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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Hugh Browne   17 April [1871]1


17 April | 1〈871〉

Dear Sir

As to aquatic birds having acquired white plumage (2 vol p 229 of Descent of Man) may I suggest two things2   First that as birds sail over the sea the least conspicuous of all colors is white or sky blue (or something lighter than sky blue because objects seen from blue all seem darker). This is on account of the white clouds or blue sky being the background but when birds perch much on rocks & perhaps also when 〈they d〉ive deep for prey, dark colors are least seen—e.g. cormorants, penguins.— For similar reasons the rule as to whiteness does not apply to freshwater birds or those living mostly in rivers & swamps & small lakes.—

Second.— There is a remarkable prevalence of white on the under surfaces of both birds & beasts & I suggest that this may be because white is the least radiator & therefor keeps warm the parts most exposed to damp & other causes of cold, e.g. at p 289 of 2 vol you notice of the Wapiti Deer “during the winter the darker tints gradually fade away”— Also p 298 “Many quadrupeds inhabiting moderately cold regions … become paler during winter〈.〉

I have never seen 〈    〉 what I doubt not is an importa〈nt〉 agent in modification viz the eff〈ect〉 of the will which may be even unconsciously exerted by the brain & which is also exerted I believe by every nervous centre or ganglion having reflex action—perhaps by every nerve—for instance when the stomach pours out gastric juice & the liver pours out bile & bone is formed to repair fracture. People may say the will has nothing to do with these things but if all mental effort be paralysed by grief or anxiety we know how the stomach & liver are incapacitated

When a lad at school I once involuntarily moved my ear— another lad noticed it, & having done it once I directed my attention to it during some hours & I doubt not, from what I then felt, that I might in a few days or weeks or months 〈have〉 pricked my ears like a 〈po〉inter simply by directing my will to them & obtaining the power by modifying the growth of skin or integument into muscle or development of germs (or gemmules as you term them) of muscles.— If I had a butting match with a negro every day do you think my skull would not thicken? I’ll write more on this if you care to have it.—3

I am observing what you prophesied as to color blindness of my sons & daurs nephews & nieces.—4 I have not yet had much opportunity but I think your views will be realized—my daur & two nieces having I think escaped.— As to the goodness of my sight in other respects, I have twice won the first prize in the annual competn of the Robin Hoods & I can count 10, 11, & now & then 12 Pleiads.—5

Yours faithfully | Hugh Browne

Chas Darwin Esq

CD annotations

1.1 As to … Pleiads.— 5.5] crossed blue crayon


The year is established by the relationship between this letter and the letter from Hugh Browne, June 1871.
In Descent 2: 229–30, CD suggested that sea-birds tended to be predominantly white or black because they were sufficiently strong that they had no need of camouflage, and rather needed to be able to find each other when flying over or swimming in a large body of open water.
CD discussed the ability to move one’s ears in Descent 1: 20–1. According to CD’s hypothesis of pangenesis, each cell in an organism produced particles (gemmules) that were capable of generating new cells; the gemmules circulated throughout the organism until required, and then congregated in the right place in order to reproduce, or in some cases reconstruct parts. CD described gemmules in Variation 2: 374–402. No further correspondence about Browne’s ability to move his ears has been found.
No letter to Browne has been found, but see the letter from Hugh Browne, 30 May 1868 (Correspondence vol. 16). Browne’s son was Oscar Browne; his daughter was Gertrude Phebe Browne. None of Browne’s other children has been identified. His nephews were Fred Douglas Browne and Michael Ross Browne. His nieces were Ellen E. Browne and Ethel Browne.
The Robin Hood Rifles was a volunteer rifle corps founded in Nottingham in 1859 (The Times, 18 July 1859, p. 12; see also Correspondence vol. 16, letter from Hugh Browne, 30 May 1868). The Robin Hood Rifles annually presented the Mapperley Cup as a prize for the best marksman (Gentleman’s Magazine 214 (1863): 519). The Pleiades are a star cluster (now known as M45); at least seven are generally visible to the naked eye, but it is sometimes possible to see ten or twelve (P. Moore 1987, p. 129).


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.

Moore, Patrick. 1987. Astronomers’ stars. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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


Raises two points on CD’s view, in Descent [2: 229], on how aquatic birds acquire white plumage.

Also remarks on effect of will in certain human modifications,

on colour-blindness in his children,

and on ability to move his ears.

Letter details

Letter no.
Hugh Browne
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 160: 331
Physical description
5pp †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7690,” accessed on 17 September 2021,

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