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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Asa Gray   5 December 1864

Cambridge, [Massachusetts]

Dec. 5th. 1864

My Dear Old Friend

Thanks for your letter of Oct. 29.1 I can’t think how a former one from me can have miscarried, nor do I remember particularly about it.2 I am glad you have the Copley Medal,—which you thoroughly deserve.3 I read the Cuckoo-matter in the Reader, so was prepared for your commission.4 I applied first to Dr. Wyman,5 and sent your letter to him. Unknown to me he had gone away (down to the front near Richmond).6 So I lost a week. He referred me to Dr. Bryant7 & to Dr. Brewer.8 The latter, our special Oölogist, has not yet replied, is perhaps away. This I write on is Bryant’s letter.9

I read with interest Huxley’s article on Kölliker & Flourens.10 The latter is an old granny. The former’s article I think was weak enough, is praised too much by Huxley— Please, for a neat hit on our old friend Bowen, look at N. Amer. Review for Oct.—at a note &c—to article on Bowen’s Logic.—by C. Wright.11 I have tried in vain to get the sheet & have it sent to you.— Just a neat hit—that’s all. I have heard of B. Walsh’s article—have not seen it.12

Well, I hope the phosphate of iron will do you a world of good. I must ask about it for my wife,13 whom it may help also. I will enquire about the “Syrup of phosphate”.14

I made abstract &c of Scott’s Primulaceæ for Sill. Journal, but it was crowded out.15

We have seen a good-deal of Goldwin Smith,—one of the very few Englishmen who take our side.16 The Reader (in last no. which has reached me, article on English change of feeling about Slavery) is right, no doubt.17 English sympathy goes with the South, and but for Slavery, would do so altogether. That being a settled case, we have ceased to care or worry about it. It makes no difference. Often, as I read the papers, I wish to send this or that to English friends; but cui bono?—18 I could talk to you, by the hour, but I can’t write on such large matters.

Our election went just as I expected, but the result was glorious.19 As I have often told you: the determination of the whole North has never wavered, and will not, however long it takes & much it costs. And the obstinacy of the South has doomed Slavery utterly. Besides making us independent of all foreign feeling, the war has otherwise done us much good. Every one says we must make rightful amende to Brazil. and not follow precedents set for us in 1812–14, & since.20

I congratulate Mrs. Darwin on indignantly discarding the Times, and wish the Daily News was abler & livelier.21

Farewell, I will write again soon. Keep your health and work moderately.

Ever Yours cordially | A. Gray

[Enclosure 1]

Boston Dec 2, 1864 Prof Asa Gray Dear Sir

the eggs of the American cuckoos known to me do not vary materially in their proportions from those of our other common birds— those of our two Massachusetts species which I presume are the birds referred to are rather larger in proportion to the weight of the parent than those of the Robin—

I can not state the exact period of incubation   it is however not far from twelve days—

The young do not have a hollow back and do not attempt to frighten intruders by raising their feathers but on the contrary endeavor to conceal themselves.—

There is only one point in the economy of our cuckoos which would seem to approximate them even in a Darwinian light to the European bird—namely the careless and slight manner in which the nest is made so that both the eggs and the young occasionally fall out—22

I have forwarded to your care a package for Mr Charles Wright23   if he should be absent and has left for Cuba please to return it to me by Express.

Yrs very Truly | Henry Bryant

[Enclosure 2]24

224 10th St. New York Oct. 14th 1864 Dr Asa Gray, Dear Sir,

I send you by express, what I hope & believe will be a treat in the shape of Lemna Minor, in fruit & flower, gathered on Staten Island.25

Also a bee, the only result of much watching, with the pollen of Spiranthes gracilis on his proboscis.26 The Spiranthes grew amid red-clover, and was visited by the bee episodically.

Also one or two ripe pods of Amphicarpæa.27 I have tried to merit your reference of its fertilization to my investigation, in vain, my professional duties in the city preventing my giving as much attention to it as it required. I have found it abundantly in fruit, but only sporadically, some flowers fertile and some unproductive on the same plant, and some plants with no ordinary fruit. One plant which I shook very hard to see if agitation by the wind had any effect, produced nothing   the next bush to it had a number of pods. The flowers I tried to fertilize bee-fashion, I believe generally produced pods. There is wanted an invention to catch insects in the absence of the observer, especially in the night time.

