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Darwin Correspondence Project

From M. D. Conway   10 September [1873]1

51, Notting Hill Square, | Bayswater. W.

Sep. 10.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

In making up a collection of ethnical scriptures which I am about to bring out I came across the curious debate between the Sages & animals, which I thought might amuse and interest you, and had copied.2

Today I send you some rough reports of the Science Congress of America, which will show that though my countrymen may not be very thorough students of the phenomena of evolution they are actively studying and discussing them.3

I reading Prof. Swallow’s repudiation of the idea of the moral nature of man being evolved,4 I recalled an anecdote told me two days ago by a Mrs. Chase of Valley Falls, Rhode Island, an intelligent Quaker lady who owns a large farm5   She said that finding an old horse quite broken down she ordered that he should be placed in a good pasture there to remain for the rest of his life without work. In the same pasture there was a young horse that her daughters rode and were fond of. A week after the old horse had been so pensioned, her son walked over to the pasture to see after him. The weather was excessively hot—the sun burning. There was a clump of trees in the pasture under whose shade the horses were accustomed to shelter themselves from the sun. The young man wondered at not seeing the horses in this shade; and he presently discovered at a little distance the old horse lying down dying, and the young horse standing beside him on the side of the sun, so that his shadow protected the dying horse. The youth approached, the young horse went off, but going off a little way and watching he saw the horse return and plant himself in the same position. This experiment was repeatedly tried, and invariably the young horse went back and stood in the burning sun beside the other. One morning the youth found the young horse again in the shade of the trees. The old horse was dead. Even supposing the position on the sunny side to have been accidental, there was certainly a touching display of feeling and sympathy.

—We have had in London until today, when she has gone to Oxford, a Miss Holmes of New England,—a remarkably pretty and intelligent young lady,—who moves her ears with great freedom. The ears differ from each other in general outline; one being a general curve, the other of somewhat irregular outline, and more distinctly pointed, in fawn-like fashion, than I have ever before seen.6

—In preparing the work to which I have already alluded—“The Sacred Anthology”7—in which I hope to have every fine passage in every oriental scripture, comparatively classified—I have at every step seemed to be hearing the echoes of your great generalizations. From man’s first utterance as he cowered under the elements or gazed on them with wonder, up to the Sermon on the Mount, up to Plato’s “Laws”, up to Emerson’s Essays or Tennyson’s poetry,8 there is no ‘missing link’. The ethnical religions correspond with genera and species at every point, and they have perished and survived in exact accordance with natural selection. In the various conversations which I have had with Max Müller (who has for some years aided me in this collection), I have observed in him a continual, possibly unconscious, acceptance of and reference to the fact of this religious evolution, in the recollection of which his last lectures (‘The Philology of Darwin’) sounded oddly.9 However, on coming out of the lecture-room on one of those occasions, Prof. Clifford10 remarked to me that he considered the lecture as part of a deep and dark plot to infuse Darwinian ideas into the fashionable world!

I trust you, and Mrs Darwin and your family are well, and beg that you will not take any time in writing, as no reply is needed. | Very faithfully yours | M D Conway


The year is established by the references to Conway 1874 (see n. 2, below) and Max Müller 1873a (see n. 9, below).
CD returned this copy to Conway (see letter to M. D. Conway, 12 September [1873]); it was probably section 424, drawn from a Persian Zoroastrian source, of Conway’s Sacred anthology, which was published in 1874 (Conway 1874, pp. 277–81). In this section, seven sages were questioned by seven animals about human claims of superiority. The debate resulted in the animals making a pact to live peacefully together so long as humans abstained from slaughtering them. Peace and freedom from tyranny lasted until humans broke the treaty.
These reports have not been identified.
An account of George Clinton Swallow’s paper, ‘On the Origin of Species’ (delivered at the Portland meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), was published in the New York Tribune, 23 August 1873, p. 2. CD had argued that the evolution of the moral disposition of humans could be traced by investigating the differing degrees of mental powers in animals (see Descent 2: 390–6). Swallow, however, did not think that the religious sense could be developed in monkeys.
Conway may refer to Elizabeth Buffum Chace. Chace had visited Conway in London in June 1872 (see L. B. C. Wyman and Wyman 1914, 2: 8).
In Descent 1: 20–3, CD had described the voluntary movement of the ears and the occurrence of pointed ears as evidence of animal ancestry. Miss Holmes may have been a member of the extensive Holmes family of New England (see G. A. Gray 1908); if so, she was probably introduced to Conway by his acquaintance Oliver Wendell Holmes (see Conway 1904, 1: 340–2).
See n. 2, above.
The sermon on the mount appears in Matt. 5–7; Laws was Plato’s last dialogue. Ralph Waldo Emerson published several sets of essays, and Alfred Tennyson was the poet laureate.
Friedrich Max Müller gave three lectures, ‘Mr. Darwin’s philosophy of language’, in March and April 1873 (Max Müller 1873a). CD’s annotated copies, sent to him by Max Müller (see letter to Friedrich Max Müller, 3 July 1873), are in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL. Max Müller drew attention to the contrast between the natural sciences explaining the origin of things from cells, and the study of the origin of language through roots. However, he warned that evolutionist philosophers abhorred the reasoning of linguists who held that if two roots of exactly the same sound produced two totally different families of words, then the roots were different, and if two germs, apparently alike, invariably produced one an ape and the other a human, then the two germs were different (see Max Müller 1873a, third lecture, pp. 4–5). He concluded that ‘the fortress of language’ stood unshaken as the frontier between animals and humans (ibid., p. 22). CD referred to Max Müller 1873a in Descent 2d ed., pp. 88–9 nn. 62 and 63. In 1873, Max Müller also published Introduction to the science of religion (Max Müller 1873b), based on lectures given in 1870.
Probably William Kingdon Clifford.


Conway, Moncure Daniel. 1874. The sacred anthology: a book of ethnical scriptures. London: Trübner & Co.

Conway, Moncure Daniel. 1904. Autobiography: memories and experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway. 2 vols. London: Cassell.

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.

Gray, George Arthur. 1908. The descendants of George Holmes of Roxbury. 1594–1908. Boston: David Clapp & Son.

Wyman, Lillie Buffum Chace and Wyman, Arthur Crawford. 1914. Elizabeth Buffum Chace, 1806-1899: her life and its environment. 2 vols. Boston: W. B. Clarke Co.


Comparative study of "ethnical scriptures" shows that natural selection has operated in the evolution of religion.

Letter details

Letter no.
Moncure Daniel Conway
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 161: 220
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9049,” accessed on 22 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 21