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Darwin Correspondence Project

From John Morley   30 March 1871

Flexford House, | near Guildford.

March 30. 1871.

Dear Sir,

The objections wh. I ventured to make to your use of the word Beauty, as applied to the preferences of Birds and other non-human creatures, are not fundamentally more than differences of vocabulary. What they come to is perhaps this; The sense of Beauty in man is a synthesis of certain heterogeneous elements, including not merely peculiarities of visual sensation, wh. he might share with an Argus pheasant, but also intellectual associations, wh. the pheasant cannot have. Beauty for us men contains a notional or rational element—while in lower creatures it must be a simple sensation. Hence it seemed to me that you were taking a word with a rational feature in its connotation, and employing it of creatures in whom there is no scientific warrant for assuming that kind of rationality to lie at the bottom of their preferences.1

Again, this attribution of æsthetic sentiment, identical with ours, to birds &c. appears misleading from my point of view, because it tends to discourage the Association method of analysis and explanation with respect to our sense of the beautiful. For instance, the writer in the ‘Spectator’ found in your account of the preferences of the female pheasant an instant argument for a divinely implanted sense of beauty in birds and men;2 only this divine gift becomes weakened and blurred in men, until they acquire conscious knowledge of the laws of harmony in colour and so forth. It wd. be very hard to hold you responsible for the inferences wh. others may choose to draw from what you write. Still I was not surprised at this line of argumentation, because I felt that your attribution of aesthetic faculty proper, to birds and the rest, implies a certain absoluteness in the beautiful, an objective absoluteness, wh. is not compatible with the Associational analysis. The fact that the female Argus pheasant admires ball and socket plumage, and that cultivated men admire it too, is in my eyes an accidental coincidence; the taste of men being resolvable into various elements, and that of the pheasant being no more, so far as our knowledge goes, than an inexplicable caprice, or not a taste at all in the strictest sense. Association may explain our finding beauty in the song of the nightingale, but I wd. submit that we have no evidence that gratified sense of beauty is the source of pleasure in the female nightingale. We need a neutral word wh. shall at once cover the preference of the Argus pheasant and of the terrible Condor; and wh. shall not prejudge the philosophical question of the origin and composition of human preferences in colour, sound, form &c.

The omission of the word ‘great’ is a serious fault, and I much regret that such an error shd. have accidentally found its way into my paper.3 Should you not, however, be disposed to admit that even small changes seem very repugnant to savages? I do not quite realise to myself how, exactly, it was that this proved tenacity to use and wont in matters of physical preference, has come upon what must, at all events, have been a far wider tolerance of novelty & variation.

With reference to the third point to wh. you allude, I had already read more than twice or thrice your 5th. chapter, and I ought, no doubt, I now think, to have expounded what you say there—as a commentary explaining what you say at the end of the book   I cannot help thinking, however,—and I hope you will not Deem me too presumptuous for saying so—that you are inclined to prolong the operation of Natural Selection into times and conditions wh. belong of right to what I should call Social Selection—i.e. the selection by a community, through its current opinion, laws, institution, traditional usages, and so forth, of certain qualities and ideals of character, for admiration. The physical quality of the individual atom will be unimportant. The community is the organism, the unit. And the transmission is not physical, from father to son, but ‘in the air’ from generation to generation. That there are physical conditions cannot be doubted. But within the society itself, the characteristic habits of thought, rules of conduct, &c. are acquired through the non-physical medium of opinion, positive law &c. In the competition between integral and independent societies, wh. are even in Europe more or less in a state of nature, the principle of Natural Selection wd. of course resume.

I have put this in a very crude and slovenly manner—partly because I am ashamed to be writing to a person whose time is so valuable, at this inordinate length. Perhaps I may find occasion by and by to set out my notions more clearly in print, when I will venture to forward the result to you.

With many apologies for the length of my letter, and with profound respect, | I beg to remain, | Your’s very faithfully, | John Morley.

CD annotations

3.1 The omission … variation. 3.6] scored pencil
4.7 the selection … generation. 4.11] scored pencil; ‘good’ added pencil
4.14 In the … you. 5.4] crossed pencil
5.1 I have … to you. 5.4] ‘Your remarks on the [general] selection of form & colour I find admirable and very good | I shall be truly thankful for anything you may publish.— I daresay I have extended natural selection too far, though I have been [4 words illeg] for the strength of the [soc] selection are to be done.’4 pencil; del pencil


See enclosure to letter to Frederick Greenwood, 24 March [1871] and n. 4. Morley refers to CD’s discussion of beauty in Descent, and to his review of Descent in the Pall Mall Gazette ([Morley] 1871a).
Morley refers to the Spectator, 18 March 1871, p. 319.
CD’s annotations were probably notes for a reply to Morley, but no letter has been found. For CD’s response to a further article by Morley in the Pall Mall Gazette ([Morley] 1871b), see the letter to John Morley, 14 April [1871].


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


Questions CD’s attribution of a sense of beauty to animals and his use of natural selection to explain phenomena JM feels it more appropriate to describe as social selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Morley, Viscount Morley of Blackburn
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Flexford House
Source of text
DAR 87: 170, DAR 88: 165–6
Physical description
6pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7645,” accessed on 14 July 2020,

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