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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Chauncey Wright   11 October 1871

Cambridge Mass

Oct. 11 1871

My dear Mr Darwin

I have for some time past been so absorbed in the preparation of a memoir on the uses and origin of the arrangements of leaves in plants, that almost every other interest has been put aside; and I have delayed longer than I should to acknowledge the receipt of the pamphlets you were so kind as to send me.1 The title page is much more eye-catching than I anticipated, and altogether the pamphlet appears in a very taking dress. The printer’s art may make up in part for defects in the style of the essay, which certainly is not of a pamphleteering sort.

It was very gratifying to receive from you evidences that the essay will really be of good service. Mr. Kingsley’s note shows that I have touched a chord in him, for much in the pamphlet commends itself to his reason at first sight, as he says, and he proposes to re-read it and compare it with Mivarts book.2 This may not, however, be of much significance, for he welcomes free discussion of the subject (which generally means a loose and shallow one) and is not one of your opponen〈ts〉 〈b〉ut an admirer; and only differs from you when you seem to him to be less than what you ought to be. He does not specify in what respects you seem delinquent or inferior to him; but perhaps it is in not any longer regarding physical biology as a branch of scholastic or theological learning, and in not making use of its principles for edification. With my appendix he cannot at all agree; yet he regards it as an able statement of the now popular side of the question.3 I was pleased that he did not find it obscure, though in this line of thought the distinction between obscurity and crudity or error is not, perhaps, so well marked as in physical studies. Still from the emphasis of his dissent it appears that he thinks me distinctly wrong.

I presented to our Academy last evening my memoir on Phyllotaxy and other points in the structure of plants, which has become a much more elaborate essay than I expected. It is quite as long as the pamphlet, though the length is partly due to details and considerable repetitions by which I have tried to give it a popular character. It was well received and will be soon printed, when I will send you copies.4 The structure of plants has for a long time seemed to me as likely to afford one of the easiest, though by no means an absolutely easy example of the use of the theory of Natural Selection as a working hypothesis; but I was not wel〈l〉 〈q〉ualified for working it out. I have not, for exam〈pl〉e, seen the essay on plants by Nägeli to which you refer, and may not be aware of many of the difficulties of the problem; but I have not ignored any that I knew, and on points in physiology I have consulted Professor Gray.5 I have arrived at very different conclusions from those of that essay, (if I can judge from your reference to it) in respect to the range of adaptive characters in plants. With the resources of hypothesis afforded by the mathematical, mechanical and physiological principles known to me I have attempted the explanation of the special features of Phyllotaxy as present adaptations; also explanations of two genetic characters in plants, the general spiral and the whorl arrangements, as past adaptations; and have proposed to reduce the distinction of adaptive and genetic characters in general to a merely relative one. Regarding the latter as inherited features of past and outgrown adaptations, and conjecturing what some of these could have been, I have built an hypothesis across the chasm between the higher plants and sea-weeds.6 This sounds venturesome and paradoxical enough; much more so, I hope, than it will appear in the essay, where I feel the way along with at least some appearance of caution. My hasty thought of having the essay published in England was loosely connected in my mind with the prospect of being there myself to attend to the printing.7 This prospect for a long time among the most attractive to me has retreated and still ret〈r〉eats in the future. I believe that the indef〈inite〉ness of it has even become a part of the attraction. The actual passage definitely fixed for some date is too unromantic and like business; and must at any rate for the present be deferred for other business. But whenever I do make the trip I shall not fail to give myself the pleasure of calling on you. I have met your sons on two social occasions and expect the pleasure of meeting them again this evening at Professor Gray’s.8 I was unlucky in missing a call from them yesterday.

Very truly yours | Chauncey Wright


For Wright’s work on phyllotaxy, see the letter from Chauncey Wright, 1 August 1871 and n. 13; the memoir was Wright 1871c. Wright also refers to his review of St George Jackson Mivart’s Genesis of species (Mivart 1871a), which CD had had printed as a pamphlet (Wright 1871b).
CD had forwarded a letter from Charles Kingsley to Wright (see letter to John Murray, 23 September [1871]).
Wright 1871b included an appendix discussing the meaning of the terms ‘use’, ‘contrivance’, ‘purpose’, and ‘intention’.
Wright refers to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; there is a lightly annotated copy of his paper (Wright 1871c) in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
See letter to Chauncey Wright, 13 and 14 July [1871] and n. 8. Wright refers to Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli, the first part of Nägeli 1858–68, and Asa Gray.
In Wright 1871c, p. 380, Wright defined ‘genetic characters’ as important features of organic structures, formerly called ‘affinities’, for which few or no specific uses could be discovered.
George Howard and Francis Darwin had been travelling in the United States (see letter to Asa Gray, 16 July [1871]).


Nägeli, Carl Wilhelm von. 1858–68. Beiträge zur Wissenschaftlichen Botanik. 4 pts in 1 vol. Leipzig: Wilhelm Englemann.


Thanks CD for copies of the pamphlet [Darwinism (1871)].

His memoir on phyllotaxy [Mem. Am. Acad. Arts & Sci. n.s. 9 (1867–73): 379–415] will soon be printed.

Has met CD’s sons.

Letter details

Letter no.
Chauncey Wright
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Cambridge, Mass.
Source of text
DAR 181: 166
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8002,” accessed on 27 September 2021,

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