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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [5 and 7 October 1842]

As to species of coral I suspect some West Indian and Indian are the same!— But corals alter their habit so greatly according to where they grow, that the subject, will, I fear, for a long time be involved in great obscurity. The Habits of the animals are even less known than their structure & till within these 5 or 6 last years, this was saying, that scarcely anything was known.— For instance, I believe part of the genus Millepora is (as is admitted with the Nulliporæ)1 plants.

Crescent Isld is one of the Dangerous or Low Archipelago

With respect to the dead reefs I do not think the difficulty nearly so great as you do. Of their existence I cannot doubt, especially in the Chagos Group, after the clear & positive accounts of Capt. Moresby.—2 If Coral-reefs were as general on shores in tropical seas, as vegetation, is on the land, I would admit your metaphor & the difficulty. But we have hundreds of miles of shore in the same great ocean—& all the shores in other oceans—single islands and archipelagoes in seas, where coral-reefs abound, either entirely (or nearly so) destitute of reefs, & yet where the obvious external conditions, which are favourable to their growth, are present. Corals—require food,—why should not an increase of small crustaceæ in the sea, or actiniæ on the shore &c &c during gradual changes in progress, cause corals to cease to flourish in certain areas.— I should even say, that as we see that the presence of reefs is not universal, we ought to expect to find that those same causes, which determine their absence ab origini in some place, should have destroyed them in others—& we find, that when not wholly destroyed, they generally have perished on that side, viz to leeward, where they always seem to flourish least.

I will keep this letter, till my return from the Council where I go tomorrow. Once again thank you for your letter.— Friday morning

The Council sat from three to 512, discussing candidates merits,3 of whom Martin of Zoolog. Soc4 was best.— nothing avowedly was settled. The principal business was Mr. Charlsworth— it is extraordinary the zeal with which he & his friends have canvassed all Geological England, attributing in plain words to the Council private grounds of rejection. Austen5 laid before the Council a letter which he had received from a stranger on this subject.— There was long discussion on what steps to take. It was urged, to send a circular to the fellows with a brief statement of their views, assigning as cause the circulars which are going the round with false statements. I was strongly for this at first, but I believe we decided with more dignity against it & a committee has been appointed to draw up a full & clear statement with copies of letters &c to be laid before next Council.— Charlsworth has written most absurd letter to Council, in fact challenging Buckland you & Owen to argue whole old question6 before the meeting!.— He has persuaded Henslow to send a testimonial in favour of him!— I think the Society will have a struggle My Father quotes often from my grandfather a common-place remark that it is not the wise who rule the unwise in this world, but the active rule the inactive—and verily Charlsworth is of the active Class. A new splendid gigantic Part of vol. of Geol Transact was laid before us—price 1£.16s or 1£’18s I forget which, was settled, & as was justly remarked it will make no kind of difference in the numbers of Purchasers.—

I had long talk with Lonsdale on Friday— I have not for years seen him so cheerful, or I might say I never saw him really cheerful before. He says he has just written to you. His setting to work at corals as an avowed return for the sum presented to him is a noble return & is one which will, I think, especially please you. He is evidently deeply gratified by the Present.7

I had some talk with Murchison, who has been a flying visit into Wales & he can see no traces of glaciers, but only of the trickling of water & of the roots of the Heath!. It is enough to make an extraneous man think geology from beginning to end a work of imagination & not founded on observation. Lonsdale, I observe, pays Buckland & myself the compliment, of thinking Murchison not seeing as worth nothing.8 But I confess I am astonished, so glaringly clear after two or three days did the evidence appear to me.— Have you seen last New Eding. Phil. it is ice & glaciers almost from beginning to end.—9 Agassiz says he saw (& has laid down) the two lower terraces of Glen Roy in the valley of the Spean, opposite mouth of Glen Roy itself, where no one else has seen them.10 I carefully examined that spot, owing to two sheep-tracks nearly but not quite parallel to the terrace,—so much again for difference of observation.— I do not pretend to say who is right.— I hope MrsLyell, who will read aloud all this, will excuse its length.— Emma & baby are going on fairly well & Willy is twice as strong as he was in London.

C. Darwin


Both millepores and nullipores were originally classed as animals and grouped with the zoophytes, but nullipores were subsequently recognised as lime-secreting algae.
When William Lonsdale retired as Curator of the Geological Society, a number of individuals applied for the position. Edward Charlesworth’s application had already been rejected, but his supporters managed to have a Special Meeting of the Council called to reconsider the question (see Woodward 1907, p. 148).
William Charles Linnaeus Martin had served as superintendent of the museum of the Zoological Society, 1830–8.
Robert Alfred Cloyne Austen.
The ‘old question’ concerned Charlesworth’s challenge of Lyell’s dating of the Norfolk Crag formations (see letter from Charles Lyell, 29 August and 5 September 1837, n. 9).
See letter to W. H. Fitton, 23 June 1842. For R. I. Murchison’s disbelief in Welsh glaciers see Murchison 1843. See also Davies 1969, pp. 287–94.
The October issue of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal contained a reprint of CD’s ‘Notes on the effects produced by the ancient glaciers of Caernarvonshire’ as well as articles by Louis Agassiz and James David Forbes.
L. Agassiz 1842, pp. 236–7 and plate 4.


‘Ancient glaciers of Caernarvonshire’: Notes on the effects produced by the ancient glaciers of Caernarvonshire, and on the boulders transported by floating ice. By Charles Darwin. Philosophical Magazine 3d ser. 21 (1842): 180–8. [Shorter publications, pp. 140–7.]

Moresby, Robert. 1840. Nautical directions for the Maldiva Islands and the Chagos Archipelago … Printed by order of the Court of Directors of the Hon. East India Company. London.

Murchison, Roderick Impey. 1843. Anniversary address of the president. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London 4 (1838–42): 65–151. [Vols. 2,9]

Woodward, Horace B. 1907. The history of the Geological Society of London. London: Geological Society.


Discusses growth of various species of coral. Explains significance of dead reefs.

Describes meeting of the Council of the Geological Society; the controversy involving Edward Charlesworth.

Mentions conversations with William Lonsdale about Lonsdale’s work on corals and the financial support for his work.

Murchison’s views on glaciation in Wales.

Agassiz’s observations at Glen Roy.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.28)
Physical description
ALS 10pp inc

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 649,” accessed on 24 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 2