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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Ernst Haeckel   12 April [1867]1

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

Ap 12.

My dear Sir

I hope you have returned home well in health, & that you have reaped a rich harvest in natural science.2 I have been intending for some time to write to you about your great work, of which I have lately been reading a good deal.3 But it makes me almost mad with vexation that I am able to read imperfectly only 2 or 3 pages at a time. The whole book wd be infinitely interesting & useful to me. What has struck me most is the singular clearness with which all the lesser principles & the general philosophy of the subject have been thought out by you & methodically arranged. Your criticism on the struggle for existence offers a good instance how much clearer your thoughts are than mine.4

Your whole discussion on dysteologie has struck me as particularly good.5 But it is hopeless to specify this or that part; the whole seems to me excellent. It is equally hopeless to attempt thanking you for all the honours with which you so repeatedly crown me. I hope that you will not think me impertinent if I make one criticism: some of your remarks on various authors seem to me too severe; but I cannot judge well on this head from being so poor a German scholar. I have however heard complaints from several excellent authorities & admirers of your work on the severity of your criticisms.6 This seems to me very unfortunate for I have long observed that much severity leads the reader to take the side of the attacked person. I can call to mind distinct instances in which severity produced directly the opposite effect to what was intended. I feel sure that our good friend Huxley,7 though he has much influence, wd have had far more if he had been more moderate & less frequent in his attacks. As you will surely play a great part in science, let me as an older man earnestly beg you to reflect on what I have ventured to say. I know that it is easy to preach & if I had the power of writing with severity I dare say I shd triumph in turning poor devils inside out & exposing all their imbecility. Nevertheless I am convinced that this power does no good, only causes pain. I may add that as we daily see men arriving at opposite conclusions from the same premises it seems to me doubtful policy to speak too positively on any complex subject however much a man may feel convinced of the truth of his own conclusions. Now can you forgive me for my freedom? Though we have met only once I write to you as to an old friend, for I feel thus towards you.

With respect to my own book on Variation under domestication I am making slow, but sure progress in correcting the proofs. I fear that it will interest you but little, & you will be struck how badly I have arranged some of the subjects which you have discussed. The chief use of my book will be in the large accumulation of facts by which certain propositions are I think established. I have indulged in one lengthened hypothesis, but whether this will interest you or any one else, I cannot even conjecture.8

I hope before long you will write to me & tell me how you are & what you have been doing & believe me my dear Häckel yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the reference to CD’s working on the page-proofs of Variation (see CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
Haeckel had spent from November 1866 to March 1867 travelling and doing research on Tenerife and Lanzarote (see Haeckel 1867; see also letter from Ernst Haeckel, 12 May 1867).
CD had received a copy of Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie (Haeckel 1866) in late 1866 (see letter to Ernst Haeckel, 8 January 1867). There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 355–7).
CD wrote in his copy of Haeckel 1866, 2: 239: ‘good criticism on my term of struggle for existence—says ought to be confined to struggle between organisms for the same end—all other cases are dependance—Misseltoe depends on apple’ (Marginalia 1: 356).
Haeckel discussed dysteleology (‘the study of functionless rudimentary organs in animals and plants’: Chambers) in Haeckel 1866, 2: 266–85; these pages are annotated in CD’s copy in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 356–7). CD cited Haeckel for his discussion of rudimentary organs in Descent 1: 17.
Thomas Henry Huxley and Haeckel corresponded with one another; see Uschmann and Jahn 1959–60.
CD refers to Variation, and to his ‘provisional hypothesis of pangenesis’ (Variation 2: 357–404).


Chambers: The Chambers dictionary. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap Publishers. 1998.

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

Haeckel, Ernst. 1866. Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Allgemeine Grundzüge der organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, mechanisch begründet durch die von Charles Darwin reformirte Descendenz-Theorie. 2 vols. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

Haeckel, Ernst. 1867. Eine zoologischen Excursion nach den Canarischen Inseln. Jenaische Zeitschrift für Medicin und Naturwissenschaft 3: 313–28.

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.

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


Struck by singular clarity of EH’s Generelle Morphologie. Remarks on various authors seem too severe. Severity leads the reader to take the side of the attacked person.

Making slow progress in correcting Variation.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Ernst Philipp August (Ernst) Haeckel
Sent from
Source of text
Ernst-Haeckel-Haus (Bestand A-Abt. 1–52/13)
Physical description
LS 5pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5500,” accessed on 4 March 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15