skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. A. Wolfe   9 March 1875

81 Uppr. Leeson St— | Dublin

March 9. 1875


I have just been reading with the deepest interest yr. “Descent of Man”   It has been the means of rendering many nights of suffering more endurable

May I venture to hope you will forgive me for addressing you on one or two subjects of wh. you treat? I have lived much in the country surrounded by animals, & for many years took an active part in the formation of a large collection of insects, very many of wh. we reared fr. the eggs. During a long residence on the continent we collecte〈d〉 numberless specimens of the horn〈ed〉 beetles, wh. if I understand you righ〈tl〉y you say are not provided with these appendages for the purpose of battle.1 We found very many with their horns broken, & some with broken legs—especially the front legs—

The Musk beetle wh. abounds at the Baths of Lucca2 we also often found with brok〈en〉 antennæ, as if they had been engaged in fighting—sometimes with one almost pulled out. Requiring a little gum when set, one summer—when they were more numerous than usual, we had some difficulty in getting perfect specimens

The subject of transmitted tendencies has always interested me much. Yr. work brought to my recollection a curious instance

When moving across a room not long ago I was startled by an exclamation of surprise fr. my Mother3 who roused me to the fact, quite unnoticed by me that I had taken up my chair with both hands & had carried it across with me against my back. She then told me that my gt. gd.mother (my gd.father’s mother) who 〈die〉d long before I was born had 〈this〉 habit, & that having seen me do it when quite a child, she had at once prevented me acquiring the trick. I was nearly fifty when this seemingly forgotten tendency once more appeared.

Since then I have more than once stopped myself preparing so to convey my chair—& to my amusement I discove〈re〉d only the other day the same pe〈cul〉iarity in a distant relation her gd.father having married my gt. gdmother’s sister—so she was not even closely related. Will you think me very audacious if I venture to say, I seem to see a greater likeness between our dear faithful companion the dog—when arrived at maturity—& ourselves, than even between the embryo wonderful as that is. I think dogs are capable of deep thought or contemplation— they seem at times quite in a state of abstraction—. I have seen an old terrier apparently so lost in some deep meditation as to be quite unconscious that she was called to take a walk. & I have had to rouse he〈r〉 fr. her reverie, when the pleasure shewed convinced me her unusu〈al〉 disregard of the summons was not caused by disinclination to move. Nor was she asleep at the time, for I had seen her instinctively move when the servant had brushed passed her, a liberty she always resented more or less according to her humor4

I believe she not only reflected but harboured many passions feelings supposed not to be shared with us by animals— On one occasion I threatened her with a light driving whip— I simply laid it across her back   it cd. scarcely have tickled her, she quietly & deliberately walked out of the hall door & hid herself among the laurels, just to vex me—& it was not till 12 ocl. at night that the groom found her.

Her attachment to me was extreme, but for ten days after this, she took no more notice of me than if I had not existed   She took no food offered by me, she ignored me, & never seemed to see 〈o〉r hear me— She kept up this punishmt. till one day, happening to meet her on the stairs, I sat down 〈b〉elow her put my arms round her & 〈tried〉 to coax her— she resisted at first, but when by degrees she felt herself drawn into her old resting place, her delight at finding herself there was too strong for her   she suddenly relented & for many days did not let me out of her sight for a moment, but clung to me with greater fondness than ever—.

She seemed to act with the deliberate intention of punishing me— That same terrier having been beaten by a servant, for chasing the hens when a pup, on becoming a mother used to sit on a step overlooking the poultry yard, to watch her pups who early shewed her fondness for the chase—& when they transgressed she wd. catch them by the hind leg & drag them away thus teaching them herself—in order to prevent their being beaten— Surely here reasoning power was displayed—not called forth by any accidental circumstance arising at the moment—but connected with what had taken place long before—& wh. must have been remembered & thought over carefully & in her treatment of me there seems to have been not only anger, for what she looked upon as an indignity, but something in her—wh. resented what she must have argued out to herself to have been an act of injustice. I thought she had been out all the afternoon—& had often seen her punished for a like offence— it turned out she had only been at the gate with the groom— While speaking of animals resenting supposed injuries I cannot but call to mind an instance of a favourite thoughbred mare— She was perfectly gentle, but fiery if not carefully handled. She was trained by our own groom a peculiarly gentle man with animals, who had never touched her with a whip, one day he happened to have one when exercising her & on her refusing to stand for a moment when near home, he gave her one cut with it. At the time she merely gave a slight brisk jump, but when in her loose stall— after the saddle & bridle had been removed, just as the groom was leaving the stable—she deliberately walked after him seemed to measure her distance turne〈d〉 & kicked him, without any show of temper— her ears were not put back. Nor did she repeat the kick nor cd. she have intended to hurt him much—as if she had—she might 〈h〉ave injured him severely— This was the only time the mare kicked him or anybody else. Was not this the fruit of thought? I cannot but think too that dogs have some kind of 〈c〉onscience— by conscience, I understand not that, wh. teaches us what is right, but that within us, wh. tells us whether our actions are in accordance with those laws wh. we believe—whether rightly or wrongly—to be binding on us.—

