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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Henry Reeks   25 May 1871

North End, | East Woodhay, | Newbury,

May 25th 1871

My dear Mr Darwin,

Mr Wallace very justly remarks in the “Academy” that your “Descent of Man” “will prove almost equally attractive to the naturalist and the general reader,”1 but to one who, like myself, puts implicit faith in the evolution of species through natural selection the perusal of it has proved more than attractive, and I trust you will pardon my sending you one or two notes thereon. NB. I have only the 1st. Edition by me—2

Vol II. p. 244. You think that the horns of the female reindeer are of no “special advantage”, but as they are retained until after the birth of the fawn—or, as the Mic Macs call it the “Carriboo Cheech” (young Carriboo) I think it very probable that they have been specially retained for the protection of their young; and such is the general opinion among the Indians and settlers in Newfoundland, where wolves are generally lurking about at that season in pairs—3

Page 254. Horns modified through sexual selection for beauty— I once saw in Newfoundland a pair of horns of the woodland carriboo (Rangifer Carribou) which were nearly straight and tapered to a point without any snags: the brow-antlers were also mere pointed snags, and yet the horns evidently belonged to an old stag.4 Query. Was not this a case of reversion to some ancestral type? One or two cases have also come to my knowledge in which only one of the horns has been pointed in this manner, while the other retained its more usual palmated form. A very fine pair of horns of this species which I obtained from an old stag shot in Newfoundland have one spike-like brow-antler, about 10 inches in length; whereas an equally handsome, although much smaller, pair from a barren doe have two very similar spike-like brow-antlers. This latter form is, I believe, very rare.

Page 270— Dogs— A Newfoundland bitch which was kept at a settlement 12 miles from Cow Head (the next and nearest settlement) invariably had puppies by the same dog from the latter place, although never purposely brought together for that purpose.5 So clear and quiet is the atmosphere in Newfoundland that the dog probably heard the howling of the bitch, when the wind, or, perhaps, calmness, happened to be favourable. The bitch was a very small animal of the short smooth-haired variety, whereas the dog was of immense size and curly coated. In one litter of puppies both sexes resembled their respective parents, but I cannot say if such was always the case.

Page 272. Bulls are sometimes capricious in their choice.

Many years ago my father had a celebrated short-horned bull which repeatedly refused to be mated with a black cow; so that colour in this instance appears to have influenced the male—6

Page 278— Hooded Seal (Cystophora Cristata

I am inclined to think the male has acquired his hood through sexual selection only as an ornament, although it may serve the double purpose of being useful when fighting: but then the males of Phoca vitulina and P. Grænlandica fight quite as much during the rutting-season, and yet have no hoods: the adult males, however, are much more beautifully marked in both these species—7

I have frequently seen the settlers in Newfoundland tole the male—and more rarely the female—of P. vitulina within gunshot by lying flat on a rock and imitating the actions and voice of the males; i.e., by continually and alternately raising the head and then the heels, and repeating the words waugh, waugh, waugh, in a deep guttural tone.

Page 298. With regard to the seasonal change in the coats of animals, it is an extraordinary fact, as I am informed by Prof. Newton, that the arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) never becomes white in Iceland, although I found that it invariably did so in Newfoundland—8

Page 318— Females mature before males. I believe that this rule not only holds good with all animals but even with plants. The females of Lepidoptera copulate almost as soon as they emerge from the pupa state, whereas the males come forth some few days previously—

The pollen on the anthers of flowering plants is matured and retains its fertilising power for some little time before the stigma is fit to receive it effectually. For instance in the hazel, walnut, willow, cucumber, &c; also in Monœcious plants Berberis, &c.— Many other cases may be mentioned, but as I know of no exceptions to this rule it is useless to give more examples—

With regard to the resemblance in colour of young birds to the adult females at p. 199 vol II—you say “there are no instances as far as I can discover of species with the females dull-coloured and the young bright-coloured”, but the young of the willow warbler is more brightly coloured than either parent in adult plumage.

