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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Charles Lyell   [8 March 1850]

Down Farnborough Kent


My dear Lyell

I am uncommonly much obliged to you for your address,1 which I had not expected to see so soon & which I have read with great interest. I do not know whether you spent much time over it, but it strikes me as extra well arranged & written—done in the most artistic manner, to use an expression which I particularly hate.— Though I am necessarily pretty well familiar with your ideas from your conversation & books, yet the whole had an original freshness to me. I am glad that you broke through the routine of President’s addresses,2 but I shd be sorry if others did.— Your criticisms on Murchison were to me, & I think would be to many, particularly acceptable—3 Capital that metaphor of the clock;4 I shall next February be much interested by seeing your Hour Hand of the organic world going.—5

Many thanks for your kindness in taking the trouble to tell me of the Anniversary Dinner— What a compliment that was, which Ld. Mahon paid me! I never had so great a one. He must be as charming a man as his wife is a woman, though I was formerly blind to his merit.—6 Bunsen’s7 speech must have been very interesting, & very useful if any orthodox clergymen were present. Your metaphor of the pebbles of preexisting languages, reminds me that I heard Sir J. Herschel at the Cape say, how he wished someone wd. treat languages, as you had Geology, & study the existing causes of change & apply the deductions to old languages.—8

We are all pretty flourishing here; though I have been retrograding a little, & I think I stand excitement & fatigue hardly better than in old days & this keeps me from coming to London.— My cirripedial task is an eternal one; I make no perceptible progress— I am sure that they belong to the Hour-hand,—& I groan under my task.

With Emma & my own kindest remembrances to Lady Lyell— | Ever yours | C. Darwin.

P.S. You would really do me a great service, if you would write on slip of Paper & tell me whether in Scania or Denmark there is any member of the lower Cretaceous beds,—Von Buch speaks as if such did not exist in the north—9 But some of Steenstrup’s cirripedia are marked “Grunsand” from “Saliberg Quedlingburg” & their character makes me believe they may be such. or at least lower chalk.10 If you cannot tell take no notice: if you can, perhaps Lady Lyell will write me word.—


Lyell’s presidential address was delivered at the anniversary meeting of the Geological Society on 15 February 1850 (C. Lyell 1850b).
Lyell devoted his address to a review of the developments in geology since the publication of his Principles of geology (C. Lyell 1830–3). He maintained that the progress in the science had confirmed the general theoretical position advocated in that work. Since anniversary addresses of the society were usually devoted to a review of developments in the science during the preceding year, Lyell’s discussion of his own views was a departure from precedent.
According to Lyell, Roderick Impey Murchison contended that the folding and raising of the sedimentary strata of the Alps were the result of ‘stupendous movements’ and that the earth’s crust must have been ‘affected by forces of infinitely greater intensity than those which now prevail’ (C. Lyell 1850b, p. xlii). Lyell’s response was that until there was some fixed standard by which to measure the time expended in the development of geological formations, the relative intensity of the force employed could not be determined: ‘It must be shown that a slow process could never in any series of ages give rise to the same results’ (p. xlv).
Comparing the time needed for major changes in the nature of the flora and fauna of the world to be brought about with the far shorter time that had been required to produce great geological changes, Lyell noted (C. Lyell 1850b, p. xlvi): In a word, the movement of the inorganic world is obvious and palpable, and might be likened to the minute-hand of a clock, the progress of which can be seen and heard, whereas the fluctuations of the living creation are nearly invisible, and resemble the motion of the hour-hand of the time-piece.
Lyell ended his address (C. Lyell 1850b, p. lxvi) with the hope: that on some future occasion I may resume this theoretical discussion, which ought to embrace every department of geological inquiry, including that of palæontology, to which as yet I have been able to make but a few passing allusions.
Philip Henry Stanhope, Viscount Mahon’s remarks as well as other speeches made at the anniversary dinner, in accordance with the Geological Society’s rules, were not recorded by the society nor reported by the press. See letter to Charles Lyell, [2 September 1849], for CD’s account of dining with Lord Mahon at Chevening, his family seat in Kent.
Christian Karl Josias Freiherr von Bunsen.
CD had visited John Frederick William Herschel at Cape Town in June 1836 during the Beagle voyage (see Correspondence vol. 1, letter to J. S. Henslow, 9 July 1836). Herschel himself had written to Lyell on the subject of the development of languages (Correspondence vol. 2, letter to Caroline Darwin, 27 February 1837, n. 5.)
Christian Leopold von Buch described the geology of northern Scandinavia in great detail in Buch 1813. He recorded that the formations were almost entirely of granite or gneiss, implicitly excluding any Cretaceous deposits. CD’s copy of Buch 1813 is in the Darwin Library–CUL.
No specimens from any Scandinavian formation older than the Upper Chalk are described in Fossil Cirripedia (1851, 1854).


Buch, Christian Leopold von. 1813. Travels through Norway and Lapland during the years 1806, 1807, and 1808. Translated by John Black. With notes by Robert Jameson. London: Henry Colburn.

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

Fossil Cirripedia (1851): A monograph on the fossil Lepadidæ, or, pedunculated cirripedes of Great Britain. By Charles Darwin. London: Palaeontographical Society. 1851.

Fossil Cirripedia (1854): A monograph of the fossil Balanidæ and Verrucidæ of Great Britain. By Charles Darwin. London: Palaeontographical Society. 1854.

Lyell, Charles. 1830–3. Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. 3 vols. London: John Murray.


Comments on CL’s Anniversary address [Q. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 6 (1850): xxvii–lxvi]. Notes CL’s criticism of R. I. Murchison’s catastrophism.

Asks whether there are Lower Cretaceous beds in Scandinavia. Thinks Leopold von Buch must have neglected them.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Charles Lyell, 1st baronet
Sent from
Source of text
American Philosophical Society (Mss.B.D25.92)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 1308,” accessed on 24 September 2021,

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