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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. F. Fisher   13 August 1878


August 13th 1878

Dear Sir

I fear the intrusion, which I must be permitted still to regard it, of inviting your attention to a theory so crude and so antagonistic to both the interests and the prejudices of the age, as this of mine will appear, is but an illustration of the completeness of the one to which your name has been appended, embodied or, I ought to say immortalized, in the works to which I before alluded.1 Surrounded by an atmosphere of strife, and commotion, and competition or, by the abscence of sympathetic or refining influences the action of environment upon an organism thus posited upon the earth’s surface, has resulted in a being developing that want of consideration which went the length of inflicting upon a fellow creature (that fellow creature being a kind and courteous gentleman) a long, and as it would doubtless appear to many, uninteresting manuscript.2

Thoughtlessness in combination with ignorance of the state of your health, which, from your own description of it, I do sincerely regret, must be my apology for this apparent heartlessness.

With your very kind permission, I will endeavour to give you a synopsis of my theory, or rather the manuscript of the materials of which it is composed, with its grasp and general tendency.

First assuming that no act can be performed without the expenditure of a certain amount of Force; no matter how small or trivial the act done or performed or, whether for the advancement of virtue, or the glorification of vice, as those terms are generally understood, a certain amount of energy is dissipated; but never lost, wasted or destroyed in the operation. Hence it follows that whatever the act which called forth this dissipation of energy, in fulfilment of the doctrine of its “Conservation” it will be followed by its “equivalent consequent” or, as “Draper” puts it, “human affairs present an unbroken chain, in which each fact is the offspring of some preceding fact, and the parent of some subsequent fact.”3 The inference derived from this hypothesis or I might say, fact—bearing in mind also, that “action and reaction are always equal”—is, that every action performed, whether for good or evil, using those terms only as they apply to their effects upon animal life, reacts, upon the actor; for good when the action has a beneficent influence upon animal existence; for evil when injury or mischief to any living organism is the result, and in the exact ratio to the good or evil acted or performed.

This assumption is contained in a short Introduction and Preface, wherein reasons are likewise given for the causes which led to this theory, and the employment of a rather unusual kind of literary machinery, namely, the very great difficulty of putting a subject, so uninteresting as that of our treatment of the inferior races of animals is, to the general, into a readable form. I have embodied my whole argument for and against this treatment in an Imaginary Lawsuit. It is brought by the Plaintiffs Fera Naturæ against the Defendants Homogenus and others to recover certain “right of common” in one of the planets called Earth, from which they have been wrongfully evicted. Each is assisted by counsel and I give a list of witnesses who are examined, with the nature of the Evidence it is the object to elicit.

Names of Witnesses and the nature of their Evidence4

1st Chaos. } To throw light on First beginnings.
2 Eozoon Canadensæ)5
3 Silurian Trilobite
4 Devonian Brachiapod Fossils representing the earliest
5 Permian Palm and some of the lowest forms
6 Plæocene Astrolepis of Life.6
7 Wealden Batrachian connecting Past and Present.
8 Plæsio Saurius }
9 M〈eg〉atherium Cuvieri … coeval with supposed
10 Si〈ber〉ian Mastoden Miocene Man
11 Hyæna Crocuti } … probably the earliest disputants
12 Canis Lupus7 with man, for possession of this common
13 Symiæ Satyrus } … a scarcely perceptible inequality
14 Mumbo Jumbo. of instincts & intelligence
15 Marquis de Retz … … burned for the torture and murder
in cold blood of many hundreds of
children.8 The incarnation of Cruelty
16 John Newton … … … A Slave merchant, and subsequent
“Minister of the Christian Religion”9
17 Adonibezec … … … An historical illustration of the
doctrine of reciprocal “action & reaction”10
18 Alfred Wallace … Depose to the frequent presence of
19 Ernest Smith } invisible and inexplicable “Forces”11
20 Edward Hitchcock …. on the “Religion of Geology”12
21 J. W Draper ……. on the “conflict of Religion with Scien〈ce”〉13
22 Balfour Stewart }
23 Charles Darwin … on the production of animal
24 Jos. le Compte life by Evolution, consequently
25 Mr. Bond14 the relationship of all forms of Life.

which if established, raises doubts as to the justice of our present courses in relation to our treatment of animals.

No witnesses are examined for the defence, but with a view to impartiality I have imported into it, by putting in the mouth of counsel all that I can collect in justification or support of the present system.

In the Reply, on the part of the Plaintiffs, and as further corroborated in the summing up of the Judge, is contained the pith and marrow of the theory, in which my aim is, to show that from our treatment of the inferior animal world, effects are produced which may, and as I believe do exert a wonderfully active and powerful force on the well being of the human race. In fact that through this force or I may call it, agency, for all we can tell to the contrary, and for the lack of “a better reason” the catalogue of innumerable evils, troubles and afflictions, believed by most to be inseparable from human existence, is, to a very great extent referrable.

As a recognition of the equal right of animals to existence on the same terms as the lord of the manor or creation, would be too revolutionary for the present age or standard of “education”, and knowing what would be, under the circumstances, the line of procedure of modern juries composed of human beings, I have made them give this as their excuse for “finding for the Defendants”.

