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Darwin Correspondence Project

From J. D. Hooker   5 August 1871

Royal Gardens Kew

Aug 5/71

Dear Darwin

I have been reading Sir W. Thomson’s address, & am most anxious to have your opinion of it— What a belly-full it is, & how Scotchy— it seems to me to be very able indeed, & what a good notion it gives of the gigantic achievement of Mathematicians & Physicists.1 it really makes one giddy to read of them. I do not think Huxley will thank him for his reference to him as a ‘positive’ unbeliever in spontaneous generation—2 these Mathematicians do not seem to me to distinguish between un-belief & a-belief.— I know no other name for the state of mind that is traduced under the term skepticism.3

I had no idea before that pure mathematics had achieved such wonders in practical science, & I wonder how far Thomson’s statements will be contested. The total absence of any allusion to Tyndall’s labors, even when comets are his theme, seems strange to me, & the laudation of Tait, Tyndall’s veiled adversary both by name & by implication so often, is not in good taste, considering that Tait has been the constant laudatory anonymous reviewer of Thomson himself in the Scotch reviews.4

The notion of introducing life by meteors is astounding & very unphilosophical, as being dragged in head & shoulders apropos of the speculations of the ‘Origin’ of life from or amongst existing matter—seeing that Meteorites are after all composed of the same matter as the globe is—5 Does he suppose that God’s breathing upon Meteors or their progenitors is more philosophical than breathing on the face of the earth?

I thought too that Meteors arrived on the earth in a state of incandescence,— the condition under which T. assumes that the world itself could not have sustained life.6 For my part I would as soon believe in the Phœnix as in the Meteoric import of life.— After all, the worst objections are to be found in the distribution of life, & the total want of evidence of renewal by importations such as Meteoric visitations would suggest the constant recurrence of. The quotation of Herschels very early objection to Nat. Selection is surely not fair, if indeed correct, & again highly unphilosophical,— what real objection is it to Nat. Selection that it should be too Laputan?7 Surely Columbus & the Egg might have occurred to him8 & to call this (Herschels objection) a most “valuable and instructive criticism”! I wish he, or any one else would tell me the logical significance of the phrase “the argument from design”.9 I understand design well enough, but “the argument from it” is just what the arguer pleases to argue— he means I suppose “a certain conclusion from design”, assuming always that his idea of design is God’s idea too. Again how the Deuce can “proofs of intelligent design” (in Nature) show us “through nature the influence of a free will”?

What will Huxley say to the phrase “Metaphysical or Scientific” if Metaphysics are anything they are in his opinion good science as aught else scientific.10

Are the Commentators on Paley, a bit worse than Paley himself?—11

I am pleased with his praise of old Sabine, because I think there has been too much disposition to overlook his really great scientific merit, his indomitable perseverance,— just as I think Humboldt is underrated now a days— Well, these were our Gods my friend, & I still worship at their shrines a little—12

I am hammering away at a narrative of my Marocco trip,13 & find it harder work than ever; I suspect that systematic & descriptive writing hurts head & hand for other writing— though you preserve freshness of style with any amount of purely scientific writing.

My wife takes Harriette to Berlin on Wednesday & Willy escorts them.14 She (wife) has gout in the finger-joint I grieve to say; which interferes with her playing, & what is worse with her writing, & she likes writing as a manual exercise, as much as I hate it—

Do you see the Journal of Botany,?— there is a case mentioned on good authority of Viola canina (var sylvatica) growing with the cristate form of Aspidium felix-mas & bearing plaited & crisped leaves after the fashion of the Fern!15

