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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. C. Tait   2 March 1869


March 2nd 1869

Charles Darwin Esqr., | Down | Bromley | Kent

Dear Sir,

Since writing on the 19th ultmo I have again been to S Pedro da Cova and have this time found the plant there in great abundance and enclose in this a specimen (the only one of those I found which had a flower)1   It grows on the dry hill sides with the distance of a few feet between each plant. I am afraid that you will find some difficulty in keeping this species alive as it seems to like the sun and a stony soil and the most extraordinary circumstance is that it seems to live partly on insects! A great number of flies were adhering to the gum glands of the plants and some of them appeared to be under the process of absorption.

The villagers call it “Caça-moscas” or “Fly-catcher” also “a Herva das impigems” or “the skin disease plant” but Brotero’s Portuguese name is “Herva pinheira orvalhada” or the “Dew pine grass”

The village boys told me that if hung in the cottage it caught flies and is used for that purpose and for skin diseases it is bruised in a pestel and mortar before application.2

Mr. Grant3 tells me he has tried to grow it in his garden but without success and thinks the reason of failure was the difference in quality of soil—

A plant which shrivelled up on the way home has revived in a tumbler of water and the glandular secretion has appeared again. A villager promised to bring me some live plants of this species in flower pots and I expect him on Thursday afternoon (4th.) I shall send them if possible by the “Beta” S.S. leaving on Friday or Saturday and if you have not forwarded an address in London by that date I shall ask my correspondent to take charge of them until you send for them. I should recommend great care with the soil of which I hope to send you a fair quantity. I have found a fern near our house and which Mr. Grant says is new to him and he thinks it has never been described as a portuguese fern. I enclose a small leaf hoping you will be so kind as to inform me of the name &c.4 I have collected the ferns in this neighbourhood and cultivated in our garden the Ivy leaves Fern “Asplenium palmatum”5   Some leaves have varied very much   Some are split up in all directions the lines of spores converging from the sides of the clefts (an instance of correlation perhaps) The enclosed fern varies in the number of branclets from the two lower branches—from being actually counting to three in number.6 The “Asplenium Scolopendium” Harts Tongue I have often seen split at the end—7

With regard to tail-less dogs until your letter reached me I had never read or heard of such a thing as inherited mutilations but am now much interested in the instances mentioned in your work and therefore the supposed case which I have observed seems all the more remarkable.8 Do you not think that mutilations of bone would be more likely to be inherited than flesh mutilations?

I remember my father many years ago telling me that the Chinese dwarfed trees by pruning the roots and that he thought the small mandarin Orange had been produced in this manner. Would not this also come under the catalogue of inherited mutilations? I met by chance a former owner of my tail-less pointer and he tells me that its mother was tail-less and that he is certain that my dog was born without a tail (or short tail) and that she has already had some pups without tails also—

I think that sterility of crosses between different species and also in a great measure inheritance has been fixed by natural selection to the advantage of the species.9 There would be fine confusion if all species were prolific when crossed but most of them would probably be eliminated in a very short time if not protected in an unnatural manner (such as by Domestication) from close competition with their more specially adapted neighbours. Selection (or the law of the greater being more worthy than the less) seems to have had such an eternity of time for action that I should not hesitate to ascribe to it the production of the sympathetic element in animals. It is well known that union is strength and we see instances of one society banded together under the social impulses against other societies or individuals. The only difficulty against your theory which seems to me unexplained is that mentioned by the Duke of Argyle in his “reign of law” that of beauty such as humming birds and I should like to see a satisfactory explanation given.10 I think that though selected for the benefit of the species it has had collateral effects and that beauty depends as much on our own selected senses as on the object   For instance in a book called “Helionde or Adventures in the Sun” a fanciful publication but yet very interesting   it mentions that our appreciation of the curve or line of beauty arises from the formation of the muscles of the eye11   it also depends upon our own consciousnesses which vary in different individuals hence “de gustibus non disputandum”12

Dr. Bree in his work on the “Birds of Europe” says that colour of birds is dependant on the form of the minute particles of the feathers—13 It has been suspected that taste is the appreciation of this form of minute particles of the object tasted, perhaps smell is dependant on the same process

I have seen some curious instances of varying habits with birds in a wild state with regard to nidification. There is a blackbird which has built several times in our garden and I have always found pieces of newspaper in the nest— A robin also in our garden built twice on the ground and the second time the nest was made in a minature small brick house made by a small brother of mine   it hatched the eggs and when nearly fledged the young birds fell a prey to our cat who most effectually eliminated that brood— When at school in England I met with many instances of birds making their nests on the ground contrary to the custom of the species   I have also met with small and imperfect eggs of wild birds. Heredity tends of course to make these instances rare—

