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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hensleigh Wedgwood   [1868–70?]1

Dear Charles

If I understand the argument in favour of an early civilisation from the complex nature of the rudest languages of the rudest people it is that people in a barbarous state could never have formed such a complex language.2

Perhaps the best answer to this assertion would be to point out that language was never formed designedly3   It grew spontaneously out of the efforts made by the speaker to make his hearer understand, and so every modification of it would arise from the slurring over of what was once more fully expressed. Every change would be an instinctive, not a meditated operation and therefore there is no reason why it should not have been carried to any extent by those who had no thought of their modes of expression at all   Practically we see that people in the rudest stage do understand these complex modes of speech. Therefore as it appears to me there can be nothing in the uncivilised condition of life that could have hindered speech from gradually growing to such a stage

But if you suppose speech to have actually grown from the beginning the supposition of an originally civilised condition seems wholly cut away as it is impossible to conceive a civilised state antecedent to the acquisition of speech


CD annotations

Top of letter: ‘Rudiments’ pencil


The date range is conjectured from the content of the letter, which relates to material used in Descent (see n. 2, below). CD began his research for Descent in 1868; the manuscript was sent to the printer in August 1870 and it was published in 1871 (see ‘Journal’ (Appendix II) and R. B. Freeman 1977).
In Descent 1: 61, CD discussed an argument about the complexity of language structure and its relationship to civilisation found in Wake 1868. CD scored the passage that he later quoted in his copy of Wake 1868 (see Marginalia 1: 832). He evidently asked Wedgwood how he would refute the argument.
In Descent 1: 61, CD argued that language was not ‘methodically formed’, but did not cite Wedgwood on this point.


Development of complex language does not require an early civilisation. [See Descent 1: 56ff.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Hensleigh Wedgwood
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 80: 164–5
Physical description
4pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7040,” accessed on 26 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 18 (Supplement)