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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   8 May [1868]1

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

May 8th

My dear Gray

I have been a most ungrateful & ungracious man not to have written to you an immense time ago to thank you heartily for the “Nation” & for all your most kind aid in regard to the American Edit.—2 But I have been of late overwhelmed with letters, which I was forced to answer & so put off writing to you.— This morning I received the American Edit (which looks capital), with your nice Preface for which hearty thanks. I hope to Heaven that the Book will succeed well enough to prevent you repenting of your aid. This arrival has put the finishing stroke to my conscience, which will endure its wrongs no longer.— I received, also, this morning a very pleasant & friendly letter from Mr Thurber to whom I will write in a few days.— He has sent me a bundle of the Agricult. newspaper, which seems to contain an astounding miscellany of facts & notions.—3

Your article in the Nation seems to me very good & you give an excellent idea of Pangenesis,—an infant cherished by few as yet, except his tender parent, but which will live a long life. There is parental presumption for you!4 You give a good slap at my concluding metaphor: undoubtedly I ought to have brought in & contrasted natural & artificial selection; but it seemed so obvious to me that nat. selection depended on contingencies even more complex than those which must have determined the shape of each fragment at the base of my precipice.— What I wanted to show was that in reference to preordainment whatever holds good in the formation of a pouter pigeon holds good in the formation of a natural species of Pigeon. I cannot see that this is false. If the right variations occurred & no others natural selection wd be superfluous.—5

A Reviewer in an Edinburgh paper, who treats me with profound contempt, says on this subject that Prof. Asa Gray could with the greatest ease smash me into little pieces.6

Believe me, my dear Gray | Your ungrateful but sincere friend | Charles Darwin.


The year is established by the reference to Gray’s review of Variation in Nation ([A. Gray] 1868; see n. 2, below).
Gray had been invited to review Variation for Nation in September 1867 ([A. Gray] 1868; see Correspondence vol. 15, letter from Asa Gray, [after 17 September 1867]). See also letter from Asa Gray, 24 February 1868. CD’s lightly annotated copy is at DAR 226.1: 99–100.
See letter from George Thurber, 18–20 April 1868. CD’s letter to Thurber has not been found; however, see CD’s annotation to Thurber’s letter. CD’s copy of the US edition of Variation has not been found in the Darwin Libraries at Down or CUL; his copies of the American Agriculturist have not been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL.
Gray summarised CD’s hypothesis of pangenesis, discussed in Variation 2: 357–404, in his review in Nation, pp. 235–6.
In Variation 2: 430–1, CD had used as a metaphor for variation and selection the building of a ‘noble and commodious edifice’ from randomly shaped fragments of stone found at the base of a precipice. Gray had quoted the passage, adding: in Mr. Darwin’s parallel, to meet the case in nature according to his own view of it, not only the fragments of rock (answering to variation) should fall, but the edifice (answering to natural selection) should rise, irrespective of will and choice! CD had gone on (Variation 2: 432) to question Gray’s belief that variation had been ‘led along certain beneficial lines’, on the grounds that if a Creator had preordained each variation, then the ‘plasticity of organistion’, which led to many injurious variations, and the excessive power of reproduction, which led to a struggle for existence, would be ‘superfluous laws of nature’. Gray had commented in his review: ‘not superfluous, surely, if “survival of the fittest,” “excellent co-ordination,” and all the harmonious adaptation and diversity we behold are to result from the operation of those very laws’. ([A. Gray] 1868, p. 236.) CD scored this passage in his copy of the review (see n. 2, above).
The Daily Review, an Edinburgh newspaper (North 1989, 1: 341–2), carried a review of Variation on 27 April 1868; CD’s copy is in DAR 226.1: 41–2. The reviewer commented, ‘We doubt not that Professor Asa Gray … could show that natural selection, supposing it proved as operative, is simply an instrument in the hands of an omnipotent and omniscient Creator.’ The reviewer has not been identified.


AG’s review of Variation [Nation 6 (1868): 234–6] very good.

CD’s fondness for Pangenesis; although an "infant cherished by few", CD expects it to have a long life.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (94)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6167,” accessed on 28 June 2017,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16