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Darwin Correspondence Project

From E. J. Pfeiffer   [before 26 April 1871]1

Mayfield, West Hill, | Putney, S.W.


I have been reading your work on the “Descent of Man” with absorbing interest. Forgive me if as a stranger I offer a remark on that part of it which relates to the decoration of birds.2 I think I do not err in imagining that you yourself feel some diffidence in crediting these creatures with the high æsthetic instincts needful to account for ornamentation such as that found on the wings of the Argus pheasant, if the sense of beauty is assumed to be the sole worker towards this end.3 Could it not be that beauty, when of a nature thus recondite, has been only an incidental result, while the end towards which sexual selection has directly tended has been the perfecting of characters calculated simply to fascinate or allure? It seems to me that this is not a too nice distinction: that beauty does not necessarily fascinate, & that fascination does not always imply beauty; furthermore that powers far less advanced are needed for the subjection of the faculties to a spell than for any degree of deliberate appreciation. That the lower animals are preeminently liable to fascination in this restricted sense is shown in the paralysing effect of the eyes of snakes. Might not the plumage of the male Argus pheasant, with its balls trembling in their dusky sockets, exercise upon the female bird when cunningly exhibited before her, a sort of glamour akin to this? Fascination inviting in the one case to death, in the other to love & life, may be supposed to be painful or pleasurable according to its object.

I will not further intrude upon time which is so nobly occupied, but remain Sir | Yours with much esteem | Emily Pfeiffer


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter to E. J. Pfeiffer, 26 April [1871].
CD discussed the elaborate displays of male birds for females with respect to the sense of beauty in Descent 1: 63–5 and 2: 71–9, 86–98.
CD discussed the ornamentation of the argus pheasant in Descent 2: 91–3 and 123–4.


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


Suggests aesthetic sense in animals is merely secondary to sexual selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Emily Jane Pfeiffer
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 174: 40
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7411,” accessed on 21 January 2022,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19