I enclose some feathers of a Laughing Dove which died under my care   this bird had a deformed bill and I think that from an inability to preen its feathers properly it met its death.14 The sheath of the feather has not been taken off. This might have occurred in nature very well and been eliminated in the same manner— I have noted several similar cases of variations in tame and wild animals. I think that the laughing dove of which I possess the fawn and also the white kinds are descended from some other than the Columba Livia possibly from the turtle dove?15 The markings of the tail feathers are similar the voice (as you have noticed) and the general shape and appearance— The portuguese call the Turtle dove and the laughing dove by the same name “Rôla” (from the voice) whereas they call the pidgeon “poruba”   If it could be proved that the laughing dove was descended from the turtle dove and that the laughing dove and common pidgeon would interbreed and produce fertile offspring would it not be an interesting case of elimination of sterility of crosses between different species? White seems to be the simplest color in nature under the “least action” law otherwise why should eggs laid by wild birds in holes of trees, rocks &c. be in general white—and why should white varieties (as noticed by you) be the most constant.16

I was much interested in that portion of your “Origin of species” in which you speak of the Geological succession of life.17 Do you not think it probable that there has been variation in the situation of the axis of the earth? and that there has been a slow and regular change in the formations of the land above water and the sea the land being alternately above and below the water   the bulging out of the equator from the centrifugal force would give the varying tropical districts and would connect the New World with the Old Hemisphere— A great many small collateral circumstances make me think this but principally an explanation of the chalk formation of England in one of the Magazines also that geological deposits shew that climate of changed very much, that the sea seems to be leaving this continent and encroaching on Greenland. This is a very interesting speculation to me and I should very much like your opinion on it. Your very large experience and collected observations would render you very able to give a correct judgement

I remain | Dear Sir, | Yours very truly, | William C. Tait

CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘On Drosophyllum L    William C. Tait of Oporto.—’ ink


See letter from W. C. Tait, 19 February 1869. Tait refers to Drosophyllum lusitanicum; the flower specimen has not been found.
Tait refers to Félix de Avellar Brotero and Brotero 1804, 2: 216. Tait enclosed an extract from Brotero 1804, 2: 215–17, in his letter of 10 May 1869. CD cited Tait for parts of this information that he used in Insectivorous plants, p. 332.
Alexander Grant has not been further identified. See letter from W. C. Tait, 19 February 1869 and n. 2.
The leaf specimen has not been found.
Asplenium palmatum is a synonym of A. hemionitis (‘Feto-de-folha-de-hera’ is the Portuguese common name).
The fern specimen has not been found.
Asplenium scolopendrium is the hart’s-tongue fern.
See letter to W. C. Tait, 2 February [1869]. Tait refers to Variation 2: 22–4.
In Variation 2: 185–9, CD discussed whether the sterility of hybrids could be produced through natural selection, and concluded that, in general, it could not. For CD’s changing views on the subject of the sterility of hybrids as a selected quality, see Correspondence vol. 13, letter to M. E. Wichura, 3 February [1865] and n. 9. In 1868, CD and Alfred Russel Wallace had discussed this question extensively (see Correspondence vol. 16).
Tait refers to George Douglas Campbell, eighth duke of Argyll, and to Campbell 1867. Campbell suggested that specialised beaks did not give the greatest possible advantage to humming-birds, which had equal access to a wide range of flora, and that the rule governing the proliferation of humming-bird species had as its object rather ‘the mere multiplying of Life, and the fitting of new Forms for new spheres of enjoyment’ (Campbell 1867, pp. 241–2). For CD’s response to Campbell’s argument, see Correspondence vol. 15, letter to Charles Kingsley, 10 June [1867].
See Whiting 1855, pp. 98–9 n. 1. The concept of the ‘line of beauty’ was initially discussed by William Hogarth in The analysis of beauty (Hogarth 1753).
De gustibus non disputandum: there’s no accounting for taste (Latin).
Tait refers to Charles Robert Bree and Bree 1859–63.
The laughing dove is Streptopelia senegalensis. The enclosed feathers have not been found.
Turtle dove: Streptopelia turtur; Columba livia: the rock-pigeon. In Variation 1: 131–224, CD discussed characteristics of different domestic varieties of pigeon and concluded that they were all descended from C. livia.
For CD’s discussion of the sterility of first crosses between species, see Origin, pp. 254–67. In Variation 2: 20, CD noted that white varieties of flowers were generally the most constant.
Tait refers to chapter ten of Origin, pp. 312–45.


Sends a single specimen of Drosophyllum lusitanicum with description from F. de Avellar Brotero’s Flora Lusitanica [1804].

Discusses Portuguese ferns,

inherited mutilation,

and the earth’s geological history.

Evolution of behaviour and beauty by natural selection.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Chester Tait
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 58.1: 18a–f
Physical description
12pp †, encl 4pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6639,” accessed on 16 February 2019,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 17