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Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. R. Wallace   5 July [1866]1

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

July 5th.

My dear Wallace

I have been much interested by your letter which is as clear as daylight.2 I fully agree with all that you say on the advantages of H. Spencer’s excellent expression of “the survival of the fittest.3 This however had not occurred to me till reading your letter. It is, however, a great objection to this term that it cannot be used as a substantive governing a verb; & that this is a real objection I infer from H. Spencer continually using the words natural selection.4

I formerly thought, probably in an exaggerated degree, that it was a great advantage to bring into connection natural & artificial selection; this indeed led me to use a term in common, and I still think it some advantage. I wish I had received your letter two months ago for I would have worked in “the survival etc” often in the new edition of the Origin which is now almost printed off & of which I will of course send you a copy.5 I will use the term in my next book on Domestic Animals etc6 from which, by the way, I plainly see, that you expect much too much. The term Natural selection has now been so largely used abroad & at home that I doubt whether it could be given up, & with all its faults I should be sorry to see the attempt made. Whether it will be rejected must now depend “on the survival of the fittest”. As in time the term must grow intelligible, the objections to its use will grow weaker & weaker. I doubt whether the use of any term would have made the subject intelligible to some minds, clear as it is to others; for do we not see even to the present day Malthus on Population absurdly misunderstood.7 This reflexion about Malthus has often comforted me when I have been vexed at the misstatement of my views. As for M. Janet he is a metaphyscian & such gentlemen are so acute that I think they often misunderstand common folk.8 Your criticism on the double sense in which I have used Natural Selection is new to me and unanswerable; but my blunder has done no harm, for I do not believe that anyone excepting you has ever observed it. Again I agree that I have said too much about “favourable variations;” but I am inclined to think that you put the opposite side too strongly: if every part of every being varied, I do not think we should see the same end or object gained by such wonderfully diversified means.

I hope you are enjoying “the country & are in good health”, and are working hard at your Malay Arch. book, for I will always put this wish in every note note I write to you, like some good people always put in a text.9

My health keeps much the same or rather improves & I am able to work some hours daily.

With many thanks for your interesting letter, believe me, | my dear Wallace, yours sincerely | Ch. Darwin

P.S. I suppose you have read the last number of H. Spencer; I have been struck with astonishment at the prodigality of Original thought in it; but how unfortunate it is that it seems scarcely ever possible to discriminate between the direct effect of external influences & “the survival of the fittest”.—10


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 July 1866.
Herbert Spencer introduced the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ in Principles of biology (Spencer 1864–7, 1: 444–5). See letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 July 1866 and n. 7.
Spencer used the term ‘natural selection’ in a lengthy discussion of CD’s theory (Spencer 1864–7, 1: 445–57), and at other places in Principles of biology (for example, ibid., 1: 234, 237, 2: 273–4).
Although the printing of the fourth edition of Origin was completed in July, the publisher, John Murray, delayed publication until November 1866 (see letter from John Murray, 18 July [1866] and n. 3). Wallace’s name is on the presentation list for the fourth edition of Origin (see Correspondence vol.14, Appendix IV). On CD’s use of the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ in the fifth edition of Origin, see the letter from A. R. Wallace, 2 July 1866, n. 11.
CD used the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ six times in Variation (see Variation 1: 6, 2: 89, 192, 224, 413, 432); however, CD also defended his use of ‘natural selection’ in Variation 1: 6: ‘The term “natural selection” is in some respects a bad one, as it seems to imply conscious choice; but this will be disregarded after a little familiarity.’
CD refers to An essay on the principle of population by Thomas Robert Malthus; an annotated copy of the sixth edition (Malthus 1826) is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 562–3). CD had previously remarked on the general misunderstanding of Malthus in a letter to Charles Lyell, 6 June [1860] (Correspondence vol. 8). On the importance of Malthus’s work in the evolutionary debates of the Victorian period, see Young 1985, pp. 23–55.
Wallace was living in the Sussex village of Hurstpierpoint, the home of his father-in-law, William Mitten (Raby 2001, pp. 182–3, 187–8). CD refers to Wallace’s book on his travels to the Malay archipelago (A. R. Wallace 1869; see Correspondence vol. 13, letter to A. R. Wallace, 22 September [1865] and n. 3).
The most recent instalment of Herbert Spencer’s Principles of biology appeared in June 1866 (see Spencer 1864–7, 1: preface, 2: preface and 241–320). On Spencer’s discussion of external conditions in relation to the operation of natural selection, see the letter to J. D. Hooker, 30 June [1866] and n. 9.


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

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1826. An essay on the principle of population; or, a view of its past and present effects on human happiness; with an inquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal or mitigation of the evils which it occasions. 6th edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

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: 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.

Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. London: Chatto & Windus.

Spencer, Herbert. 1864–7. The principles of biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

Young, Robert M. 1985. Darwin’s metaphor: nature’s place in Victorian culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


CD considers "the survival of the fittest" as alternative term to "Natural Selection". Reflections upon misunderstanding and his own ambiguity.

Health improved; can now work "some hours daily".

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent from
Source of text
The British Library (Add 46434, f.70)
Physical description
LS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5145,” accessed on 21 June 2024,

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