Page 214. vol II. Footnote— On the authority of Audubon you state “The Harlequin duck Anas histrionica, Linn) takes three years to acquire its full plumage, though many birds breed in the second year”.9 Can Audubon be depended on in this statement? From my own experience in Newfoundland I had come to the conclusion that no North American duck or gull either acquired its mature plumage or bred under three years—

Apologising for having thus troubled you, | Believe me, dear Mr Darwin, | Very faithfully yours, | Henry Reeks—

To | C. Darwin, Esqr. M.A. F.R.S. | &c. &c. &c—

CD annotations

1.1 Mr … me— 1.5] crossed blue crayon
2.1 Vol … pairs— 2.5] crossed pencil
3.1 Page … rare. 3.11] crossed ink
4.1 Page … purpose. 4.4] scored blue crayon
4.1 Page … fighting: 8.3] crossed pencil
8.3 but then … no hoods: 8.4] scored ink
9.1 I have … tone. 9.5] crossed ink
11.1 I believe … examples— 12.5] crossed pencil
14.1 Page 214 … years— 14.6] crossed ink
Top of letter: ‘A’ blue crayon

CD note:

Reeks Letter A

p. 1. Horns of ♀ Reindeer of use [‘Newfoundland’ added above]

2 Bitch always puppied from same dog 12 miles

3 Bull capricious rejecting one black [interl] cow

3 ♂ seals more beautifully marked than ♀

4 Arctic fox not white in Iceland during winter

5 young of willow warbler brighter than either parent

Parti-coloured rabbits, | Reeks10


The reference is to Alfred Russel Wallace’s review of Descent, published in the Academy, 15 March 1871, p. 177.
Reeks refers to the first printing of Descent, made in February; two further, corrected, printings had been made (see Freeman 1977).
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), known as caribou in North America, are the only species of deer in which the females are antlered (Nowak 1999, 2: 1128–9). CD did not alter his view on the uselessness of female horns in the second edition of Descent, but he added Reeks’s information about the retention of horns in female deer (Descent 2d ed., p. 503). The Micmac are an Algonquian tribe based in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, the Prince Edward Islands, and parts of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, and Quebec (EB).
Reeks refers to the subspecies Rangifer tarandus caribou (the woodland caribou). Caribou horns have two sets of points, with the lower set curving forward from the brow. In Descent 2: 254–6, CD suggested that the branching or curved horns of stags might be ornamental and have evolved from sexual selection, as a single-point or spiked antler would be a more effective weapon.
In Descent 2: 270–2, CD considered whether domesticated quadrupeds chose their mates and mentioned several female dogs who showed a strong preference for particular males.
CD added this information in Descent 2d ed., p. 525.
CD described Cystophora cristata (the hooded seal) in a section on the sexual selection of vocal organs; he reported the belief of some naturalists that the inflatable hood strengthened the roaring sound that males emitted during rutting behaviour. Reeks also refers to Phoca vitulina (the common or harbour seal) and P. groenlandica (the harp seal; now Pagophilus groenlandicus).
The reference is to Alfred Newton. There are two colour morphs in Arctic foxes, blue and white. The former is bluish-brown in winter, chocolate brown in summer; the latter is white in winter, and dorsally brown with white underparts in summer (see Sillero-Zubiri et al. 2004, p. 117).
CD had cited John James Audubon’s Ornithological biography (Audubon 1831–[9], 3: 614); CD’s heavily annotated copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 21–3). Anas histrionica is now Histrionicus histrionicus.
In CD’s note, ‘p. 1.... cow’ is crossed in pencil, ‘4 … parent;’ is crossed and scribbled out in pencil.


Descent 2d ed.: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. By Charles Darwin. 2d edition. London: John Murray. 1874.

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

EB: The Encyclopædia Britannica. A dictionary of arts, sciences, literature and general information. 11th edition. 29 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1910–11.

Freeman, Richard Broke. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d edition. Folkestone, Kent: William Dawson & Sons. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, Shoe String Press.

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.

Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker’s mammals of the world. 6th edition. 2 vols. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.


Comments on and corrections for chapter 13, "Mammals", of Descent.

Letter details

Letter no.
Henry Stephen (Henry) Reeks
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 88: 100–4
Physical description
7pp †, CD note

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7767,” accessed on 23 September 2021,

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