First published anonymously, The vestiges of the natural history of creation ([Chambers] 1844) presented a continuous, progressive view of development in accordance with natural laws and divine purpose. The work gave rise to extensive public debate, and successive editions were published in the 1840s and 1850s responding to criticisms. On the controversial reception of Vestiges and the speculation about its author, see J. Secord 2000. For CD’s assessment of the book, see Correspondence vols. 3 and 4, Correspondence vol. 5, letter to T. H. Huxley, 2 September [1854], and the ‘historical sketch’ added to the third and subsequent editions of Origin.
George Henry Lewes was one of the founders and editors of the Leader, a radical weekly journal published in London (DNB; see also J. Secord 2000, pp. 483–4). Shaw’s letter appeared in the 24 September 1853 issue of the journal, in response to a lengthy review of the tenth edition of Vestiges by Lewes (Lewes 1853). Shaw defended the view that ‘the progression (of animal life)’ was ‘the result of an aspiration towards new and superior fields of existence’ (see R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. lii–liv).
Shaw refers to a famous line from the play The self-tormentor, by the Roman dramatist Terence: ‘homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto’ (77).
Shaw alludes to the remarks of Isaac Newton, which were published in his memoirs (Brewster ed. 1855, 2: 407): I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.
William Parsons, third earl of Rosse, designed and constructed large reflecting telescopes, and made detailed observations of nebulae (DNB).
In his article ‘The reign of law’ in the religious weekly Good Words, George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll, had criticised CD’s theory of natural selection for failing to explain adequately the beauty and variety in nature (G. D. Campbell 1865, p. 231): The evidence is indeed abundant, that ornament and variety are provided for in nature for themselves and by themselves, separate from all other use whatever. Any theory on the origin of species which is too narrow to hold this fact, must be taken back for enlargement and repair. Campbell had made the same criticism in his address to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 5 December 1864 (G. D. Campbell 1864). For a discussion of Campbell’s address and CD’s response, see the letter from Charles Lyell, 16 January 1865 and nn. 6–11, and the letter to Charles Lyell, 22 January [1865] and nn. 5–14.
No published reply by Shaw to G. D. Campbell 1865 has been found; however, Campbell is listed as a correspondent of Shaw’s (R. Wallace ed. 1899, p. xxiv).
Shaw refers to G. D. Campbell 1865, pp. 227–32; see also n. 7, above. In an undated autobiographical note, Shaw remarked that he had written this letter to CD without having read the discussion of sexual selection in Origin (R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. lv–lvi).
In his most extended discussion of the origins of religion, the French philosopher and founder of positivism, Auguste Comte, drew an analogy between the love and devotion felt by domestic animals for their human masters, and the worship of gods and angels by humans (Comte 1851–4, 1: 496). Shaw is described as being ‘for a great many years a pronounced Positivist’ (R. Wallace ed. 1899, xxii). On the reception of Comte’s writings on religion in Britain, see T. R. Wright 1986.
Campbell referred to the ‘habits of the rudest savage’, who covered ‘with elaborate carving the handle of his war-club’, as illustrating the universal love of ornament (G. D. Campbell 1865, p. 230).
In Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle wrote: ‘The first purpose of Clothes, as our Professor imagines, was not warmth or decency, but ornament’ ([Carlyle] 1838, p. 37).
Shaw refers to the Athenæum and to CD’s publisher, John Murray.

Letter details

Letter no.
Shaw, James
Darwin, C. R.
Sent from
Tynron Parish School
Source of text
DAR 177: 149
Physical description


Praises CD’s theory.

Comments on criticism of CD’s work by Duke of Argyll.

Beauty in nature as caused by sexual selection.

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4939,” accessed on 14 February 2016,