Prof. Thurber28 informs me that a Dr Port, found Frangula in Durham Swamp29 some years

CD annotations

1.1 Thanks … moderately. 8.1] crossed pencil
Enclosure 1
Top of first page: ‘(Cuckoos)’ pencil, square brackets in MS
Enclosure 2
1.1 I send … episodically. 2.3] crossed pencil
3.1 Also one or two] after opening square bracket, pencil
4.1 Prof.... years 4.2] crossed pencil
Top of first page: ‘Amphicarpæa’ pencil, ‘Cleistogam??’30 pencil, circled pencil
Bottom of last page: ‘Wm. H. Leggett’ pencil


The Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London was awarded to CD on 3 November 1864 (Royal Society Council minutes). See Appendix IV.
In his letter to Gray of 29 October [1864], CD enclosed a list of questions that has not been found. CD’s query may have pertained to an ongoing discussion about whether the American species of cuckoo behaved parasitically, like the European (see first enclosure, and n. 22, below). Gray’s reference to the Reader is incorrect. He probably refers to ‘The cuckoo controversy’, which appeared in the 8 October 1864 issue of the Spectator, pp. 1151–2. The article commented on a paper by George Augustus Rowell, which discussed the instinct of cuckoos to lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Rowell argued that the behaviour of cuckoos derived from a series of characteristics which were too numerous and interlinked to have arisen out of natural selection (Rowell 1862, pp. 55–61). CD first described the parasitic behaviour of cuckoos in Natural selection, pp. 506–8. In Origin, pp. 216–18, he presented this behaviour as an example of instinct modified by natural selection. An annotated copy of Rowell’s article, bound with the Spectator review, is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. On page 58 of his article, Rowell described the inability of European cuckoos to collect sufficient food to feed their own offspring. In the margin, CD wrote ‘American Cuckoo does feed’.
Jeffries Wyman.
During the second half of 1864, the territory around Richmond, Virginia, was a major scene of battle in the American Civil War (McPherson 1988, pp. 736, 800).
Henry Bryant.
Thomas Mayo Brewer. He is cited in Origin, p. 217, as the authority for the view that the American cuckoo is not parasitic.
Gray’s letter is written on the blank spaces in Bryant’s letter to Gray of 2 December 1864 (see first enclosure).
See letter to Asa Gray, 29 October [1864] and n. 5. CD had urged Gray to read Thomas Henry Huxley’s unsigned review of Über die Darwin’sche Schöpfungstheorie, by Rudolf Albert von Kölliker (Kölliker 1864), and Examen du livre de M. Darwin sur l’origine des espèces, by Marie Jean Pierre Flourens (Flourens 1864b), which appeared in the October issue of the Natural History Review, pp. 566–76 ([T. H. Huxley] 1864a).
Francis Bowen, professor of moral philosophy and natural religion at Harvard College, had written two unfavourable reviews of Origin (see [Bowen] 1860a and Bowen 1860b). For CD’s comments on the reviews, see Correspondence vol. 8, letters to Asa Gray, 25 April [1860] and nn. 1–4, and 26 November [1860], and Correspondence vol. 9, letter to Asa Gray, 11 April [1861]. Gray refers to the unsigned review, attributed to Chauncey Wright, of Bowen’s treatise on logic (Bowen 1864), which appeared in the North American Review ([Wright] 1864a). According to the review, Bowen had used his chapter ‘Fallacies’ to expose the ‘heresies of modern theories of Natural History’, including CD’s theory of natural selection. Bowen claimed that CD’s theory committed the ‘Fallacy of the Composite and Divisive Sense’, giving as an example the misuse of the word ‘tendency’. In stating that the specific characters of individuals ‘tend’ to vary, CD had used a term that ought to apply only to results that have more than an even chance of occurring. The reviewer argued, however, that Bowen’s fallacy applied equally to statements such as ‘stones tend to roll downhill’, since stones rolled downhill comparatively rarely (see [Wright] 1864a, pp. 600–1). See also letter from Asa Gray, 3 October 1864 and n. 7.
Gray probably refers to Walsh 1864b. CD had recommended papers by Benjamin Dann Walsh in his letter to Gray of 29 October [1864].
See letter to Asa Gray, 29 October [1864] and n. 8. Gray’s wife was Jane Loring Gray.
See letter to Asa Gray, 29 October [1864], and letter to William Jenner, 9 November 1864 and n. 1.
With his letter of 13 September [1864], CD sent Gray a commentary on John Scott’s paper, along with the paper itself (Scott 1864a), suggesting that Gray might review it in the American Journal of Science and Arts (see also letter from Asa Gray, 3 October 1864). Gray’s notice of the paper appeared in the May 1865 issue of the American Journal of Science and Arts, pp. 101–4.
Goldwin Smith spent three months on a lecture tour of the United States during 1864. He was a leading supporter of the Union cause in Britain (Jenkins 1974–80, 2: 214, 342).
Gray refers to the leading article in the Reader, 19 November 1864, p. 630. The article attributed the decline of anti-slavery sentiment in England to a climate of scepticism and resignation following the failure of democratic reform movements in Europe after 1848.
Cui bono?: Who stands to gain?
Gray refers to the re-election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in November 1864 (see letter from Asa Gray, 3 October 1864 and nn. 11 and 12).
Gray refers to the capture of the Confederate commercial raider, CSS Florida, by the USS Wachusett in Bahia harbour, Brazil, on 7 October 1864. The Brazilian government, which had declared neutrality in the American Civil War, claimed that its sovereignty had been violated by the United States government (see Denny 1992, pp. 470, 486, and The Times, 11 November 1864, p. 10). Gray also refers to the 1812–14 war between the United States and Britain. The United States had declared war on Britain partly on the grounds that its own policy of neutrality was disregarded in the seizure of United States ships by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars (see Hickey 1989, pp. 12–24, 44).
See n. 4, above. Bryant’s account of the American cuckoo addresses specific points in Rowell’s description of the European cuckoo (Rowell 1862, pp. 57–60). According to Rowell’s description, the eggs of the cuckoo are smaller, in proportion to the size of the bird, than those of any other bird; its gestation period is very short, so that the cuckoo eggs are generally the first hatched in the nest; and its young possess a particularly broad and hollow back, which enables them to lift and throw the eggs of other birds out of the nest. For Rowell, these and other characteristics could only be explained with reference to the design of a beneficent creator. CD remarked briefly on natural theological interpretations of the cuckoo, and on the cuckoo and natural selection, in Origin 4th ed., pp. 260–2.
Bryant refers to the American botanist Charles Wright, who collected plants in the south-western United States and Cuba (DAB; see also letter from Charles Wright to Asa Gray, 20, 25, and 26 March and 1 April 1864, n. 2).
The sender of this letter has been identified as William Henry Leggett on the basis of CD’s annotation. It is conjectured that Gray enclosed this letter with his own on the basis that this was apparently the first letter Gray sent CD after receiving it. Gray evidently sent CD Leggett’s letter for the information it contained on pollination in Amphicarpaea (North American hog peanut), a genus in the family Leguminosae (see nn. 27 and 30, below).
Lemna minor is an aquatic plant also known as common duckweed (Bailey and Bailey 1976). Leggett also refers to Staten Island, New York.
Gray had published on the pollination mechanisms of the orchid genus Spiranthes in the American Journal of Science and Arts (Gray 1862a). According to Orchids 2d ed., p. 111 n., Gray’s observations on S. gracilis and S. cernua were made at CD’s request to compare with CD’s own observations of the structure of S. autumnalis. On CD’s interest in Spiranthes, see also the letter from Charles Wright to Asa Gray, 20, 25, and 26 March and 1 April 1864, n. 13, and Correspondence vols. 8–10.
CD had expressed a wish to obtain seeds of Amphicarpaea in his letter to Gray of 28 May [1864]. See also n. 30, below.
George Thurber was professor of botany and horticulture at Michigan State Agricultural College until 1863, when he moved to New York to become editor of the American Agriculturist (DAB).
Probably a reference to a specimen of Rhamnus frangula (alder buckthorn) found by the botanist Thomas Conrad Porter near Durham, Bucks County, Pennsylvania (DAB).
For Gray’s recent comment on Amphicarpaea, see the letter from Asa Gray, 11 July 1864 and n. 9. For CD’s interest in closed, self-pollinating flowers (later called cleistogamic), see Correspondence vols. 10 and 11. See also this volume, letter from Hermann Crüger, 21 January 1864 and n. 2, and letter to Asa Gray, 28 May [1864] and nn. 11–16.


