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Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. R. Wallace   28 August [1872]1

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

Aug 28.

My dear Wallace,

I have at last finished the gigantic job of reading Dr. Bastian’s book, & have been deeply interested by it. You wished to hear my impression, but it is not worth sending.2

He seems to me an extremely able man, as indeed I thought when I read his first essay.3 His general argument in favour of Archebiosis4 is wonderfully strong, tho’ I cannot think much of some few of his arguments. The result is that I am bewildered & astonished by his statements, but am not convinced; tho’ on the whole it seems to me probable that Archebiosis is true. I am not convinced partly I think owing to the deductive cast of much of his reasoning; & I know not why but I never feel convinced by deduction even in the case of H. Spencer’s writings.5

If Dr. B’s book had been turned upside down, & he had begun with the various cases of Heterogenesis,6 & then gone on to organic & afterwards, to saline solutions, & had then given his general arguments, I shd. have been I believe much more influenced. I suspect however that my chief difficulty is the effect of old convictions being stereotyped on my brain. I must have more evidence that germs or the minutest fragments of the lowest forms are always killed by 212o of Fahrt. Perhaps the mere reiteration of the statements given by Dr. B, by other men whose judgment I respect & who have worked long on the lower organisms, wd. suffice to convince me.7

Here is a fine confession of intellectual weakness; but what an inexplicable frame of mind is that of belief.

As for Rotifers & Tardigrades being spontaneously generated, my mind can no more digest such statements, whether true or false, than my stomach can digest a lump of lead.

Dr. B. is always comparing Archebiosis as well as growth to crystallzation but on this view a Rotifer or Tardigrade is adapted to its humble conditions of life by a happy accident; & this I cannot believe.8 That observations of the above nature may easily be altogether wrong is well shewn by Dr. B. having declared to Huxley that he had watched the entire developement of a leaf of Sphagnum.9 He must have worked with very impure materials in some cases, as plenty of organisms appeared in a saline solution not containing an atom of Nitrogen.

I wholly disagree with Dr. B. about many points in his latter chapters. Thus the frequency of generalised forms in the older strata seem to me clearly to indicate the common descent with divergence of more recent forms.10 Notwithstanding all his sneers I do not strike my colours as yet about Pangenesis.11 I shd. like to live to see Archebiosis proved true, for it wd. be a discovery of transcendent importance; or if false I shd like to see it disproved, & the facts otherwise explained; but I shall not live to see all this. If ever proved Dr. B. will have taken a prominent part in the work. How grand is the onward rush of Science; it is enough to console us for the many errors which we have committed & for our efforts being overlaid & forgotten in the mass of new facts & new views which are daily turning up.

This is all I have to say about Dr B.’s book, & it certainly has not been worth saying. Nevertheless reward me whenever you can by giving me any news about your appointment to the Bethnal Green Museum12

My dear Wallace | Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 4 August 1872.
Wallace had praised Henry Charlton Bastian’s The beginning of life (H. C. Bastian 1872) in his letter of 4 August 1872. CD’s annotated copy of Bastian 1872 is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 34).
CD refers to Bastian’s paper on Nematoids (nematode worms), ‘Monograph on the Anguillulidæ’ (H. C. Bastian 1864). On the favourable reception of Bastian’s early work, see Strick 2000, pp. 65–7.
Bastian urged the rejection of the more common phrase ‘spontaneous generation’ and the adoption of the term archeobiosis to describe the origin of life ‘de novo owing to the occurrence of certain new molecular combinations’. The word derives from the Greek ‘arche’ (beginning) and ‘bios’ (life). See H. C. Bastian 1872, 1: 232, 243–4.
Bastian cited Herbert Spencer’s Principles of biology (Spencer 1864–7) extensively in H. C. Bastian 1872.
Bastian described three modes of ‘heterogenetic’ reproduction: 1. ‘from a portion of living matter of a pre-existing organism’ 2. ‘by a molecular metamorphosis of the matter of an entire organism’ and 3. ‘by the metamorphosis and fusion of many minute organisms’ (H. C. Bastian 1872, 1: 252).
Bastian claimed that organisms appeared in closed flasks after they had been exposed to temperatures of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, the boiling point of water. He added that similar results had been obtained by other experimenters, such as Louis Pasteur and Jeffries Wyman (H. C. Bastian 1872, 1: vii). For CD’s earlier reservations about Bastian’s experiments, see Correspondence vol. 18, letter to J. D. Hooker, 12 July [1870].
Bastian compared the origins of the lowest organisms to the formation of crystals (H. C. Bastian 1872, 2: 72–85). He claimed that microscopic animals of the phyla Rotifera and Tardigrada evolved through the fusion of lower forms of life, independently of environmental conditions (see ibid., pp. 501–24, 570).
Thomas Henry Huxley had identified as Sphagnum (peat moss) one of the organisms that Bastian claimed had been generated spontaneously in a test tube (see Correspondence vol. 18, letter to J. D. Hooker, 8 July [1870]).
Bastian claimed that simpler, more generalised forms of life could generate more complex forms rapidly through ‘heterogenesis’ at any point in time (H. C. Bastian 1872, 2: 558–63, 568). Evolution was thus not necessarily a process of descent from ancient, simpler forms to more specialised organisms, but rather ‘a continual surging up through all geologic time of freshly evolved, lower forms of life’ (ibid., p. 620).
Bastian described CD’s hypothesis of pangenesis (see Variation 2: 357–404) as ‘a relic of the old, rather than a fitting appendage of the new Evolution philosophy’ (H. C. Bastian 1872, 2: 98; see also 2: 603). For Bastian’s extended discussion of CD’s work, see ibid., pp. 572–604).
The Bethnal Green Museum in east London, a branch of the South Kensington Museum, opened in June 1872 (Dickens 1879). Wallace had been hoping for a position at the Museum since 1869, when land was first acquired for the site. See Correspondence vol. 17, letter to A. R. Wallace, 25 June [1869] and n. 8.


Bastian, Henry Charlton. 1864. Monograph on the Anguillulidæ, or free nematoids, marine, land and freshwater, with descriptions of 100 new species. [Read 1 December 1864.] Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 25 (1865–6): 73–184.

Bastian, Henry Charlton. 1872. The beginnings of life: being some account of the nature, modes of origin and transformations of lower organisms. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

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

Dickens, Charles. 1879. Dickens’s dictionary of London, 1879: an unconventional handbook. London: Charles Dickens.

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.

Spencer, Herbert. 1864–7. The principles of biology. 2 vols. London: Williams & Norgate.

Strick, James. 2000. Sparks of life: Darwinism and the Victorian debates over spontaneous generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Detailed response to reading of Bastian’s Beginnings of life [1872]. On the whole, it seems probable to CD that spontaneous generation is true.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent from
Source of text
The British Library (Add MS 46434)
Physical description
LS 7pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8488,” accessed on 18 May 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20