We had a water spaniel of rare intelligence, he understood Italian well, as well as English, & we had not had a french servant long till he understood him perfectly— this dog was an unmitigated thief & very self willed— Although he knew a beating wd. surely follow a theft, he invariably came to tell us of his delinquencies & it was his confession wh. generally first brought the loss of the meat or fish to our knowledge, he wd. crawl into the room & put himself down at my feet, sighing audibly.

I fancy on these occasions the beat〈ing〉 was of a mild character, yet it seemed to hurt his feelings so mu〈ch〉 that he wd. retire into private lif〈e〉 for the rest of the day & remain below stairs in company with the servant wh. he never did any other time. He used to lay regular traps & devise strategems to get himself let out— his favourite plan was to retch violently. When all the occupants of the drawingroom wd. fly to the door— once outside his whole demeanour suddenly changed—& as plainly as dog could do, he laughed at us all as he scampered off out of reach—generally stopping at the foot of the stairs to give one defiant bark. I do believe he felt genuine sorrow— when his thieving propensities got the better of him—& though on his return from his excursions we never beat him—having let him out ourselves—he used to appear horribly ashamed & if possible wd. creep in unobserved—5 I cd. fill vols. with the extraordinary traits I have observed in animals, those 〈of〉 yr works I have read have interested 〈me〉 very much—Natural history in all its branches having always been a favourite study with me, during a long period of enforced illness— I trust this may plead my excuse for inflicting these lines upon you.

Would not yr influence do much to prevent the wanton & unnecessary torture of those animals that are our faithful friends & companions & that—it may be—possess higher faculties than most people give them credit for— I wd. not purchase freedom fm. my pain—& I know b〈ut〉 well—what pain is—at the cost of harming one poor animal whe〈n〉 subject to vivisection—unless under conditions, wh. would render the experiment painless6

I remain | yrs faithfully | Gould. A. Wolfe

Since writing this, I have read with delight one passage in Mr. Gregs’ ‘Enigmas of Life’. He speaks of a possible future for some animals a belief wh. as you know was at any rate not condemned by Luther7


In Descent 1: 371–2, CD noted that the horns of male beetles did not seem well adapted for fighting and cited Henry Walter Bates’s observation that no evidence had been found to support the view that the horns were used for fighting. CD maintained that the horns were ornamental.
Bagni di Lucca, in Tuscany, Italy, is a resort with hot mineral springs (Columbia gazetteer of the world).
Wolfe’s mother was Isabella Offley. Other relatives mentioned have not been identified.
CD discussed abstraction in animals in Descent 1: 62–3, and added more examples in Descent 2d ed., pp. 83–4.
CD mentioned conscience in dogs in Descent 1: 78.
CD was involved in formulating a petition to get laws on vivisection enacted that would not hinder scientific work, but ensure humane treatment of animals (see, for example, letter to J. S. Burdon Sanderson, 10 February 1875). For more on the background to the debate on vivisection and CD’s role, see Feller 2009.
William Rathbone Greg had argued that some animals were more richly endowed with intellectual and moral qualities than many men, and quoted an anonymous author’s suggestion that immortality might be possible for those animals that attained ‘that moral stage whereat man becomes an immortal being’ (Greg 1872, pp. xiv–xv). Martin Luther, referring to his own dog, Tölpel, reportedly said that animals would inhabit heaven (see Ickert 1998, p. 91).


Columbia gazetteer of the world: The Columbia gazetteer of the world. Edited by Saul B. Cohen. 3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998.

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.

Feller, David Allan. 2009. Dog fight: Darwin as animal advocate in the antivivisection controversy of 1875. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Science 40: 265–71.

Greg, William Rathbone. 1872. Enigmas of life. London: Trübner.

Ickert, Scott. 1998. Luther and animals: subject to Adam’s fall? In Animals on the agenda: questions about animals for theology and ethics, edited by Andrew Linzey and Dorothy Yamamoto. London: SCM Press.


CD’s Descent.

Fighting among beetles.

Similarity between dogs and men; intelligence of dogs.

Letter details

Letter no.
Gould Anne Ruxton/Gould Anne Wolfe
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 181: 135
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9882,” accessed on 26 September 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 23