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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Harrison Weir   28 March 1871

9 Lyndhurst Road | Peckham London | S.E

March 28th. 1871

Dear Dr. Darwin

It is very long since I wrote to you because, I have thought your time of such value, that I would not trouble you with my little observations of nature, but I have a matter to communicate now to which I attach very great importance   I think you know already that it has for a long while been my belief, that an animal having young, by one male the effect does not cease then but is liable to be carried in to the next litter.1 I have heard it stated that a bitch greyhound having had connection with a Shepherds dog, her first litter had several cross bred greyhounds, but also although after that she was regularly put to a thorough bred greyhound, there still was the cross visible in some of the pups. I cannot vouch for the truth of this, not having seen the case in person but I can the following. If you remember some time since I wrote and told you that one of my rabbits had littered a young one with long hair and although I had had the breed some long time this had never occurred before and I thought it then possible that from that accidental one I might raise a long haired breed   Well, I got a good doe of a first rate fancy lop eared sort, which was put to a similar breed of buck both short haired, amongst the litter was a sooty fawn doe, this I resolved to keep and put it to my long haired buck, she being younger than he but it would be her first litter. Well she kindled and not one long haired one amongst them. I put her to the long haired buck again, when lo and behold next time she had four long haired ones   this proved to me, what I anticipated could be done that a long haired variety might be easily got by chance, so I gave my long haired buck away, and the four long haired young ones were killed. Now comes the wonderful part (to me)   I still keep the doe and breed from her and she throws short haired young ones   when her last litter of young ones another long haired young comes, and is now alive, proving to me that the potency of the long haired buck still existed within the doe, although this was the second young ones she had had since her connection with that buck, the father of both the latter broods being a short haired buck. I take it this is a clear case, what say you? Many years ago, I had a breed of yellow fawns rabbits. On fancy one day I put one of the does to a black buck which I borrowed, she had sooty fawns and I think a black, the next time I put her to one of my own yellow fawns, yet in her next litter there were some sooty fawns, but it so long ago that I cannot remember now the number. I hear strange things in the way of breeding animals as to color, of which I am hard of belief.

I have not yet had the pleasure of reading your last work “The Descent of Man” so I do not know whether the foregoing is touched on there;2 but if there is anything in what I believe to be the case in breeding, It would be rather hard for a man to marry a widow and and her child by him be like her first husband. I have spoken to many veterinary surgeons on this matter and other surgeons too, but in all cases I have found them deficient of observation, and could not be depended on

But perhaps all this, may be stale and unprofitable to you and you may have thought this clearly out long ago, Still I thought I should like to let you know of this particular case, as (to me) it is so clear.— I think I told you but I am not certain that I had a pair of rabbits that were tailess.3 I thought the tails they were eaten off by the doe as they likewise had no ears and both their parents had. From them I bred a a short tailed rabbit of the right form


thus, and I am clear that you can breed to almost any thing that is to say if I got two animals with only three legs each, I believe with care, I could breed three legged ones, thus, you breed from a spavined horse and you get spavined foals I am told. I am of opinion though this is guess work that the interiors of individuals vary just as much as their faces, and also their forms no two being alike, so with proper selection you might breed long or short armed people if wanted, people with big livers, and small hearts much or little lungs etc but I must be tiring you, but I have been rather a close observer for many years. I had observed the point in the case of the human being of which Mr. Woolner told you4 and I have seen ears like this


this part entirely fitted on to the neck having no lobe and having the point at the top

Sincerely hoping that you are better in health | Believe me dear Dr. Darwin | Yours Sincerely | Harrison Weir

P.S. | I have an idea that the hedge sparrow5 (flit wing) uses this flitting motion to disturb the insects, as also birds, who so feed, I do not observe those motions in birds that feed on seeds. Is there any thing in this idea. They have not the motion for nothing

I shall be at




until Saturday night, should you wish for more information on this subject

CD annotations

1.1 It is … following. 1.10] crossed pencil
1.31 I hear … subject 5.9] crossed pencil
Top of letter: ‘(Effect of first impregnation)’ pencil (square brackets in MS)


In Variation 1: 403–5, CD discussed reports of the effect of first impregnation on subsequent progeny in various animals and concluded that such cases provided evidence of the direct action of the male element on the female.
CD did not discuss the topic of first impregnation in Descent.
See Correspondence vol. 16, letter from J. J. Weir, 16 April 1868. The rabbits mentioned in this letter may have belonged to Harrison Weir. No letter from Harrison Weir on the subject has been found.
Weir refers to Thomas Woolner and a pointed form of the human ear, the so-called ‘Woolnerian tip’, a drawing of which Woolner sent to CD (see Correspondence vol. 18, letter to Thomas Woolner, 10 March [1870]). CD reproduced the drawing and discussed the feature in Descent 1: 22–3.
The hedge sparrow is also known as the dunnock (Prunella modularis).


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.

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


Effects of first impregnation on litters from subsequent pregnancies.

Power of selective breeding to produce different varieties.

Letter details

Letter no.
Harrison William Weir
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 72
Physical description
7pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7633,” accessed on 21 October 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 19