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Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. R. Wallace   29 April [1867]1

Down. | Bromley. | Kent. S.E.

Ap. 29.

Dear Wallace

I have been greatly interested by your letter, but your view is not new to me.2 If you will look at p. 240 of 4th Ed. of Origin you will find it very briefly given with two extreme examples of the Peacock & Black grouse.3 A more general statement is given at p. 101 or at p. 89 of the 1st Ed., for I have long entertained this view, though I have never had space to develope it.4 But I had not sufficient knowledge to generalize as far as you do about colouring & nesting. In your paper perhaps you will just allude to my scanty remark in the 4th Ed, because in my Essay upon Man I intend to discuss the whole subject of sexual selection, explaining as I believe it does much with respect to man.5 I have collected all my old notes & partly written my discussion & it wd be flat work for me to give the leading idea as exclusively from you. But as I am sure from your greater knowledge of ornithology & Entomology that you will write a much better discussion than I cd, your paper will be of great use to me.

Nevertheless I must discuss the subject fully in my essay on man. When we met at the Zoolog. Soc. & I asked you about the sexual differences in kingfishers I had this subject in view; as I had when I suggested to Bates the difficulty about gaudy caterpillars which you have so admirably, (as I believe it will prove) explained.6 I have got one capital case (genus forgotten) of a Mexican bird in which the female has long tailed plumes & which consequently builds a different nest from all her allies.7 With respect to certain female birds being more brightly coloured than the males, & the latter incubating I have gone a little into the subject & cannot say that I am fully satisfied.8 I remember mentioning to you the case of Rhynchæa, but its nesting seems unknown.9 In some other cases the difference in brightness seemed to me hardly sufficiently accounted for by the principle of protection.

At the Falkland I’s there is a Carrion hawk in which the female (as I ascertained by dissection) is the brightest coloured, & I doubt whether protection will here apply; but I wrote several months ago to the Falklands to make enquiries10

The conclusion to which I have been leaning is that in some of these abnormal cases the colour happened to vary in the female alone, & was transmitted to females alone, & that her variations have been selected through the admiration of the male.—11

It is a very interesting subject but I shall not be able to go on with it for the next 5 or 6 months, as I am fully employed in correcting dull proof sheets;12 when I return to the work I shall find it much better done by you than I cd have succeeded in doing.

With many thanks for your very interesting note | believe me dear Wallace | yours very sincerely | Ch. Darwin

It is curious, how we hit on the same ideas.—

I have endeavoured and show in my M.S. discussion that nearly the same principles account for young birds not being gaily coloured, in many cases,—but this is too complex a point for a note.—13


Down.— Ap 29th.


My dear Wallace

On reading over your letter again & on further reflexion, I do not think (as far as I remember my words) that I expressed myself nearly strongly enough on the value & beauty of your generalisation, viz that all Birds, in which the female is conspicuously or brightly coloured, build in holes or under domes. I thought that this was the explanation in many, perhaps most cases, but do not think I shd. ever have extended my view to your generalisation.— Forgive me troubling you with this. P.S.

