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Darwin Correspondence Project

To C. L. Balch   29 May 1871

Down, Beckenham, Kent,

May 29, 1871.

To Prof. Charles Balch, Corresponding Secretary New York Liberal Club:

Dear Sir:—

I write to thank you for your letter, and for informing me that the New York Liberal Club has done me the honor of electing me a member.1

You ask me to give some advice to beginners in the study of biology; but this is at all times very difficult, and scarcely possible without knowing the taste, knowledge and opportunities of the individual. I have often been asked and have generally recommended each man to follow the bent of his inclination, and investigate any point which may chance to excite his curiosity. Unless a man’s curiosity is well roused, and he has an ardent desire to understand the cause of some fact, he will hardly undertake the labor of accurate and careful investigation. Without speculation few good, or at least original discoveries have, as I believe, ever been made. Formerly, many geologists used to reprobate all speculation, but in fact they were working on other men’s speculations instead of their own; otherwise, they might as well have counted or measured all the pebbles in a gravel pit as have observed other and more important points. He who speculates much ought, however, to learn, and must learn to a certain extent, if his work is to be worth anything, to give up repeatedly and manfully his most cherished views, if facts run counter, as they generally do, against every first-formed theory. From the importance, as I hold it, of speculation for discovery, or even for good observations, I have always considered Lyell’s “Principles of Geology” as the best book for a beginner in all the branches of natural science.2

These remarks are not worth sending across the Atlantic, but I have nothing better to offer, and my time is much occupied.

I remain, dear Sir, yours very faithfully, | Ch. Darwin.


CD had taken the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of geology (Lyell 1830–3) with him on the Beagle voyage (Correspondence vol. 1); the latest edition was the tenth (Lyell 1867–8).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.

Lyell, Charles. 1867–8. Principles of geology or the modern changes of the earth and its inhabitants considered as illustrative of geology. 10th edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray.


Thanks for informing him that the New York Liberal Club has elected him a member. Responds to request to give advice to beginners in biology.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Leland Balch
Sent from
Source of text
Milwaukee Sentinel, 10 July 1871, p. 2

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7778F,” accessed on 15 April 2024,

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