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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Alpheus Hyatt   13 February 1877

Down, | Beckenham, Kent. | Railway Station | Orpington. S.E.R.

Feb 13. 77

Dear Sir,

I thank you for your very kind, long & interesting letter1   The case is so wonderful & difficult that I dare not express any opinion on it. Of course I regret that Hilgendorf has been proved to be so greatly in error, but it is some selfish comfort to me that I always felt so much misgiving that I never quoted his paper.2 The variability of these shells is quite astonishing, & seems to exceed that of Rubus or Hieracium amongst plants.3 The result which surprises me most is that the same form should be developed from various & different progenitors. This seems to show how potent are the conditions of life, irrespectively of the variations being in any way beneficial. The production of a species out of a chaos of varying forms reminds me of Nägelis conclusion as deduced from the study of Hieracium that this is the common mode in which species arise.4 But I still continue to doubt much on this head, & cling to the belief expressed in the first edit of the Origin that protean or Polymorphic species are those which are now varying in such a manner that the variations are neither advantageous nor disadvantageous.5 I am glad to hear of the Brunswick deposit, as I feel sure that the careful study of such cases is highly important.6

I hope that the Smithsonian Institn. will publish your memoir,7 & I remain | dear Sir | Yours faithfully | Ch. Darwin


Hyatt had reached different conclusions from Franz Hilgendorf on the genealogy of fossil snails in the Steinheim crater at Heidenheim, Germany (see letter from Alpheus Hyatt, January 1877 and n. 9, and Rasser 2013).
Rubus is the genus of brambles and raspberries; Hieracium is the genus of hawkweeds. CD had remarked on variation in Rubus and Hieracium in his letter to Gaston de Saporta, 30 May 1874 (Correspondence vol. 22).
For details of Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli’s work on Hieracium see Correspondence vol. 24, letter to Gaston de Saporta, 10 September 1876 and n. 3, and ibid., Supplement, letter from C. W. Nägeli, 31 March 1867.
CD discussed Rubus, Hieracium, and other ‘protean or polymorphic’ genera in Origin, p. 46.
Fossil remains of marine organisms had been found near New Brunswick, Canada (see letter from Alpheus Hyatt, January 1877 and n. 17).
Hyatt hoped to publish a paper on his findings at Steinheim in the memoirs of the Smithsonian Institution (see letter from Alpheus Hyatt, January 1877 and n. 16).


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Rasser, Michael W. 2013. Darwin’s dilemma: the Steinheim snails’ point of view. Zoosystematics and Evolution 89: 13–20.


Regrets that F. Hilgendorf proved so greatly in error ["Planorbis Multiformis", Monatsber. K. Akad. Wiss. Berlin (1866): 474–504; "Noch einmal Planorbis Multiformis", Z. Dtsch. Geol. Ges. 29 (1877): 50–62].

Discusses polymorphic species.

Surprised that shell form developed from various different progenitors.

Reminds CD of C. Nägeli’s conclusions on Hieracium.

But still retains belief expressed in first edition of Origin that variation in protean species is neither advantageous nor disadvantageous.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alpheus Hyatt
Sent from
Source of text
Maryland Historical Society (Alpheus Hyatt Papers MS 1007)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10842,” accessed on 28 September 2021,