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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Asa Gray   11 August [1860]1

Down Bromley Kent

Aug. 11th. —

My dear Gray

On my return home from Sussex about a week ago I found several articles sent by you.—   The 1st article from the Atlantic which I am very glad to possess.2 By the way the Editor of Athenæum has inserted your answer to Agassiz, Bowen & Co. & where I therein read them;3 I admired them even more than at first. They really seem to me admirable in their condensation, force, clearness & novelty.

I am surprised that Agassiz did not succeed in writing something better. How absurd that logical quibble;—“if species do not exist how can they vary?”4 As if anyone doubted their temporary existence. How coolly he assumes that there is some clearly defined distinction between individual differences & varieties. It is no wonder that a man who calls identical forms when found in two countries distinct species, cannot find variation in nature.5 Again how unreasonable to suppose that domestic varieties selected by man for his own fancy (p. 147) shd. resemble natural varieties or species. The whole article seems to me poor: it seems to me hardly worth a detailed answer (even if I could do it, & I much doubt whether I possess your skill in picking out salient points & driving a nail into them) & indeed you have already answered several points. Agassiz’s name, no doubt, is a heavy weight against us; but yesterday I heard that a man, whom I believe to be greater than Agassiz, viz Von Baer goes a long way (how far I know not) with me, & has spoken out publickly & will probably publish.6 R. Wagner has published, also, in Germany an abstract of Agassiz’s Essay on Classification, & says he believe the truth lies between us two;7 & this will make A. very savage, I shd. think.—

If you see Prof. Parsons, will you thank him for the extremely liberal & fair spirit in which his Essay is written.—8 Please tell him that I reflected much on chance of favourable monstrosities (ie great & sudden variations) arising.9 I have, of course, no objection to them; indeed it wd. be great aid; but I did not allude to subject, for after much labour I could find nothing which satisfied me of the probability of such occurrences. There seems to me in almost every case too much, too complex, & too beautiful adaptation in every structure to believe in its sudden production. I have alluded under head of beautifully hooked seeds to such possibility.10 Monsters are apt to be sterile, or not to transmit monstrous peculiarities. Look at fineness of gradation in the shells of successive sub-stages of same great formation. I could give many other considerations which made me doubt such view.—   It holds to certain extent with domestic productions no doubt, where man preserves some abrupt change in structure. It amused me to see Sir R. Murchison quoted as a judge of affinities of animals;11 & it gave me a “cold shudder” to hear of anyone speculating about a true Crustacean giving birth to a true Fish.!12

Since I wrote last I received your note of July 10th, in which you confirm the capital pig story:13 (I fear Prof. Wyman will never give me his facts about striped Horses)14    Also you give me valuable hints about diœcio-dimorphous flowers.—15 I was forced to gather my cowslip seed too soon, & I am all at sea about the differences in fertility; but I shall try & work out case better next summer.—

My poor daughter is decidedly better, though still very ill & weak. But I hope the organic mischief suspected by the Doctors, consequent on the fever, is slowly righting. There was fluid in the abdomen, but this seems to have absorbed; but there is still some hardness. We have had a miserable time of it.—

Farewell my kind friend | Yours most truly | C. Darwin


Dated by the reference to reviews of Origin.
[Gray] 1860b, pp. 109–16. There is an annotated copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
Athenæum, 4 August 1860, p. 161. See letters to Asa Gray, 22 July [1860], and to J. D. Hooker, 7 August [1860].
Agassiz 1860, p. 143. The sentence reads: ‘If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary? and if individuals alone exist, how can the differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species?’ In his copy of the review (Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL), CD marked the passage and added in pencil: ‘exist only temporarily’.
Wagner 1860b. See letter to T. H. Huxley, 8 August [1860] and n. 5.
Theophilus Parsons, professor of law at Harvard University, reviewed Origin in the American Journal of Science and Arts (Parsons 1860). Gray apparently sent the review to CD: there is an annotated copy in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
In his review, Parsons asked whether it was necessary for CD to limit himself to small, gradual changes in organisms (Parsons 1860, p. 2). CD marked the passage in his copy and added: ‘I cd. find no facts—    Monsters apt to be sterile    Such fine gradation in many groups—look at shells in closely related formations—look at recent species.—’
Origin, p. 392.
Roderick Impey Murchison’s expertise was primarily in structural geology. The passage in which Parsons quoted Murchison is marked in CD’s copy with two exclamation marks (Parsons 1860, p. 5).
Parsons cited a remark from Murchison in which he suggested that fossil flying fishes (Pterichthys) and ‘the curious genus Cephalaspis form the connecting links between crustaceans and fishes.’ (Parsons 1860, p. 5).
Gray had sent CD information from Jeffries Wyman on the black pigs of Florida (see letter to Asa Gray, 3 April [1860]). The ‘story’ was given in Origin 3d ed., p. 12.
See letter from Jeffries Wyman, [c. 15] September 1860.


Agassiz, Louis. 1860. On the origin of species. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 30: 142–54. [Reprinted in Annals and Magazine of Natural History 3d ser. 6 (1860): 219–32.]

Athenæum. 1844. A few words by way of comment on Miss Martineau’s statement. No. 896 (28 December): 1198–9.

Origin 3d ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 3d edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1861.

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.

Parsons, Theophilus. 1860. On the Origin of species. American Journal of Science and Arts 2d ser. 30: 1–13.

Winsor, Mary Pickard. 1979. Louis Agassiz and the species question. Studies in History of Biology 3: 89–117.


Agassiz is strongly opposed to Origin, but CD thinks K. E. von Baer may come out in support.

Discusses the possibility of favourable monstrosities in the light of Theophilus Parsons’ essay ["On the origin of species", Am. J. Sci. 2d ser. 30 (1860): 1–13].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Asa Gray
Sent from
Source of text
Gray Herbarium of Harvard University (35)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 2896,” accessed on 27 September 2021,

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