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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Rolleston   20 April 1870

April 20. 1870.

My dear Sir,

I write to thankyou for your kind note. Especially am I gratified by your recognition of the heaviness of the labour which the writing of the book entailed.1 Much the same, I am sure, is true of the reading, and I therefore beg that you will not waste your valuable time upon it— If however you will look at two “special Phylogenies” of mine which may be found at pages 138 and 152 of the Descriptions I should be glad. They are in the notes—2

What I say of the “problematical” character of such “special Phylogenies” at p. xxv. was prompted by the reading of Haeckel’s and of Semper’s speculations as to the Pedigrees of so many animals.3 Much of the entire mass of some of Haeckel’s writing, is made up of hypotheses of this kind; and as I am sure he is quite wrong in much of his speculation as to ancestry, I think other men may go equally astray wasting time and thought which might be spent otherwise more profitably.

May I ask you to put your pen on that same p. xxv through the words “the value of the” which come before the words “Special Phylogenies”. The sentence is now ungrammatical, having been made so in the correction of the proofs by the very (under other circumstances) proper substitution of the words “are likely to” for the words “must always”— The obliteration of the words “the value of the” will make the sentence decent which, as it stands, it is not.4

I am | Yours very Truly | George Rolleston


CD’s note to Rolleston has not been found, but evidently concerned Rolleston 1870b (Forms of animal life). There is an annotated copy of Rolleston 1870b in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 713–14).
The ‘special phylogenies’ were long notes on pp. 38–9 and 152–7 concerning the derivation of the Hirudineae (now the subclass Hirudinea, leeches) and the subkingdom (now subphylum) Echinodermata.
In Rolleston 1870b, p. xxv, Rolleston wrote: In the face, on the one hand, of our knowledge of the greatness of the unlikeness, which may be compatible with specific identity; and, on the other, of our ignorance of the entirety of the geological record, the value of the special ‘Phylogenies,’ or hypothetical genealogical pedigrees, reaching far out of modern periods, are likely to remain in the very highest degree arbitrary and problematical. Rolleston refers to Ernst Haeckel and the genealogies in his Generelle Morphologie (Haeckel 1866), and to Karl Gottfried Semper and probably to the first volume, on holothurians, of his Reisen im Archipel des Philippinen (Semper et al. 1868–1916). See also Nyhart 1995, p. 177.
See quotation in n. 3, above.


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.

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.

Nyhart, Lynn K. 1995. Biology takes form. Animal morphology and the German universities, 1800–1900. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.


Asks CD to look at the "special phylogonies" on pp. 138 and 152 of his book [Forms of animal life (1870)]. His comments are based on reading Haeckel, who is highly speculative and quite wrong.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Rolleston
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 209
Physical description
ALS 3pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7168,” accessed on 14 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18