skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

To Nature   [before 13 February 1873]1

Inherited Instinct

The following letter seems to me so valuable, and the accuracy of the statements vouched for by so high an authority, that I have obtained permission from Dr. Huggins2 to send it for publication. No one who has attended to animals either in a state of nature or domestication will doubt that many special fears, tastes, &c., which must have been acquired at a remote period, are now strictly inherited. This has been clearly proved to be the case by Mr. Spalding with chickens and turkeys just born, in his admirable article recently published in Macmillan’s Magazine.3 It is probable that most inherited or instinctive feelings were originally acquired by slow degrees through habit and the experience of their utility; for instance the fear of man, which as I showed many years ago, is gained very slowly by birds on oceanic islands.4 It is, however, almost certain that many of the most wonderful instincts have been acquired independently of habit, through the preservation of useful variations of pre-existing instincts. Other instincts may have arisen suddenly in an individual and then been transmitted to its offspring, independently both of selection and serviceable experience, though subsequently strengthened by habit. The tumbler-pigeon is a case in point, for no one would have thought of teaching a pigeon to turn head over heels in the air; and until some bird exhibited a tendency in this direction, there could have been no selection.5 In the following case we see a specialised feeling of antipathy transmitted through three generations of dogs, as well as to some collateral members of the same family, and which must have been acquired within a very recent period. Unfortunately it is not known how the feeling first arose in the grandfather of Dr. Huggins’s dog. We may suspect that it was due to some ill-treatment; but it may have originated without any assignable cause, as with certain animals in the Zoological Gardens, which, as I am assured by Mr. Bartlett,6 have taken a strong hatred to him and others without any provocation. As far as it can be ascertained, the great-grandfather of Dr. Huggins’s dog did not evince the feeling of antipathy, described in the following letter.

Charles Darwin


“I wish to communicate to you a curious case of an inherited mental peculiarity. I possess an English mastiff, by name Kepler, a son of the celebrated Turk out of Venus.7 I brought the dog, when six weeks old, from the stable in which he was born. The first time I took him out he started back in alarm at the first butcher’s shop he had ever seen. I soon found he had a violent antipathy to butchers and butchers’ shops. When six months old, a servant took him with her on an errand. At a short distance before coming to the house, she had to pass a butcher’s shop; the dog threw himself down (being led with a string), and neither coaxing nor threats would make him pass the shop. The dog was too heavy to be carried; and as a crowd collected, the servant had to return with the dog more than a mile, and then go without him. This occurred about two years ago. The antipathy still continues, but the dog will pass nearer to a shop than he formerly would. About two months ago, in a little book on dogs published by Dean, I discovered that the same strange antipathy is shown by the father, Turk.8 I then wrote to Mr. Nichols, the former owner of Turk,9 to ask him for any information he might have on the point. He replied—‘I can say that the same antipathy exists in King, the sire of Turk, in Turk, in Punch (son of Turk, out of Meg) and in Paris (son of Turk, out of Juno). Paris has the greatest antipathy, as he would hardly go into a street where a butcher’s shop is, and would run away after passing it. When a cart with a butcher’s man came into the place where the dogs were kept, although they could not see him, they all were ready to break their chains. A master-butcher, dressed privately, called one evening on Paris’s master to see the dog. He had hardly entered the house before the dog (though shut in) was so much excited that he had to be put into a shed, and the butcher was forced to leave without seeing the dog. The same dog at Hastings made a spring at a gentleman who came into the hotel. The owner caught the dog and apologised, and said he never knew him to do so before, except when a butcher came to his house. The gentleman at once said that was his business. So you see that they inherit these antipathies, and show a great deal of breed.’

William Huggins”


The date is established by the publication date of the letter in Nature.
William Huggins.
Douglas Alexander Spalding, in an article on instinct in young animals, had described his observations on the faculties of newly hatched chickens in an attempt to show that much of their behaviour was instinctive (Spalding 1873b).
CD discussed the lack of fear of birds on remote islands in Journal of researches, p. 455, and developed his view further in Origin, p. 212, noting that some species in places where they had not been hunted by humans were relatively unafraid.
In Origin, p. 214, CD discussed the development of tumbling in the tumbler pigeon as an example of selection of a naturally occurring trait. See also Natural selection, pp. 485–6.
Abraham Dee Bartlett was superintendent of the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park, London.
Turk was an English mastiff born in 1865 who greatly influenced the development of the breed (Lee [1899], pp. 20–1).
Huggins refers to Dogs: their points, whims, instincts and peculiarities (Webb ed. [1872]), published by Dean & Son. The reference to Turk’s antipathy to butchers is on p. 119.
Edwin Nichols (C. H. Lane 1900, p. 351).


Sends a letter from William Huggins about a case of inherited fright in three generations of mastiffs. Discusses the different origins of instincts and their inheritance.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
Nature, 13 February 1873, pp. 281–2

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8765,” accessed on 25 June 2018,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21