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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli   12 June [1866]1

Down Bromley, | Kent S.E.

June 12

Dear Sir

I hope you will excuse the liberty which I take in writing to you. I have just read though imperfectly your “Enstehung & Begriff” & have been so greatly interested by it that I have sent it to be translated, as I am a poor German Scholar.2 I have just finished a new edition of my origin which will be translated into German,3 & my object in writing to you is to say that if you should see this edition you would think that I had borrowed from you without acknowledgement, two discussions on the beauty of flowers & fruit; but I assure you every word was printed off before I had opened your pamphlet.4 Should you like to possess a copy of either the German or English New Edition I should be proud to send one.5 I may add, with respect to the beauty of Flowers, that I have already hinted the same views as you hold in my paper on Lythrum.6

Many of your criticisms on my views are the best which I have met with, but I could answer some at least to my own satisfaction;7 & I regret extremely that I had not read your pamphlet before printing my new edition— On one or two points, I think you have a little misunderstood me, though I daresay I have not been cautious in expressing myself. The remark which has struck me most is that on the position of the leaves not having been acquired thro’ natural selection from not being of any special importance to the plant.8 I well remember being formerly troubled by an analagous difficulty, namely the position of the ovules their anatropous condition &c.9

It was owing to forgetfulness that I did not notice this difficulty in the Origin. Although I can offer no explanation of such facts, & only hope to see that they may be explained, yet I hardly see how they support the doctrine of some law of necessary development for it is not clear to me that a plant with its leaves placed at some particular angle or with its ovules in some particular position, thus stands higher than another plant.10 But I must apologise for troubling you with these remarks.

As I much wish to possess your photograph, I take the liberty of enclosing my own11 & with sincere respect I remain | Dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin.


The year is established by the reference to Nägeli 1865 and to publication of the fourth edition of Origin (see n. 3 below).
CD refers to Entstehung und Begriff der naturhistorischen Art (The origin and concept of natural historical species; Nägeli 1865), in which Nägeli discussed the mechanisms and principles operative in the development and transmutation of species; a heavily annotated copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. A handwritten English translation is also in the Darwin Archive–CUL; it contains CD’s annotations and a list of notes. The translation was probably made by Camilla Ludwig, a former governess at Down House, who was occasionally employed to translate German works (see, for example, Correspondence vol. 13, letter to Fritz Müller, 10 August [1865] and n. 1). An entry in CD’s Classed account books (Down House MS) for 16 May 1866 records a payment of £1 to ‘Miss Ludwig’ under the heading ‘Science’.
The fourth edition of Origin was published in 1866; the third German edition (Bronn and Carus trans. 1867) was based on this edition.
In the fourth edition of Origin, CD added several pages (pp. 238–41) on the subject of beauty in relation to natural selection, including a discussion (pp. 239–40) of brightly coloured flowers and fruit as adaptations for attracting insects, birds, or other animals. The same point is reiterated in the concluding chapter, p. 557. See also Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 370–1, 737. Nägeli had described observations and experiments that indicated that plants were rendered attractive to insects by their brightly coloured flowers, leaves, or fruit, or by their scent or nectar (Nägeli 1865, pp. 21–5).
Nägeli’s name is not on CD’s presentation list for the fourth edition of Origin (see Correspondence vol. 14, Appendix IV); no presentation list for the third German edition (Bronn and Carus trans. 1867) has been found.
In ‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria, CD described adaptations in flowers that facilitated pollination by insects, concluding that the features he described provided ‘one more instance of the supreme dominating power of insects over all the minor structural details of flowers’ (p. 176; Collected papers 2: 112).
Nägeli regarded natural selection as one mechanism of species development, but argued that it was insufficient by itself to explain various features of plants. For Nägeli’s criticisms of CD’s theory, see Nägeli 1865, pp. 26–30. See also letter to Fritz Müller, 23 May 1866.
In his annotated copy of Nägeli 1865, CD noted as a ‘very good objection’ the point that various morphological structures in plants, such as phyllotaxy, conferred no apparent competitive advantage and so could not have developed as a result of natural selection (Nägeli 1865, pp. 27–8). On Nägeli’s ‘misunderstanding’ of CD’s theory, see also the letter to J. V. Carus, 21 November 1866 and n. 6.
In 1863, CD had asked Daniel Oliver whether the ovules of Primula were ‘anatropal’ (inverted with respect to the funicle), or ‘amphitropal’ (attached laterally to the funicle). See Correspondence vol. 11, letter to Daniel Oliver, [12 April 1863], and letter from Daniel Oliver, 14 April 1863. See also letter to J. V. Carus, 21 November 1866.
Nägeli argued that ‘higher’ species evolved through the operation of a ‘perfectibility principle’ (‘Vervollkommnungsprincip’; what CD refers to here as a ‘law of necessary development’): a tendency within each organism to develop more complicated structures. Nägeli claimed that this principle operated in conjunction with the natural selection of useful variations (see Nägeli 1865, pp. 16–17, 28–30). CD added a discussion of Nägeli 1865 to Origin 5th ed., p. 151, noting that, according to Nägeli, natural selection would not act on the arrangement of leaves on the axis or on the position of the ovules (see Peckham ed. 1959, pp. 233–4).
CD probably sent the photograph taken by his son William Erasmus Darwin in 1864 (see Correspondence vol. 12, frontispiece and letter from W. E. Darwin, [19 May 1864]).


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–.

Nägeli, Carl Wilhelm von. 1865. Entstehung und Begriff der naturhistorischen Art. 2d edition. Munich: Verlag der königl. Akademie.

Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.

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.

‘Three forms of Lythrum salicaria’: On the sexual relations of the three forms of Lythrum salicaria. By Charles Darwin. [Read 16 June 1864.] Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany) 8 (1865): 169–96. [Collected papers 2: 106–31.]


Comments on CWvN’s Die Entstehung und Begriff [der Naturhistorischen Art (1864)].

Discussion of beauty of flowers in new edition of Origin not based on CWvN’s article.

Comments on CWvN’s argument that flower structures are not due to natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 147: 181
Physical description
C 2pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5119,” accessed on 13 April 2024,

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