I am | Dear Sir | Your much obliged & humble Servant | J. F. Fisher

Charles Darwin Esqr.


Fisher’s earlier letter to CD has not been found, but see the letter to J. F. Fisher, 8 August [1878].
The manuscript was evidently an early version of Fisher’s The future of the human race: some of the latest fruits of Darwinism (Fisher 1880).
The quotation is from John William Draper’s History of the conflict between religion and science (Draper 1875, p. xi). The phrase is part of a longer sentence that reads, The latter [mode of historical composition], insisting that human affairs present an unbroken chain, in which each fact is the offspring of some preceding fact, and the parent of some subsequent fact, declares that men do not control events, but that events control men.
In his published work, Fisher imagines a ‘Congress of Animals’ and uses this motif rather than that of a lawsuit by animals to make a case for animal rights. A central idea in the work is the consideration of animals as relatives of humans, based on CD’s theory of common descent.
In 1864, John William Dawson identified samples taken from pre-Silurian strata in eastern Canada as fossilised Foraminifera, single-celled protists with shells; he named the species Eozoon canadense (Dawn animal from Canada; Dawson 1864). Further samples were sent to William Benjamin Carpenter, an expert on Foraminifera, who confirmed Dawson’s interpretation (Carpenter 1864). CD added information on the discovery of Eozoon canadense to Origin 4th ed., p. 371, as substantiating his claim, made in Origin, p. 307, that life existed before the Silurian period. The interpretation of the samples as pre-Silurian fossils remained controversial, however (see, for example, Carpenter 1866, and King and Rowney 1866), and by the end of the century, comparisons with similar, more recent, formations indicated that the samples were mineral in origin (see Schopf 2000).
The Silurian, Devonian, and Permian are geological periods; the Pliocene is a geological epoch within the Neogene period. Trilobites were marine arthropods (class Trilobita) that lived between the Cambrian and Permian periods. Brachiopods (now in their own phylum Brachiopoda, but formerly classed as molluscs) first appeared in the Cambrian period and continue to exist today. Palm trees date back only to the Cretaceous period, but superficially resemble cycads, which originated in the Permian. Astrolepis (the genus of cloakferns) probably arose in the late Devonian.
Batrachia is a former order of amphibians, roughly equivalent to the present order Anura (frogs and toads). The Weald is an area of south-east England between the North and South Downs (ranges of chalk hills). Plesiosaurus is a genus of extinct marine reptiles of the Jurassic period. Megatherium, named by Georges Cuvier, is a genus of extinct ground sloths that lived from the early Pliocene to the end of the Pleistocene. The Miocene epoch preceded the Pliocene; mastodons (family Mammutidae) first appeared in the Miocene. The cave hyena (an extinct relative of the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta), ranged from the middle to late Pleistocene. Canis lupus is the wolf.
Simia satyrus was the original Linnaean name for the orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus). Mumbo Jumbo was a god or spirit said to have been worshipped by certain West African peoples (OED). Gilles de Rais (Retz is an alternative form of his name) was hanged and his body burned afterwards (Bossard 1886, p. 337).
Newton had a conversion experience after almost dying in a storm, but continued to work in the slave trade, only leaving due to illness. He later became an evangelical priest in the Church of England and eventually a supporter of abolition (ODNB).
Adonibezek was a Caananite king referred to in Judges 1:4–7. When he was captured, his big toes and thumbs were cut off, a punishment he had earlier inflicted on his defeated enemies.
Alfred Russel Wallace publicly promoted spiritualism; see, for example, ‘A defence of modern spiritualism’ (Wallace 1874a). Ernest Smith has not been identified.
Hitchcock was both a clergyman and a geologist.
Draper 1875; see n. 3, above.
Alphonse Joseph Lecomte was a Belgian cleric who had written a critique of Descent and Expression (Lecomte 1872). Mr Bond has not been identified.


Bossard, Eugène. 1886. Gilles de Rais Maréchal de France dit Barbe-Bleu (1404–40). 2d edition. Paris: H. Champion.

Carpenter, William Benjamin. 1866. Supplemental notes on the structure and affinities of Eozoon Canadense. [Read 10 January 1866.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 22: 219–28.

Dawson, John William. 1864. On the structure of certain organic remains in the Laurentian limestones of Canada. [Read 23 November 1864.] Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 21 (1865): 51–9.

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

Draper, John William. 1875. History of the conflict between religion and science. London: Henry S. King.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Fisher, John Francis. 1880. The future of the human race: some of the latest fruits of Darwinism. London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co. Liverpool: Edward Howell.

Lecomte, Alphonse Joseph. 1872. Le Darwinisme et l’origine de l’homme. Louvain: Ch. Peeters. Paris: Victor Palmé.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

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.

Schopf, J. William. 2000. Solution to Darwin’s dilemma: discovery of the missing Precambrian record of life. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 97: 6947–53.


Discourses on the rights of animals.

Letter details

Letter no.
John Francis Fisher
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 164: 121
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 11656,” accessed on 26 September 2021,