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Darwin Correspondence Project

From A. R. Wallace   31 August 1872

The Dell, Grays, Essex

August 31st. 1872

Dear Darwin

Many thanks for your long & interesting letter about Bastian’s book, though I always regret that my asking for your opinion shd. have led you to give yourself so much trouble.1 I quite understand your frame of mind & think it quite a natural & proper one. You had hard work to hammer your views into peoples’ heads at first,—& if Bastian’s theory is true he will have still harder work, bacause the facts he appeals to are themselves so difficult to establish.

Are not you mistaken about the Sphagnum? As I remember it Huxley detected a fragment of Sphagnum leaf in the same solution in which a fungoid growth had been developed. Bastian mistook the Sphagnum also for a vegetable growth,—& on account of this ignorance of the character of the sphagnum, & its presence in the solution Huxley rejected somewhat contemptuously (& I think very illogically) all Bastian’s observations.2 Again, as to the Saline solution without nitrogen, would not the air supply what was required?3

I quite agree that the book would have gained force by rearrangement in the way you suggest,—but perhaps he thought it necessary to begin with a general agreement in order to induce people to examine his new collection of facts. I am impressed most by the agreement of so many observers, some of whom struggle to explain away their own facts.

What a wonderfully ingenious & suggestive paper that is by Galton, on “Blood Relationship”.4 It helps to render intelligible many of the excentricities of Heredity, Atavism, &c.

Sir Chas. Lyell was good enough to write to Lord Ripon and Mr.  Cole about me & the Bethnal Green Museum, & the answer he got was, that at present, no appointment of a director is Contemplated.5 I suppose they see no way of making it a Natural History Museum, & it will have to be kept going by Loan Collections of miscellaneous works of Art,—in which case of course the S. Kensington people will manage it.6 It is a considerable disappointment to me, as I had almost calculated on getting something there.

With best wishes for your health & happiness | Believe me Dr Darwin | Yours very faithfully | Alfred R Wallace

P.S. I have just been reading Howorth’s paper in Journ. of Anthrop. Inst. How perverse it is. He throughout confounds “fertility” with “increase of population”—which seems to me to be the main cause of his errors.7 His elaborate accumulation of facts in other papers in “Nature” on subsidence & elevation of land, I believe to be equally full of error, & utterly untrustworthy as a whole.8 | A.R.W.


See letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 August [1872] and n. 9. For a discussion of Thomas Henry Huxley’s criticism of Henry Charlton Bastian’s experiments, see Strick 2000, pp. 84–7.
See letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 August [1872]. CD had objected to Bastian’s claim to that living organisms had formed in saline solutions that contained no nitrogen.
Galton 1872a. See letter from Francis Galton, 28 May 1872 and n. 5.
See letter to A. R. Wallace, 28 August [1872] and n. 12. Henry Cole, as secretary of the Department of Science and Art, oversaw the South Kensington Museum and its new branch in east London, the Bethnal Green Museum. George Frederick Samuel Robinson, first marquess of Ripon, was president of the government’s council on education (ODNB). Wallace also refers to Charles Lyell. Wallace was informed by Cole that there were insufficient funds to pay for a separate director of the new museum (Raby 2001, p. 211).
The Bethnal Green Museum opened in June 1872 with an exhibition of paintings and pottery from the collection of Richard Wallace; later exhibits featured loaned objects of fine art and anthropology, as well as a permanent display of food substances and processes (Dickens 1879).
Henry Hoyle Howorth had sent CD a copy of the first part of his paper ‘Strictures on Darwinism’ (Howorth 1872c; see letter from H. H. Howorth, 30 July 1872 and n. 1). His views on sterility and fertility had previously been published in a letter to Nature (Howorth 1871a), prompting replies from both CD and Wallace (see letter from H. H. Howorth, 30 July 1872 and n. 2).


Bastian, Henry Charlton. 1872. The beginnings of life: being some account of the nature, modes of origin and transformations of lower organisms. 2 vols. London: Macmillan.

Dickens, Charles. 1879. Dickens’s dictionary of London, 1879: an unconventional handbook. London: Charles Dickens.

ODNB: Oxford dictionary of national biography: from the earliest times to the year 2000. (Revised edition.) Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. 60 vols. and index. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2004.

Raby, Peter. 2001. Alfred Russel Wallace: a life. London: Chatto & Windus.

Strick, James. 2000. Sparks of life: Darwinism and the Victorian debates over spontaneous generation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Further reflections upon Bastian’s book [The beginnings of life (1872)].

ARW’s prospects for Directorship at Bethnal Green Museum.

Letter details

Letter no.
Alfred Russel Wallace
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
DAR 106: B113–14
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8498,” accessed on 24 September 2021,

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