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Darwin Correspondence Project

To G. J. Romanes   11 June [1877]1

My address will be “Bassett, Southampton.” [Leith Hill Place, Surrey.]

June 11th.

Dear Romanes

I have read the crossing paper, which you were so kind as to send me.— It is very clear & I quite agree with it. But the point in question has not been a difficulty to me, as I have never believed in a new form originating from a single variation.—2 What I have called unconscious selection by man illustrates, as it seems to me, the same principle as yours, within the same area. Man peruses the individual animals or plants which seem to him the best in any respect,—some more so & some less so—& without any matching or pairing, the breed in the course of time is surely altered3 The absence in numerous instances of intermediate or blending forms in the border country between two closely allied geographical races or close species seemed to me a greater difficulty, when I discussed the subject in the Origin.—4

With respect to your illustration, it formerly drove me half-mad to attempt to account for the increase or diminution of the productiveness of an organism; but I cannot call to mind where my difficulty lay.5 Natural selection always applies, as I think, to each individual & its offspring, such as its seeds, eggs, which are formed by the mother & which are protected in various ways.6 There does not seem any difficulty in understanding how the productiveness of an organism might be increased, but it was, as far as I can remember in reducing productiveness that I was most puzzled.— But why I scribble about this I know not.—

I have read your review of Mr. Allen’s book & it makes me more doubtful even than I was before whether he has really thrown much light on the subject.—7

I am glad to hear that some physiologists take same view as I did about your giving too much credit to H. Spencer;8 though Heaven knows this is a rare fault!— The more I think of your Medusa nerve work the more splendid it seems to me—.9

Yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from G. J. Romanes, 6 June 1877.
Romanes had written notes on the problem of evolution by means of individual variations, including the swamping of such variations by intercrossing. See enclosure to letter from G. J. Romanes, 6 June 1877 and n. 8.
In Origin, pp. 34–40, CD discussed how the ‘unconscious selection’ of breeders over many generations could alter a breed. Romanes had proposed that environmental conditions could ‘account for numerous inviduals varying in the same direction at the same time’ (see enclosure to letter from G. J. Romanes, 6 June 1877).
On the tendency of intermediate forms to become extinct, see Origin, pp. 121, 128, and 281.
CD eventually concluded that neither fertility nor sterility in an organism could be acted on directly by natural selection (see Variation 2: 185–9, and Correspondence vol. 16, letter to A. R. Wallace, 6 April [1868]).
CD addressed the question of whether natural selection operated on an individual organism or a group (such as a variety, type, or community) in Descent 1: 163, 166. For a discussion of units of selection in evolutionary theory, see Sober 1984, pp. 215–19.
Romanes’s review of Grant Allen’s Physiological aesthetics (G. Allen 1877) appeared in Nature, 7 June 1877, pp. 98–100. CD had been reading the book (see letter to G. J. Romanes, 27 May [1877]).
In his review, Romanes remarked that Allen had failed sufficiently to ackowledge the work of Herbert Spencer (Nature, 7 June 1877, p. 100 n.). For previous correspondence between CD and Romanes about Spencer, see Correspondence vol. 22, letter from G. J. Romanes, 24 July 1874, and letter from CD and Francis Darwin to G. J. Romanes, 28 July [1874].


Allen, Grant. 1877. Physiological aesthetics. London: Henry S. King & Co.

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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

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.

Sober, Elliott. 1984. The nature of selection: evolutionary theory in philosophical focus. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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


Discusses effects of natural selection. Discusses absence of blending between geographical races as a problem. Discusses effect of natural selection on productivity of an organism.

Comments on GJR’s review of Grant Allen’s book [Physiological aesthetics (1877)].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
George John Romanes
Sent from
Leith Hill Place
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.516)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 10996,” accessed on 21 September 2021,