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Darwin Correspondence Project

From W. W. Reade   18 September 1871

11 St. Mary Abbot’s Terrace | Kensington

Sept. 18—71

My dear Sir

Very many thanks for Wright’s pamphlet which I read with special interest as I am now racking my brains on the subject.1 & also because I know & esteem the author: you may I think set off his estimate of your reasoning powers against the statements of the Quarterlies that you are metaphysically below the mark.2 It is amusing to read such remarks when one knows that you have satisfied the logical requirements of J. S. Mill,3 & of a man like Wright who is a mathematician of high order, and perhaps the best reasoner in the U.S.

In the same way those who have really studied savages will (on the whole) I am sure endorse your views on the origin of the moral & mental faculties.

I do not think however that Wright has touched on the real difficulties of the case. The passage about the mammary gland is not very strong.4 It is still my belief that the same laws which produced life, produce the development of life throughout all space from the lowest to the highest form; that these are primary laws: and that natural selection is a secondary law which superintends & arranges all details. According to this view the eye is due to a law of growth but N.S. might perhaps perfect it abnormally in certain cases; & in others reject it in toto, & use its materials in another way. In a third case if the struggle for life was not severe the eye would remain, though unused. Life itself in its first origin was a form of development independent of N. Selection   Is it not reasonable to suppose that this development should continue? independently of N.S.? According to your views had there been no Law of Malthus there would have been no development. Is that not so? According to this view there would have been development without the geometrical ratio & struggle for existence— But without the battle it would have been regular, analogous to that of the individual.5

As it is, the struggle for existence supposing there is a regular law of growth must often check growth & preserves the status quo. It is only when the law of growth coincides with utility that the development can take place. Hence its exceptional character.

There is only one thing which makes me believe that had there been no struggle for existence there wd have been no development. I am inclined to think it possible that as necessity is the mother of invention in man so it is in nature, & that when a species is subjected to severe pressure (& is not exterminated) the innate improving force is developed (not as Lamarck supposed with the assistance of the conscious will of the animal but irrespective of the will of the animal supposing it to have a will & for this idea applies to plants & the lowest organisms).6 I dare say you will laugh at this: most people certainly will. But consider: when a man is stewing unless he can invent a trap or something of that kind, what takes place? He makes his brain act, & keeps it to its work: that is all he can do. The idea resulting from the innate improving force flashes in upon him perhaps when he least expects it, so that he often thinks it is a message sent by a divine being. Now it seems to me a matter of very little consequence whether the animal is conscious or unconscious of the result of this force; or whether he by the operation of his will calls the force into action, or whether (if it is low down in nature) the force acts irrespectively of the will. In the plant the sexual reproductive force uses the plant: in the man, the man uses the reproductive force. But it is the same force pervading all organized beings—& antecedent to sex even. So man has the power of using & applying the development force of nature: the desire to preserve life (& afterwards other reasons) make him apply it.

It is possible these ideas of mine may be modified before I publish. I had not intended to trouble you with them till I had quite worked them out. Such as they are they have been obtained by analogy by reasoning from the individual to the race: & also by reasoning down from the progress of man to that of the lowest organisms. There is I believe a real analogy between the stationary character of certain simple organisms, & of certain ingenious cooperative animals and between that of certain savage tribes & people like the Chinese. I will state my proposition thus.

1 There is a law of growth in all life analogous to that seen in the unit

2. But irrespective of time; irregular & intermitting in its evolution.

3. In all its details controlled by Natural Selection. Its results rigidly repressed unless coinciding with utility. Modified & carried laterally by N.S.

4. The tendency to grow is possibly latent & is excited into special activity by the struggle for existence—or if its ordinary results are gradual—it may perhaps be impelled under pressure to sudden leaps.

