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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Alphonse de Candolle   11 December 1872

Down, | Beckenham, Kent.

Dec 11. 1872

My dear Sir

I began reading yr new book sooner than I intended, & when I once began, I cd not stop; & now you must allow me to thank you for the very great pleasure which it has given me.1 I have hardly ever read any thing more original & interesting than your treatment of the causes which favour the development of scientific men.2 The whole was quite new to me, & most curious. When I began yr essay I was afraid that you were going to attack the principle of inheritance in relation to mind; but I soon found myself fully content to follow you & accept your limitations.3 I have felt, of course, special interest in the latter part of your work; but there was here less novelty to me. In many parts you do me much honour, & every where more than justice.4 Authors generally like to hear what points most strike different readers; so I will mention that of your shorter essays, that on the future prevalence of languages & on vaccination interested me the most, as indeed did that on statistics & free-will. Great liability to certain diseases being probably liable to atavism is quite a new idea to me.5 At p. 322 you suggest that a young swallow ought to be separated & then let loose in order to test the power of instinct; but nature annually performs this experiment, as old cuckoos migrate in England, & I presume elswhere, some weeks before the young birds of the same year. By the way I have just used the forbidden word “nature,” which after reading your essay I almost determined never to use again.6 There are very few remarks in yr book to which I demur; but when you back up Asa Gray in saying that all instincts are congenital habits, I must protest.7 Finally, will you permit me to ask you a question: have you yourself, or some one who can be quite trusted, observed (p. 322) that the butterflies on the Alps are tamer than those on the lowlands?

Do they belong to the same species? Has this fact been observed with more than one species? Are they brightly coloured kinds? I am especially curious about their alighting on the brightly coloured parts of ladies’ dresses—more especially because I have been more than once assured that butterflies like bright colours, for instance in India the scarlett leaves of Pointsettia.8

Once again allow me thank you for having sent me your work, & for the very unusual amount of pleasure which I have received in reading it.

With much respect I remain, my dear Sir | yours very sincerely | Charles Darwin


CD was sent an advance copy of A. Candolle 1873 (Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis deux siècles: suivie d’autres études sur des sujets scientifiques en particulier sur la sélection dans l’espèce humaine). See letter to Alphonse de Candolle, 2 November [1872]. CD’s annotated copy is in the Darwin Library–CUL (see Marginalia 1: 153).
See A. Candolle 1873, 1: 70–183.
Candolle noted the early development of memory, attention, and observation over other faculties in the sons of scientific fathers. He argued that education, desire to emulate the father, religion, and social context were important in developing a predisposion for science, but went on to claim that the main effect of these non-hereditary factors was to bring out inherited traits (A. Candolle 1873, 1: 102–7).
There are several references in A. Candolle 1873 to the importance of CD’s theories. The latter part of Candolle’s work dealt with heredity, variation, and selection.
CD refers to chapters 7, 6, and 8 of A. Candolle 1873 (pp. 432–6, 427–31, 437–44, respectively). Atavism and predisposition to certain diseases was discussed in A. Candolle 1873, pp. 428–9.
The seventh section of A. Candolle 1873 (pp. 432–6) comprised a discussion of the different senses of the word nature (‘Sur les différents sens du mot nature et par conséquent des mots naturel, surnaturel, etc.’), including CD’s use of the word in Origin 5th ed., p. 117. Candolle rejected the word as used by naturalists, claiming that it was ambiguous (ibid., p. 436).
Candolle had praised Gray’s definition of instinct as ‘congenital habit’, and referred to a review in the American Journal of Science and Arts 50 (1870): 278 as the source of the statement (A. Candolle 1873, p. 321 and n.1).
Candolle had stated that there were insufficient observations to determine whether it was the experience of individual animals with respect to the presence of humans that made them more timid, or whether their timidity was a hereditary instinct produced by selection favouring caution (A. Candolle 1873, p. 322). CD had discussed the attraction of butterflies to brightly coloured plants in Descent 1: 399–400.


Candolle, Alphonse de. 1873. Histoire des sciences et des savants depuis deux siècles: suivie d’autres études sur des sujets scientifiques en particulier sur la sélection dans l’espèce humaine. Geneva: H. Georg.

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

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.

Origin 5th ed.: On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. 5th edition, with additions and corrections. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1869.


Thanks AdeC for great pleasure his new book [Histoire des sciences (1873)] has given him. Comments on several of the essays.

When AdeC backs up Asa Gray in saying all instincts are congenital habits, CD must protest.

Asks several questions about butterflies of the Alps discussed on p. 322 [of Histoire].

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Alphonse de Candolle
Sent from
Source of text
Archives de la famille de Candolle (private collection)
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8672,” accessed on 28 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 20