Bailey, Liberty Hyde and Bailey, Ethel Zoe. 1976. Hortus third: a concise dictionary of plants cultivated in the United States and Canada. Revised and expanded by the staff of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium. New York: Macmillan. London: Collier Macmillan.

Bowen, Francis. 1864. A treatise on logic, or, the laws of pure thought; comprising both the Aristotelic and Hamiltonian analyses of logical forms, and some chapters of applied logic. Cambridge, Mass.: Sever & Francis.

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

DAB: Dictionary of American biography. Under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. 20 vols., index, and 10 supplements. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; Simon & Schuster Macmillan. London: Oxford University Press; Humphrey Milford. 1928–95.

Hickey, Donald R. 1989. The war of 1812. A forgotten conflict. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Jenkins, Brian. 1974–80. Britain & the war for the Union. 2 vols. Montreal, Quebec, and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

McPherson, James M. 1988. Battle cry of freedom: the Civil War era. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.

Orchids 2d ed.: The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilised by insects. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition, revised. London: John Murray. 1877.

Origin 4th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 4th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1866.

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.

Rowell, G. A. 1862. An essay on the beneficent distribution of the sense of pain. 2d ed. London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate.


Congratulates CD on the Copley Medal.

Is making inquiries on the habits of American cuckoos and sends a letter from Henry Bryant on that subject.

Discusses the Civil War.

Encloses letter from W. H. Leggett containing observations on Amphicarpaea.

Letter details

Letter no.
Asa Gray
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge Mass.
Source of text
DAR 109: A87; DAR 165: 145
Physical description
3pp †, encl ALS 2pp †(by CD), encl AL 2pp inc †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 4699,” accessed on 28 November 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 12