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Darwin Correspondence Project

From G. J. Romanes   21 April 1875

April 21, 1875.

In returning you —’s papers, I should like to say that the one on ‘Inheritance’ appears to me quite destitute of intelligible meaning.1 It is a jumble of the same confused ideas upon heredity about which I complained when you were at this house.2 How in the world can ‘force’ act without any material on which to act? Yet, unless we assume that it can, the whole discussion is either meaningless, or else assumes the truth of some such theory as ‘Pangenesis.’3 In other words, as it must be ‘unthinkable’ that force should act independently of matter, the doctrine of its persistence can only be made to bear upon the question of heredity, by supposing that there is a material connection between corporeal and germinal cells—i.e. by granting the existence of force-carriers, call them gemmules, or physiological units, or what we please.4

Lawson Tait says (p.60)—‘The process of growth of the ovum after impregnation can be followed only after the assumption either expressed or unconsciously accepted of such a hypothesis as is contained in Mr. Darwin’s “Pangenesis;”’5 and it is interesting, as showing the truth of the remark, to compare, for example, p. 29 of the other pamphlet—for, of course, ‘Pangenesis’ assumes the truth of the persistence of force as the prime condition of its possibility.6 If ever I have occasion to prepare a paper about heredity, I think it would be worth while to point out the absurdity of thinking that we explain anything by vague allusions to the most ultimate generalisation of science. We might just as well say that Canadian institutions resemble British ones because force is persistent. This doubtless is the ultimate reason, but our explanation would be scientifically valueless if we neglected to observe that the Canadian colony was founded by British individuals.

The leaf from ‘Nature’ arrived last night. I had previously intended to try mangold-wurzel, as I hear it has well-marked varieties. The reference, therefore, will be valuable to me.7

Before closing, I should like to take this opportunity of thanking you again for the very pleasant time I spent at Down. The place was one which I had long wished to see, and now that I have seen it, I am sure it will ever remain one of the most agreeable and interesting of memory’s pictures.8

With kind regards to Mrs. Darwin, I remain, very sincerely and most respectfully yours, | Geo. J. Romanes.


The paper on inheritance was probably Edward Lewis Sturtevant’s The law of inheritance; or, the philosophy of breeding (Sturtevant 1875; see nn. 4 and 6, below). A copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
CD evidently visited Romanes while he was in London from 31 March to 12 April 1875 (CD’s ‘Journal’ (Appendix II)).
Romanes was testing CD’s theory of pangenesis experimentally by producing graft hybrids (see Variation 2: 357–404 and letter from G. J. Romanes, 14 January 1875).
Sturtevant 1875, p. 15, states: The hypothesis of pangenesis demands the presence of granules or gemmules which are freely circulating through the system, and which are supposed to be transmitted from the parent to the offspring, and which can lie dormant or become developed in the generations that succeed. To me, this is unthinkable, and I prefer to suggest that the law of persistence of force requires that no change can take place in a cell without changing the possibilities of that cell in its multiplication and future development; that each cell is the sum of all the forces which have acted on it in the past and are acting in the present; that the intimate connection of the generative cells with the whole body, arising through their high endowment, stores up in them a greater store of possibilities, brought about by their extreme complexity of environment.
The quotation is from The pathology and treatment of diseases of the ovaries (Tait 1874). Tait sent the essay to CD with his letter of 17 March [1875]. An annotated copy is in the Darwin Pamphlet Collection–CUL.
In Sturtevant 1875, p. 29,  it is argued: The ideal cell repeats itself through the force which is stored within it. As forces have been received by the parent cell through nutrition, and as force must have been used by this cell in the support of the processes which accompany vitality, this cell cannot transmit itself, as itself was when first formed, to its own offspring, but transmits those forces only which itself possesses at the time of the generation or production of offspring.
CD evidently sent a page from Nature that reported on grafted roots of mangold wurzel (mangel-wurzel), illustrating the transmission of special characters from the graft to the stock (Nature, 1 October 1874, p. 452).
Romanes visited Down on 17 April 1875 (Emma Darwin’s diary (DAR 242)); see letter to G. J. Romanes, 7 April [1875].


Sturtevant, Edward Lewis. 1875. The law of inheritance; or, the philosophy of breeding. Boston: Wright & Potter.

Tait, Lawson. 1874. The pathology and treatment of diseases of the ovaries; being the Hastings prize essay of 1873. London: Smith, Elder & Co.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Returns papers [unidentified].

One on inheritance destitute of meaning. How can "force" act without any material on which to act? Discussion must assume truth of some such theory as Pangenesis.

Letter details

Letter no.
George John Romanes
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
Source of text
E. D. Romanes 1896, pp. 20–2

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 9945,” accessed on 22 June 2021,

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