yours | C. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 1 May 1867.
CD refers to the letter from A. R. Wallace, 26 April [1867], and to Wallace’s view that the brightness of the plumage of female birds was influenced by whether they sat on eggs in a covered or an open situation.
In Origin 4th ed., pp. 240–1, in a paragraph on how the beauty of many male animals was acquired as a result of selection by the females, CD wrote: We can sometimes plainly see the proximate cause of the transmission of ornaments to the males alone; for a pea-hen with the long tail of the male bird would be badly fitted to sit on her eggs, and a coal-black female capercailzie would be far more conspicuous on her nest and more exposed to danger than in her present modest attire.
In Origin, p. 89, in a section on sexual selection, CD wrote: I strongly suspect that some well-known laws with respect to the plumage of male and female birds, in comparison with the plumage of the young, can be explained on the view of plumage having been chiefly modified by sexual selection, acting when the birds have come to the breeding age or during the breeding season; the modifications thus produced being inherited at corresponding ages or seasons, either by the males alone, or by the males and females; but I have not space here to enter on this subject. The same passage appears in Origin 4th ed., p. 101.
Wallace had written a paper on mimicry for the Westminster Review ([A. R. Wallace] 1867a), and published an article on bird coloration and nesting habits in the Journal of Travel and Natural History (A. R. Wallace 1868–9). Wallace cited the fourth edition of Origin in general in [A. R. Wallace] 1867a, but not specifically in connection with the nesting habits of birds, which he discussed on pp. 38–9. In A. R. Wallace 1868–9, Wallace wrote (pp. 77–8): The sexual differences of colour and plumage in birds are very remarkable and have attracted much attention; and in the case of polygamous birds have been well explained by Mr Darwin’s principle of sexual selection … but this theory does not throw any light on the causes which have made the female toucan, bee-eater, parroquet, macaw and tit, in almost every case as gay and brilliant as the male. CD’s material on sexual selection for his ‘Essay upon Man’ was published as Descent in 1871: CD had first intended to publish the material as a chapter in Variation but later decided to publish it separately (see letter to J. D. Hooker, 8 February [1867] and n. 16). Sexual selection among animals, including humans, was discussed in the second part of the first volume and in the second volume of Descent.
CD had visited London from 13 to 21 February 1867 (CD’s ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 15, Appendix II)), but evidently did not see Wallace then (see letter to A. R. Wallace, 23 February 1867). He was also in London from 22 to 29 November 1866 (Correspondence vol. 14, Appendix II), and visited the Zoological Gardens (Correspondence vol. 14, letter to Edward Blyth, 10 December [1866]). Henry Walter Bates had referred CD to Wallace for an answer to the question why some caterpillars were brightly coloured; see letter to A. R. Wallace, 23 February 1867, and letter from A. R. Wallace, 24 February [1867].
The Mexican bird (if it existed) has not been identified. CD may have been thinking of Menura superba, a lyre-bird of Australia, in which both sexes had long tails, and built a domed nest, which CD said was an anomaly in so large a bird (see Descent 2: 164–5).
In the section on colour and nidification among birds in Descent (Descent 2: 167), CD wrote that in one bird species that built open nests, the male sat on the eggs and was brightly coloured.
See letter to Alfred Newton, 19 January [1867]. CD discussed Rhynchaea (now Rostratula), the painted snipe, in Descent 2: 202–3, pointing out that the female was more brightly coloured than the male, and that there was reason to believe that the male sat on the eggs.
CD had given this information in Birds, p. 16, and repeated it in Descent 2: 205–6. CD’s letter to the Falkland Islands has not been found. See also letter to Alfred Newton, 4 March [1867] and n. 3.
See also Descent 2: 207–8.
CD was correcting the proof-sheets of Variation (see ‘Journal’ (Correspondence vol. 15, Appendix II)).
In Descent, CD argued that most juvenile birds were dull coloured, and that many males and some females acquired bright colours through sexual selection. These colours, being acquired late in life, tended not to be transmitted to the opposite sex, and any tendency for them to be transmitted to the same sex would have been eliminated because it was dangerous for young birds to be brightly coloured. (See Descent 2: 196, 200, 222.)


Birds: Pt 3 of The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. By John Gould. Edited and superintended by Charles Darwin. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1839–41.

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

Descent: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1871.

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.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 1868. A theory of birds’ nests: shewing the relation of certain sexual differences of colour in birds to their mode of nidification. Journal of Travel and Natural History 1 (1868–9): 73–89.


Comments on ARW’s view of colouring in relation to sexual selection and protection. It is not new to CD. Hopes to discuss subject fully in his "Essay on Man" [Descent]. As to the problem of brightly coloured females, CD is not satisfied that it is due to males taking over incubation. Admires "value and beauty" of ARW’s generalisations.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent from
Source of text
The British Library (Add 46434, f. 84)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5517,” accessed on 28 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 15