Ever yours affect | J D Hooker


William Thomson delivered the presidential address to the forty-first meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on 2 August 1871; the meeting took place in Edinburgh, and Thomson devoted part of his address to the achievements of Scottish mathematicians and physicists (Thomson 1871). The greater part of Thomson’s address had been published in The Times, 4 August 1871.
Thomson concluded his address with a discussion of the origin of life on earth; he dismissed the theory of spontaneous generation of organic from inorganic life citing the authority of Thomas Henry Huxley (Thomson 1871, pp. ciii–cv). In his own presidential address to the British Association meeting the previous year, Huxley had concluded that there was no evidence for ‘abiogenesis’, or the creation of organic from inorganic matter (T. H. Huxley 1870b, pp. lxxii–lxxxiv). However, Huxley went on to state that an absence of evidence was not a basis for scientific belief, and gave, as a matter of ‘philosophical faith’, his own opinion that life had originated by the ‘evolution of living protoplasm from not living matter’ (T. H. Huxley 1870b, p. lxxxiv).
Huxley himself is credited with coining the term ‘agnostic’ in 1869 or 1870 (OED).
The nature of comets, and in particular their ability to emit light, had been the subject of recent debate. John Tyndall proposed that comets were composed of vapour that partly condensed on exposure to sunlight, resulting in a highly reflective gaseous cloud (Tyndall 1869). In his presidential address Thomson referred favourably to Peter Guthrie Tait’s rival theory that light was emitted from the heads of comets as a result of collisions among the pieces of rock and metal of which he assumed them to be composed, with their tails only visible when illuminated by sunlight (Thomson 1871, pp. ci and cii; see also Tait 1869b). Thomson and Tait were both members of an informal ‘North British’ group of mathematicians and physicists particularly identified with support for established religion; Tyndall was part of an opposing group who promoted scientific freedom from organised religion (ODNB). For Tait’s anonymous review of several of Thomson’s works in the North British Review, see [Tait] 1869a; see also Correspondence vol. 17, letter to J. D. Hooker, 7 August [1869] and n. 5.
See Thomson 1871, pp. civ–cv.
See Thomson 1871, p. civ.
Thomson alluded in his presidential address to John Frederick William Herschel’s dismissal of natural selection on the grounds that it could no more account for all of past and present organic life than the ‘Laputan method of composing books’ could account for the works of Shakespeare (Thomson 1871, p. cv; Herschel 1861, p. 12 n.). Laputa is a fictional country in Gulliver’s travels ([Swift] 1726), whose inhabitants invent absurd contraptions, including a machine that writes books by randomly rearranging words. For CD’s concerns about Herschel’s initial reaction to Origin, see Correspondence vol. 7, letter to Charles Lyell, [10 December 1859] and n. 13.
Hooker refers to an anecdote commonly used to illustrate the point that something which seems easy once one knows how to do it is not necessarily obvious at first sight. Christopher Columbus, faced with critics who claimed that discovering America required little skill, was said to have challenged them to stand an egg on end; when they failed, he did so himself by gently denting the shell. (William A. Fahey, ‘Fitzgerald’s eggs of Columbus’, American Notes and Queries 8 (1995): 26–7.)
Thomson concluded his address by alluding to the argument for the existence of a divine creator put forward by William Paley in Natural theology (Paley 1802); the argument was based on the apparent evidence of design in nature. Thomson described Paley’s arguments as ‘solid and irrefragable’ (Thomson 1871, p. cv).
Thomson claimed, ‘overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie all round us; and if ever perplexities, whether metaphysical or scientific, turn us away from them for a time, they come back upon us with irresistible force’ (Thomson 1871, p. cv). For Huxley’s views on the relationship between science and metaphysics, and his membership of the Metaphysical Society, see White 2003, especially pp. 130–4.
See n. 9, above.
Thomson praised Edward Sabine for his work on magnetism and for his successful lobbying for government funds for scientific research (Thomson 1871, pp. lxxxvii–xc). Alexander von Humboldt’s account of his travels in South America (Humboldt 1814–29) had been one of CD’s inspirations in undertaking the Beagle voyage (Correspondence vol. 1).
Hooker and Ball 1878; see also letter from J. D. Hooker, 3 July 1871 and n. 4.
Hooker refers to Frances Harriet Hooker, Harriet Anne Hooker, and William Henslow Hooker.
See Journal of Botany 9 (1871): 244. The plant was incorrectly referred to as Viola sylvatica (an Indian species) rather than V. canina var. sylvestris (now V. canina var. canina, the dog violet). The fern was referred to as Lastrea filix-mas in the report. Both Aspidium filix-mas and Lastrea filix-mas are synonyms for Dryopteris filix-mas, the male fern. ‘Cristata’ is a garden variety of the fern with ‘cristate’ or crested fronds that form a distinctive shuttlecock shape.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 27 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Herschel, John Frederick William. 1861. Physical geography. From the Encyclopædia Britannica. Edinburgh.

Humboldt, Alexander von. 1814–29. Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent, during the years 1799–1804. By Alexander de Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland. Translated into English by Helen Maria Williams. 7 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown; J. Murray; H. Colburn.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

OED: The Oxford English dictionary. Being a corrected re-issue with an introduction, supplement and bibliography of a new English dictionary. Edited by James A. H. Murray, et al. 12 vols. and supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1970. A supplement to the Oxford English dictionary. 4 vols. Edited by R. W. Burchfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1972–86. The Oxford English dictionary. 2d edition. 20 vols. Prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1989. Oxford English dictionary additional series. 3 vols. Edited by John Simpson et al. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1993–7.

Origin: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1859.

Paley, William. 1802. Natural theology; or, evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. London: R. Faulder.

[Swift, Jonathan.] 1726. Travels into several remote nations of the world. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships. 2 vols. London: Benjamin Motte.

Thomson, William. 1871. Presidential address. Report of the 41st Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held at Edinburgh (1871): lxxxiv–cv.

Tyndall, John. 1869. On cometary theory. Philosophical Magazine,. [Read 8 April 1871 to the Cambridge Philosophical Society.] 4th ser. 37: 241–5.

White, Paul. 2003. Thomas Huxley. Making the ‘man of science’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lengthy discussion of William Thomson’s address [BAAS, Edinburgh 1871].

Letter details

Letter no.
Joseph Dalton Hooker
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 103: 73–77
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7896,” accessed on 20 October 2021,

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