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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   4 December [1849]


Dec 4th.

My dear Lyell

This letter requires no answer, & I write solely from exuberance of vanity. Dana has sent me the Geolog. of U.S. Expedition & I have just read the Coral Part.—1 To begin with a modest speech, I am astonished at my own accuracy!! if I were to rewrite now my coral book, there is hardly a sentence I shd. have to alter—except that I ought to have attributed more effect to recent volcanic action in checking growth of coral.— When I say all this, I ought to add, that the consequences of the theory on areas of subsidence are treated in a separate chapter to which I have not come, & in this I suspect we shall differ more.—2 Dana talks of agreeing with my theory in most points; I can find out not one in which he differs.— Considering how infinitely more he saw of Coral Reefs than I did, this is wonderfully satisfactory to me; though really I think it some little reflection on him, that he did find other & new points to observe. He treats me most courteously.— There now my vanity is pretty well satisfied.

I am now reading the volcanic part, which is excellent & much very original: I do not know whether you have seen it, but I think you ought.— I remember in my last letter talking very big about dikes never being connected directly (ie rectangularly) with lava-streams; but it is clear that such occur frequently at the Sandwich Isds. without any cones.— I think, however, that there can be no doubt that this is a rare exceptional case; I do not quite perceive why in some cases there are cones with scoriæ, & in other cases not. I shd. suppose Etna could not come into same predicament with the Sandwich Vents, for if I understood you, there were beds of scoriæ between the streams of lava.— But perhaps you have read Dana & all I write is superfluous—3

I cd. of course lend you my copy,4 if you have not one of your own—though I believe there is one in Geolog. Soc.— Dana discusses the great Australian valleys; & thinks they have been formed by running fresh water; his arguments are very ingenious, but I am not at all converted by them; indeed I doubt whether he saw the more striking cases: he allows the valleys are valleys of denudation.—5 I looked with some trepidation to Craters of Elevation in index, but there was nothing (as far as I cd see in casual glance) which concerned you.—

I am bound to state that now that I have read Dana, I believe there are cases at Galapagos, of streams proceeding from dikes without cones, which I saw at a distance, near summit of great craters but did not ascend to.— I remember being surprised at not seeing a cone, but slurred the difficulty over: the great craters at Galapagos, as I have remarked in Book,6 are singular from having evolved so little scoriæ.

I shall be up on 19th.—7

Farewell— My boasting has done me a deal of good | Your’s Ever | C. Darwin


Dana 1849a, ch. 2.
Dana agreed with CD’s theory that coral reefs were formed by subsidence, but differed with his view that wide areas of ocean studded with coral islands were still subsiding. He also disagreed with two of CD’s general conclusions, viz., that volcanic areas were areas of elevation and that the absence of coral reefs indicated the land was rising. See Dana 1843.
Lyell eventually added a supplement to his paper on craters of denudation dealing with Dana’s observations on the Sandwich Islands (C. Lyell 1850a, pp. 232–3).
CD’s copy was not among the books in the Darwin Library when it was catalogued by H. W. Rutherford in 1908.
CD had visited these valleys during the Beagle voyage. In his view they were made by sea action. See Volcanic islands, pp. 134–7.
CD attended a council meeting and probably the evening meeting of the Geological Society on 19 December, at which Lyell read his paper on ‘Craters of denudation’ (C. Lyell 1850a).


Dana, James Dwight. 1843. On the areas of subsidence in the Pacific, as indicated by the distribution of coral islands. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 35: 341–5.

Volcanic islands: Geological observations on the volcanic islands, visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle, together with some brief notices on the geology of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope. Being the second part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. FitzRoy RN, during the years 1832 to 1836. By Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1844.


Discusses J. D. Dana’s Geology [1849]. Pleased that the part on corals confirms his views [Coral reefs (1842)]. Discusses Dana’s observation that in Sandwich Islands lava streams often join dikes at right angles with no cone. Retracts earlier denial of this possibility. Criticises Dana’s view of Australian valleys.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.85)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1275,” accessed on 27 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 4