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Darwin Correspondence Project

To James Shaw   30 November 1865

Down, Bromley,

30th Nov. 1865.

Dear Sir,—

Illness has prevented me sooner thanking you for your letter on the Origin, written with so much fervour and kindness.1 I am much gratified to hear that you have been defending my views, and in your country (Scotland), those who are bold enough to take this side of the question are few and far between.2 I am so weak, I must write briefly. I have reflected much on the question of beauty.3 It is a very complicated one. I quite agree with what you say on the beauty of birds, and the same view may be extended to butterflies and some other beings.4 I think I can show that the beauty of flowers and of many kinds of fruit is solely to attract, in the former case, insects for their intercrossing, and in the latter case, to attract birds for the dissemination of the seed.5

Ch. Darwin


Shaw had defended CD’s theory of natural selection against criticisms made by George Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll, in the journal Good Words (G. D. Campbell 1865; see letter from James Shaw, 20 November 1865 and nn. 7 and 8). On the reception of the theory of natural selection in Scotland, see Correspondence vol. 10, Appendix V, Correspondence vol. 12, letter to J. D. Hooker, 5 April [1864] and n. 10, and Burkhardt 1974, pp. 67–71.
For CD’s early interest in the subject of beauty in relation to natural selection, see the letter to Charles Lyell, 22 January [1865] and n. 10.
In Origin, pp. 88–90 and 199, CD suggested that many beautiful characteristics, such as the ornamental plumage of birds, could arise through sexual selection. CD expanded his discussion of beauty in Origin 4th ed., pp. 238–41. On the subject of beauty in birds, see also the letter from Charles Lyell, 16 January 1865, n. 11, and Descent 2: 108–24. On the operation of sexual selection in butterflies, moths, and other insects, see Descent 1: 386–423.
In Orchids, pp. 346–60, CD argued that the unusual or beautiful forms of orchid flowers facilitated pollination by insects. See also Origin 4th ed., pp. 239–40, on the colour of flowers and fruit attracting insects and birds.


Burkhardt, Frederick H. 1974. England and Scotland: the learned societies. In The comparative reception of Darwinism, edited by T. F. Glick. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Campbell, George Douglas. 1865. The reign of law. Good Words (1865): 52–8, 126–33, 227–32, 269–74.

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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

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.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

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.


Gratified that JS defends views of Origin.

Thinks beauty of flowers is solely to attract insects.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
James Shaw
Sent from
Source of text
R. Wallace ed. 1899, p. lvi.
Physical description
C 1p

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4943,” accessed on 29 January 2023,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 13