skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hensleigh Wedgwood   [January? 1860]1

not seen it myself and cannot get a very distinct account of the extent of the complaint.

I feel the origin of things wholly beyond the scope of our imagination and should by no means be surprised if there never was any beginning    The difficulties of that hypothesis do not seem to me to be greater than the converse. But to my mind the problem is not in the least degree smoothed by supposing that life began with a single cell. If you suppose a cell started in a mineral world with only such a tendency to variation in the offspring as we are acquainted with I cannot think that an infinity of ages would have made any material advance in organisation.2

Is it a fact that we have any geological evidence of a gradual progress in organisation? I think that when the Vestiges were in discussion the opinion of scientific people was that there was not.3 As far as I see the only positive evidence we have is of degradation, not of advance as in the loss of sight in cave animals moles &c. loss of limbs by snakes and other rudimentary cases. If all vertebrate animals have descended from a common ancestor I should think it must have been of the complete four limbed type, otherwise we might expect to find the fundamental vertebra with utterly discordant modifications. Because we recognise the same senses in the lower animals and in vertebrates does not seem to me to tend towards evidence of their original identity. They both have to live in the same world and to avail themselves of the same powers of nature and one would expect ‘a priori that there should be resemblance in the organs with which they are furnished for that purpose.

I am rather ashamed of sending my crude speculations to you who have thought so much on these subjects but it is well for you to see the light in which they strike all sorts of people

Many thanks for your criticism on my dictionary.4 It agreed for the most part all too well with my own conviction at the time of writing. Video meliora but I cannot reach them. If I could illustrate and fill out as I ought to do my book on the Understanding would be recognised as having attained what Locke aimed at.5

Adieu | H W.

CD annotations

1.1 not seen … the converse. 2.3] crossed pencil
4.1 I am rather … H W. 6.1] crossed pencil


The date is suggested by the reference to Wedgwood’s Dictionary of English etymology, the first volume of which was published in December 1859 (Publishers’ Circular, 15 December 1859, p. 692).
Wedgwood’s point relates to CD’s concluding remarks in Origin that he was led by analogy to believe ‘that all animals and plants have descended from some one prototype.’ (Origin, p. 484). For CD’s thoughts on this point, see the letter to Charles Lyell, 18 [and 19 February 1860].
[Chambers] 1844. One of the most prominent critics of this work was Adam Sedgwick, who attempted to deny progression, and hence transmutation, by stressing the discontinuity of the geological record. See Yeo 1984, pp. 19–20.
Wedgwood 1859–65. There is a copy of the second edition (1872) in the Darwin Library–CUL. CD’s comments have not been found, but they may have concerned the points made in Wedgwood’s introduction concerning the origin of language. Wedgwood believed that language had arisen gradually through the elaborated imitation of natural sounds. CD had formerly corresponded with Wedgwood about the ancestry of related words in different languages as an example of transitional forms (Correspondence vol. 6, letter from Hensleigh Wedgwood, [before 29 September 1857]). See also Natural selection, p. 384, and Origin, pp. 422–3.
Wedgwood’s book on the development of the understanding (Wedgwood 1848) discussed John Locke’s famous attack on the existence of ‘innate ideas’ (Locke 1690). There is a copy of Wedgwood 1848 in the Darwin Library–CUL.


[Chambers, Robert.] 1844. Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London: John Churchill.

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

Locke, John. 1690. An essay concerning human understanding. London.

Natural selection: Charles Darwin’s Natural selection: being the second part of his big species book written from 1856 to 1858. Edited by R. C. Stauffer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.

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.

Wedgwood, Hensleigh. 1848. On the development of the understanding. London. [Vols. 4,8]

Yeo, Richard. 1984. Science and intellectual authority in midnineteenth-century Britain: Robert Chambers and Vestiges of the natural history of creation. Victorian Studies 28: 1– 31.


Prepared to think world infinitely old, but not that life originated with a single cell. Questions whether geological evidence supports gradual progress in organisation. HW thought scientific opinion during Vestiges debate was against this hypothesis. Argues that presence of same senses in lower animals and vertebrates does not imply descent; assumes resemblance is due to living in same world and thus having organs for the same purposes. Wants CD to know how others may see these questions.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hensleigh Wedgwood
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 48: 83–5
Physical description
inc 6pp

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2389,” accessed on 16 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 8