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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. F. Ansell   8 April 1871

27 Bernard St. | Russell Square | W.C.

April 8th. 1871.

Dear Sir,

There is seldom any difficulty in approaching a Scientific man so I ask your patience while I bring to your notice a few facts which may not have occurred to others. I do not produce these as evidence that animals have reason in the same sense that man has but as instances of a very high order of Instinct.

My Father1 had a valuable dog “Phil” and a favourite cat “Dick”   It was a common Custom for these two to start off into the garden and each to take one side of the River whose bank was inhabited by water rats   If a rat ventured out on Phil’s side he would surely jump in and catch it   If however it was on Dick’s side the Cat surely jumped in—or, rather dived in—and caught it without any interference from Phil.

I have seen Dick sit on the Bank and Catch by his paw a trout lying, as is their habit, just under the bank. For a considerable time my father was annoyed by the ringing of the Front gate bell at 9 P.M. with the utmost regularity and determined to catch the rogue he stood on the mat with the Door in his hand   as the clock struck the bell rung and he immediately opened the Door   he however failed to catch the rogue— he next stood at the gate but here he also failed   again he tried another plan   he hid himself an hour before the time in some shrubs opposite the front door so as to command the bell wire &c   at Nine oclock “Dick” stood on his hind legs snatched the Wire with his front paw rang the bell and was as previously arranged admitted. This continued every night till the cat got old went away and died as seems to be the habit of cats. This same Dick brought up and nursed successfully a young Duck which he at night invariably got into a chair where the two passed the night happily.

My Mother’s father2 had a dog which would carry a basket in his mouth   “Grandpa” lived in the village—Angmering—and had a garden about a mile off in which vegetables &c were grown. It was a custom to send the dog with his basket which had a lid to fetch such as he could carry in that basket   On one occasion a new servant had arrived and she was told to give the dog his basket3   she to the dogs disgust gave him not his own but a small open one (and it appeared after [arguing]) off he went to the garden. On his return he was very crestfallen for he had brought home some Cucumbers terribly mangled by his teeth. On his road home he had to cross a style and in so doing he upset his cucumbers but knowing his business he set to work and picked them up and replaced them in the basket   this part of the adventure was witnessed by a reliable neighbour.

I cannot consider that either of those cases tend to show reason but educated instinct   The cat had probably seen the dogs enjoyment in rat catching and become enamoured of it as horses do to hunting   probably the bell arose from an accidental success in the first instance.

Another curious case came under my own observation   In my last residence I had a garden4   one morning I picked up a pair of snails which I subsequently found were copulating   I have frequently found snails just sticking to each others shells but these two were in different relation   I therefore to determine the point tried by gentle pulling to separate them and as I gently increased the pull I found I caused pain to the snails for a cry of agony was vented so distinct a hissing noise that it could be compared only to a French man hailing an omnibus and it might have been heard certainly 30 or 40 yards off. I destroyed the snails at once.

I could not consider the cry of agony as an evidence of reason. I venture to offer these instances because I yesterday read the “Times” remarks on your new book and I think you are entitled to any information one can give but for myself I shall always be satisfied to believe the Bible account of the creation as against the development theory of man—5 I have never seen a cucumber grow or be developed into a Melon. To my mind there is a distinct system of creation of man for whereas animals of the lower class by their food just replace and strengthen their tissues muscles teeth &c man while he does the same grows in reasoning powers whereas Animals have apparently less instinctive power when old than when young. As the Animal powers of man die out his food seems to give him more reasoning power and a man who does not live well cannot read write or work (that is reason) well.

Apologizing for so abrupt an intrusion | I am dear Sir | Faithfully yrs | George. F. Ansell

Charles Darwin Esqr F.R.S. &c. &c.


Robert Ansell.
Ansell’s mother was Sarah Ansell. Sarah Ansell’s father has not been identified.
The servant has not been identified.
Ansell’s previous residence has not been identified.
Descent was reviewed in The Times on 7 April 1871, p. 3, and 8 April 1871, p. 5. The review criticised CD’s conclusions concerning the use of reason by humans and animals, as illustrated by anecdotes about dogs.


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


Anecdotes about a dog and cat evidencing "a high order of instinct".

Letter details

Letter no.
George Frederick Ansell
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
London, Russell Square
Source of text
DAR 87: 105–8
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7668,” accessed on 17 September 2021,

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