More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2

Author: Charles Darwin

Letter 697. To J.D. Hooker. Down, December 5th, 1868.

...Now I want to beg for assistance for the new edition of "Origin." Nageli himself urges that plants offer many morphological differences, which from being of no service cannot have been selected, and which he accounts for by an innate principle of progressive development. (697/1. Nageli’s "Enstehung und Begriff der Naturhistorischen Art." An address delivered at the public session of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Munich, March 28th, 1865; published by the Academy. Darwin’s copy is the 2nd edition; it bears signs, in the pencilled notes on the margins, of having been read with interest. Much of it was translated for him by a German lady, whose version lies with the original among his pamphlets. At page 27 Nageli writes: "It is remarkable that the useful adaptations which Darwin brings forward in the case of animals, and which may be discovered in numbers among plants, are exclusively of a physiological kind, that they always show the formation or transformation of an organ to a special function. I do not know among plants a morphological modification which can be explained on utilitarian principles." Opposite this passage Darwin has written "a very good objection": but Nageli’s sentence seems to us to be of the nature of a truism, for it is clear that any structure whose evolution can be believed to have come about by Natural Selection must have a function, and the case falls into the physiological category. The various meanings given to the term morphological makes another difficulty. Nageli cannot use it in the sense of "structural"—in which sense it is often applied, since that would mean that no plant structures have a utilitarian origin. The essence of morphology (in the better and more precise sense) is descent; thus we say that a pollen-grain is morphologically a microspore. And this very example serves to show the falseness of Nageli’s view, since a pollen-grain is an adaptation to aerial as opposed to aquatic fertilisation. In the 5th edition of the "Origin," 1869, page 151, Darwin discusses Nageli’s essay, confining himself to the simpler statement that there are many structural characters in plants to which we cannot assign uses. See Volume I., Letter 207.) I find old notes about this difficulty; but I have hitherto slurred it over. Nageli gives as instances the alternate and spiral arrangement of leaves, and the arrangement of the cells in the tissues. Would you not consider as a morphological difference the trimerous, tetramerous, etc., divisions of flowers, the ovules being erect or suspended, their attachment being parietal or placental, and even the shape of the seed when of no service to the plant.

Now, I have thought, and want to show, that such differences follow in some unexplained manner from the growth or development of plants which have passed through a long series of adaptive changes. Anyhow, I want to show that these differences do not support the idea of progressive development. Cassini states that the ovaria on the circumference and centre of Compos. flowers differ in essential characters, and so do the seeds in sculpture. The seeds of Umbelliferae in the same relative positions are coelospermous and orthospermous. There is a case given by Augt. St. Hilaire of an erect and suspended ovule in the same ovarium, but perhaps this hardly bears on the point. The summit flower, in Adoxa and rue differ from the lower flowers. What is the difference in flowers of the rue? how is the ovarium, especially in the rue? As Augt. St. Hilaire insists on the locularity of the ovarium varying on the same plant in some of the Rutaceae, such differences do not speak, as it seems to me, in favour of progressive development. Will you turn the subject in your mind, and tell me any more facts. Difference in structure in flowers in different parts of the same plant seems best to show that they are the result of growth or position or amount of nutriment.

I have got your photograph (697/2. A photograph by Mrs. Cameron.) over my chimneypiece, and like it much; but you look down so sharp on me that I shall never be bold enough to wriggle myself out of any contradiction.

Owen pitches into me and Lyell in grand style in the last chapter of volume 3 of "Anat. of Vertebrates." He is a cool hand. He puts words from me in inverted commas and alters them. (697/3. The passage referred to seems to be in Owen’s "Anatomy of Vertebrata," III., pages 798, 799, note. "I deeply regretted, therefore, to see in a ’Historical Sketch’ of the Progress of Enquiry into the origin of species, prefixed to the fourth edition of that work (1866), that Mr. Darwin, after affirming inaccurately and without evidence, that I admitted Natural Selection to have done something toward that end, to wit, the ’origin of species,’ proceeds to remark: ’It is surprising that this admission should not have been made earlier, as Prof. Owen now believes that he promulgated the theory of Natural Selection in a passage read before the Zoological Society in February, 1850, ("Trans." Volume IV., page 15).’" The first of the two passages quoted by Owen from the fourth edition of the "Origin" runs: "Yet he [Prof. Owen] at the same time admits that Natural Selection MAY [our italics] have done something towards this end." In the sixth edition of the "Origin," page xviii., Darwin, after referring to a correspondence in the "London Review" between the Editor of that Journal and Owen, goes on: "It appeared manifest to the editor, as well as to myself, that Prof. Owen claimed to have promulgated the theory of Natural Selection before I had done so;...but as far as it is possible to understand certain recently published passages (Ibid. ["Anat. of Vert."], Volume III., page 798), I have either partly or wholly again fallen into error. It is consolatory to me that others find Prof. Owen’s controversial writings as difficult to understand and to reconcile with each other, as I do. As far as the mere enunciation of the principle of Natural Selection is concerned, it is quite immaterial whether or no Prof. Owen preceded me, for both of us, as shown in this historical sketch, were long ago preceded by Dr. Wells and Mr. Matthews.")


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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Letter 697. To J.D. Hooker. Down, December 5th, 1868.," More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, 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 August 14, 2022,

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Letter 697. To J.D. Hooker. Down, December 5th, 1868." More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, 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. 2, Original Sources. 14 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Letter 697. To J.D. Hooker. Down, December 5th, 1868.' in More Letters of Charles Darwin, Vol. 2, ed. and trans. . cited in , More Letters of Charles Darwin. Original Sources, retrieved 14 August 2022, from