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Darwin Correspondence Project

To A. R. Wallace   5 May [1867]1

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

May 5

My dear Wallace

The offer of your valuable notes is most generous, but it wd vex me to take so much from you, as it is certain that you cd work up the subject very much better than I could. Therefore I earnestly & without any reservation hope that you will proceed with yr paper, so that I return yr notes.2

You seem already to have well investigated the subject. I confess on receiving yr note that I felt rather flat at my recent work being almost thrown away, but I did not intend to shew this feeling.3 As a proof how little advance I had made on the subject, I may mention that though I had been collecting facts on the colouring, & other sexual differences in mammals, your explanation with respect to the females had not occurred to me. I am surprized at my own stupidity, but I have long recognized how much clearer & deeper your insight into matters is than mine. I do not know how far you have attended to the laws of inheritance, so what follows may be obvious to you. I have begun my discussion on sexual selection by shewing that new characters often appear in one sex & are transmitted to that sex alone, & that from some unknown cause such characters apparently appear oftener in the male than in the female. Secondly characters may be developed & be confined to the male, & long afterwards be transferred to the female. 3rdly characters may arise in either sex & be transmitted to both sexes, either in an equal or unequal degree.4 In this latter case I have supposed that the survival of the fittest has come into play with female birds & kept the female dull-coloured.5 With respect to the absence of spurs in female gallinaceous birds, I presume that they wd be in the way during incubation; at least I have got the case of a German breed of fowls in which the hens were spurred, & were found to disturb & break their eggs much.6

With respect to the females of deer not having horns, I presume it is to save the loss of organized matter.7

In yr note you speak of sexual selection & protection as sufficient to account for the colouring of all animals, but it seems to me doubtful how far this will come into play with some of the lower animals, such as sea anemones, some corals &c &c—8

On the other hand Häckel has recently well shewn that the transparency & absence of colour in the lower oceanic animals, belonging to the most different classes, may be well accounted for on the principle of protection.9

Some time or other I shd like much to know where yr paper on the nests of birds has appeared, & I shall be extremely anxious to read yr paper in the West. Rev. Your paper on the sexual colouring of birds will I have no doubt be very striking.10

Forgive me, if you can, for a touch of illiberality about yr paper & believe me yrs very sincerely | Ch. Darwin


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from A. R. Wallace, 1 May 1867.
See Variation 2: 71–5; see also Descent 1: 282–5.
See Origin 4th ed., pp. 240–1.
See Variation 1: 256. The information was from Bechstein 1789–95.
CD’s views on horns, or the lack of them, in female deer, were developed further during his work on Descent, the projected work on sexual selection, particularly among humans, that he had been discussing with Wallace. In Descent 2: 243 he wrote: ‘No doubt with female deer the development during each recurrent season of great branching horns … would have been a great waste of vital power, on the admission that they were of no use to the females.’
See Descent 1: 322.
CD refers to Ernst Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie (Haeckel 1866), 1: 241–3. This section is annotated in the copy in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 355–7). See Descent 1: 323.


Bechstein, Johann Matthäus. 1789–95. Gemeinnützige Naturgeschichte Deutschlands nach allen drey Reichen. Ein Handbuch zur deutlichern und vollständigern Selbstbelehrung besonders für Forstmänner, Jugendlehrer und Oekonomen. 4 vols. Leipzig: Siegfried Lebrecht Crusius.

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

Haeckel, Ernst. 1866. Generelle Morphologie der Organismen. Allgemeine Grundzüge der organischen Formen-Wissenschaft, mechanisch begründet durch die von Charles Darwin reformirte Descendenz-Theorie. 2 vols. Berlin: Georg Reimer.

Marginalia: Charles Darwin’s marginalia. Edited by Mario A. Di Gregorio with the assistance of Nicholas W. Gill. Vol. 1. New York and London: Garland Publishing. 1990.

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.

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


Returns ARW’s notes. He will work up subject much better than CD.

Apologises for the note of illiberality in his letter regarding ARW’s work on the colouring and other sexual differences in mammals.

Discusses laws of inheritance based on sexual selection.

He questions the extent of applicability of principles of protection and sexual selection to lower animal forms, though Ernst Haeckel has shown how protection may account for transparency and absence of colour in lower oceanic animals.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent from
Source of text
The British Library (Add 46434 f. 89)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 5528,” accessed on 23 September 2021,

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