More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1

Author: Charles Darwin

Letter 213. To A.R. Wallace. Down, April 6th [1868].

I have been considering the terrible problem. Let me first say that no man could have more earnestly wished for the success of Natural Selection in regard to sterility than I did; and when I considered a general statement (as in your last note) I always felt sure it could be worked out, but always failed in detail. The cause being, as I believe, that Natural Selection cannot effect what is not good for the individual, including in this term a social community. It would take a volume to discuss all the points, and nothing is so humiliating to me as to agree with a man like you (or Hooker) on the premises and disagree about the result.

I agree with my son’s argument and not with the rejoinder. The cause of our difference, I think, is that I look at the number of offspring as an important element (all circumstances remaining the same) in keeping up the average number of individuals within any area. I do not believe that the amount of food by any means is the sole determining cause of number. Lessened fertility is equivalent to a new source of destruction. I believe if in one district a species produced from any cause fewer young, the deficiency would be supplied from surrounding districts. This applies to your Paragraph 5. (213/1. See Letter 211.) If the species produced fewer young from any cause in every district, it would become extinct unless its fertility were augmented through Natural Selection (see H. Spencer).

I demur to probability and almost to possibility of Paragraph 1., as you start with two forms within the same area, which are not mutually sterile, and which yet have supplanted the parent-form.

(Paragraph 6.) I know of no ghost of a fact supporting belief that disinclination to cross accompanies sterility. It cannot hold with plants, or the lower fixed aquatic animals. I saw clearly what an immense aid this would be, but gave it up. Disinclination to cross seems to have been independently acquired, probably by Natural Selection; and I do not see why it would not have sufficed to have prevented incipient species from blending to have simply increased sexual disinclination to cross.

(Paragraph 11.) I demur to a certain extent to amount of sterility and structural dissimilarity necessarily going together, except indirectly and by no means strictly. Look at vars. of pigeons, fowls, and cabbages.

I overlooked the advantage of the half-sterility of reciprocal crosses; yet, perhaps from novelty, I do not feel inclined to admit probability of Natural Selection having done its work so queerly.

I will not discuss the second case of utter sterility, but your assumptions in Paragraph 13 seem to me much too complicated. I cannot believe so universal an attribute as utter sterility between remote species was acquired in so complex a manner. I do not agree with your rejoinder on grafting: I fully admit that it is not so closely restricted as crossing, but this does not seem to me to weaken the case as one of analogy. The incapacity of grafting is likewise an invariable attribute of plants sufficiently remote from each other, and sometimes of plants pretty closely allied.

The difficulty of increasing the sterility through Natural Selection of two already sterile species seems to me best brought home by considering an actual case. The cowslip and primrose are moderately sterile, yet occasionally produce hybrids. Now these hybrids, two or three or a dozen in a whole parish, occupy ground which might have been occupied by either pure species, and no doubt the latter suffer to this small extent. But can you conceive that any individual plants of the primrose and cowslip which happened to be mutually rather more sterile (i.e. which, when crossed, yielded a few less seed) than usual, would profit to such a degree as to increase in number to the ultimate exclusion of the present primrose and cowslip? I cannot.

My son, I am sorry to say, cannot see the full force of your rejoinder in regard to second head of continually augmented sterility. You speak in this rejoinder, and in Paragraph 5, of all the individuals becoming in some slight degree sterile in certain districts: if you were to admit that by continued exposure to these same conditions the sterility would inevitably increase, there would be no need of Natural Selection. But I suspect that the sterility is not caused so much by any particular conditions as by long habituation to conditions of any kind. To speak according to pangenesis, the gemmules of hybrids are not injured, for hybrids propagate freely by buds; but their reproductive organs are somehow affected, so that they cannot accumulate the proper gemmules, in nearly the same manner as the reproductive organs of a pure species become affected when exposed to unnatural conditions.

This is a very ill-expressed and ill-written letter. Do not answer it, unless the spirit urges you. Life is too short for so long a discussion. We shall, I greatly fear, never agree.


Related Resources

Charles Darwin

Download Options

Title: More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Letter 213. To A.R. Wallace. Down, April 6th [1868].," More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, ed. Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941 and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in More Letters of Charles Darwin Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019,

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Letter 213. To A.R. Wallace. Down, April 6th [1868]." More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, edited by Darwin, Francis, Sir, 1848-1925 and Seward, A. C. (Albert Charles), 1863-1941, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Letter 213. To A.R. Wallace. Down, April 6th [1868].' in More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, ed. and trans. . cited in , More Letters of Charles Darwin. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from