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Darwin Correspondence Project

To James Shaw   11 February [1866]1

Down, Bromley,

11th Feb.

Dear Sir,—

I am much obliged to you for your kindness in sending me an abstract of your paper on beauty.2 In my opinion you take quite a correct view of the subject. It is clear that Dr. Dickson has either never seen my book, or overlooked the discussion on sexual selection.3 If you have any precise facts on birds’ ‘courtesy towards their own image in mirror or picture’ I should very much like to hear them.4 Butterflies offer an excellent instance of beauty being displayed in conspicuous parts; for those kinds which habitually display the underside of the wing have this side gaudily coloured, and this is not so in the reverse case.5 I daresay you will know that the males of many foreign butterflies are much more brilliantly coloured than the females, as in the case of birds.6 I can adduce good evidence from two large classes of facts (too large to specify), that flowers have become beautiful to make them conspicuous to insects.7

With my best thanks for your kindness and clear exposition of my views, I remain, etc., | Ch. Darwin.


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from James Shaw, 14 February 1866.
See memorandum from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866] and n. 2.
For John Dickson’s interpretation of Shaw’s paper as a challenge to CD’s transmutation theory, and for Shaw’s response, see the memorandum from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866]. CD discussed sexual selection in Origin, pp. 87–90.
See memorandum from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866].
CD later discussed this point in more detail in Descent 1: 396–7, citing A. R. Wallace 1864b.
Henry Walter Bates emphasised that the colours of butterflies were generally more beautiful in males than in females, and noted that ‘handsome’ butterflies were more numerous in tropical than in temperate zones (Bates 1863, 1: 20–1). There is an annotated copy of Bates 1863 in the Darwin Library–CUL, in which CD scored and underlined text containing this information (see Marginalia 1: 35–6). CD also received letters from Bates with information about colour in relation to sexual selection in butterflies (Correspondence vol. 9, letters from H. W. Bates, 28 March 1861 and [1 December] 1861). Later, CD wrote that colour differences between male and female butterflies were due to sexual selection acting on males, whereas females retained ‘primordial or very ancient’ colouring (Descent 1: 419). For more on beauty in birds, and the differing views of CD and George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll, on the subject, see Correspondence vol. 13, letter to Charles Lyell, 22 January [1865] and nn. 5–7.
See Origin 4th ed., p. 239; see also memorandum from James Shaw, [6–10 February 1866] and n. 7.


Bates, Henry Walter. 1863. The naturalist on the River Amazons. A record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life, and aspects of nature under the equator, during eleven years of travel. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 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.

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.

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.


Discusses beauty of birds and butterflies.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
James Shaw
Sent from
Source of text
R. Wallace ed. 1899, pp. lvi–lvii;
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5004,” accessed on 23 April 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 14