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Darwin Correspondence Project

From George Robert Waterhouse    [April 1844]1

undergo further examination if required— By and bye the transformations of insects will form the chief guide in their classification—unless insects are unlike any other class of animals—

Some strange contradictions occur here & there when the larvæ of different insects are examined with a view to the grouping of the perfect animals, but still they (the larvæ) have already thrown much light upon affinities, & the apparent anomalies will perhaps by & bye fall into order—

I go pretty regularly to Owen’s lectures;2 if you attended them you would think I had wished him to work out my views as expressed in the paper on the classification of Mammalia—3 he is on every occasion taking much pains to show that different groups of animals are not linked together as many have supposed— The Lepidosiren is getting more and more fishy—4 Yesterday he pointed out that although the ornithorhynchus is among Mammals the nearest to the birds & noticed the general resemblance which existed between the beak of the ornithorhynchus & that of the Duck tribe, & yet said he when we come to examine this beak more closely we find that in the structure the facial bones which support it, the Ornithorhynchus is just the furthest removed from birds—5

Faithfully yours— Geo. R. Waterhouse

CD annotations

1.1 undergo … animals— 1.3] ‘Ch 8’6 brown crayon, circled brown crayon; ‘Embryology’ brown crayon;‘Nor 11’7 brown crayon
2.1 Some … animals, 2.2] scored pencil; double scored brown crayon
2.4 the apparent … order—] scored pencil
3.7 the beak of … birds— 3.10] scored pencil; ‘Analogy’ added pencil
3.8 this beak … birds— 3.10] double scored brown crayon


The date is inferred from the reference to Waterhouse’s attendance at ‘Owen’s lectures’ (see n. 2, below) and by a note in DAR 205.5: 98, dated ‘April 1844’, which discusses several of the topics mentioned in the letter (see nn. 4 and 5, below).
As Hunterian professor at the Royal College of Surgeons, Richard Owen delivered an annual course of twenty-four lectures. In the spring of 1844 and 1846, he lectured on the comparative anatomy and physiology of vertebrates (R. Owen 1894, 1: 269).
Waterhouse 1843. Waterhouse subsequently published a two-volume natural history of the Mammalia (Waterhouse 1846–8).
Owen described a new species of the South American lung-fish Lepidosiren annectens in 1841, stating that it was a fish and not an amphibian as had originally been claimed (R. Owen 1841). He subsequently came to believe that it was a transitional link between fish and reptiles (see A. Desmond 1982, pp. 68–9). In a note discussing Waterhouse’s views on analogical resemblances among forms, CD wrote, in part: ‘W. seemed baffled by Lepidosiren. says he wrote chiefly for Mammals a broken series’ (DAR 205.5: 98). CD refers to Waterhouse 1843.
Owen also considered the platypus Ornithorhynchus to be a connecting link between reptiles and birds. In DAR 205.5: 98, CD repeated Waterhouse’s comment, stating: ‘W. complained of Owen’s manner of comparing part of animal to reptile and part to Bird, without summing up importance of these relations.’
In chapter 8 of his species book, entitled ‘Difficulties on the theory of natural selection in relation to passages from form to form’, CD cited the case of Lepidosiren, stating that ‘although the greatest living authority considers it to be certainly a fish, many highly competent judges class it as a reptile’ (Natural selection, p. 384). He also mentioned in the same chapter the ‘duck-like bill of the ornitho-rhynchus’ as an example of an intermediate or transitional part or organ (ibid., p. 359).
CD numbered the letters he received from Waterhouse.


Regularly attends Owen’s lectures. Owen at pains to show groups are not linked. Thus makes Lepidosiren appear fish-like.

GRW thinks embryology will become chief guide to insect classification. But contradictions between classification based on embryological and adult characters do occur.

Letter details

Letter no.
George Robert Waterhouse
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 48: 79
Physical description
2pp inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2026,” accessed on 26 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 7 (Supplement)