Of course all these notions (they deserve no other name) are due to the Origin of species: though as Wright says it is a conversion to Lamarck.7 There is one point I should like to ask your opinion on: but do not trouble to answer it, till you are quite well, as it will certainly be three months before I get the proof sheets (o utinam!) into my hands.8

I have never seen it explained (& Bates9 says the same) why the female always runs away from the male. I attribute this to the fear of pain; & say that in the lowest forms of life as soon as like & dislike can be detected the female is the prey every union is a rape. But higher in the scale the female probably obtains pleasure (perhaps mingled with pain) but anyhow the feeling of timidity before sexual intercourse has become hereditary: hence the mingled desire & terror, known as coyness so noticeable in birds; & as for some reason this retreating or bashfulness excites the ardour of the male, N. Selection would intensify it. As a habit then it passes through the animal kingdom & becomes modesty in woman. I call this instinct sexual fear. It is not a hypothesis which the ladies will approve of.

My views such as they are were formed independently of all works except your own. I had a long talk to Bates about whether I shd. send them to you before I read Mivart.10 He encouraged me to do so, after I had thought them out. It is I trust needless to say that I totally dissent from Mivart’s views on morals, & there am your faithful disciple.11

I remain | Yours very truly | Winwood Reade


Reade refers to Chauncey Wright’s review of St George Jackson Mivart’s On the genesis of species (Mivart 1871a); CD had arranged to have it published in England as a pamphlet (Wright 1871b). CD distributed them to several of his acquaintances (see letter to Chauncey Wright, 12 September 1871).
Reade probably refers to Mivart’s hostile review of Descent published in the Quarterly Review ([Mivart] 1871c).
John Stuart Mill commented on Origin in the fifth edition of A system of logic (Mill 1862, 2: 18): What [CD] terms ‘natural selection’ is not only a vera causa, but one proved to be capable of producing effects of the same kind with those which the hypothesis ascribes to it: the question of possibility is entirely one of degree. It is unreasonable to accuse Mr. Darwin (as has been done) of violating the rules of Induction. The rules of Induction are concerned with the conditions of Proof. Mr. Darwin has never pretended that his doctrine was proved. He was not bound by the rules of Induction, but by those of Hypothesis. And these last have seldom been more completely fulfilled.
Wright discussed Mivart’s attack on the adequacy of natural selection to account for milk in mammary glands in Wright 1871b, pp. 32–3.
In his Essay on the principle of population, Thomas Robert Malthus concluded, ‘population, when unchecked, goes on doubling itself every twenty-five years, or increases in a geometrical ratio’ (Malthus 1826, 1: 16).
Jean Baptiste Lamarck believed that an animal could enhance a feature by its own efforts and that the improvement could then be inherited by its offspring (Lamarck 1809, 1: 235).
Wright argued that anyone who accepted evolution, or transmutation of species, without accepting natural selection was in fact subscribing to the arguments of Lamarck (Wright 1871b, p. 5).
O utinam: would that (Latin). Reade refers to the proof-sheets of his Martyrdom of man (Reade 1872); see letter from W. W. Reade, 12 September 1871 and n. 6.
Henry Walter Bates.
Reade refers to St George Jackson Mivart and probably to Mivart 1871a.
In Mivart 1871a, Mivart argued against the ability of natural selection to account for the evolution of morals (pp. 206–7). CD had described a possible sequence for the development of morals in Descent 1: 161–5.


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

Lamarck, Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine. 1809. Philosophie zoologique; ou exposition des considérations relatives à l’histoire naturelle des animaux; à la diversité de leur organisation … et les autres l’intelligence de ceux qui en sont doués. 2 vols. Paris: Dentu; the author.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1826. An essay on the principle of population; or, a view of its past and present effects on human happiness; with an inquiry into our prospects respecting the future removal or mitigation of the evils which it occasions. 6th edition. 2 vols. London: John Murray.

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.

Reade, William Winwood. 1872. The martyrdom of man. London: Trübner & Co.


There is a primary law of growth and innate improvement. Natural selection is a secondary law that operates to "arrange the details". This is not Lamarckian, because will is not involved.

Thanks for Chauncey Wright’s pamphlet [Darwinism (1871)].

Amused by critics who say CD is metaphysically unsophisticated.

Letter details

Letter no.
William Winwood Reade
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 176: 49
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 7950,” accessed on 20 October 2021,

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