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Darwin's Letter to Lyell

To Charles Lyell [10 December 1859]

Down Bromley Kent

My dear Lyell

...I have [had a] very long interview with Owen, which perhaps you would like to hear about, but please repeat nothing. Under garb of great civility, he was inclined to be most bitter & sneering against me. Yet I infer from several expressions, that at bottom he goes immense way with us. -- He was quite savage & crimson at my having put his name with defenders of immutability. When I said that was my impression & that of others, for several had remarked to me, that he would be dead against me: he then spoke of his own position in science & that of all the naturalists in London, "with your Huxleys", with a degree of arrogance I never saw approached. He said to effect that my explanation was best ever published of manner of formation of species. I said I was very glad to hear it. He took me up short, "you must not at all suppose that I agree with in all respects". -- I said I thought it no more likely that I shd. be right on nearly all points, than that I shd. toss up a penny & get heads twenty times running.

I asked him which he thought the weakest parts, -- he said he had no particular objection to any part. -- He added in most sneering tone if I must criticise I shd. say "we do not want to know what Darwin believes & is convinced of, but what he can prove". -- I agreed most fully & truly that I have probably greatly sinned in this line, & defended my general line of argument of inventing a theory, & seeing how many classes of facts the theory would explain. -- I added that I would endeavour to modify the "believes" & "convinceds". He took me up short, -- "You will then spoil your book, the charm of(!) it is that it is Darwin himself". -- He added another objection that the book was too "teres atque rotundus", -- that it explained everything & that it was improbable in highest degree that I shd. succeed in this"'. I quite agree with this rather queer objection, & it comes to this that my book must be very bad or very good. -- Lastly I thanked him for Bear & Whale criticism, & said I had struck it out. -- "Oh have you, well I was more struck with this than any other passage; you little know of the remarkable & essential relationship between bears & whales". --

I am to send him the reference, & by Jove I believe he thinks a sort of Bear was the grandpapa of Whales! I do not know whether I have wearied you with these details which do not repeat to any one. -- We parted with high terms of consideration; which on reflexion I am almost sorry for -- He is the most astounding creature I ever encountered.

Farewell my dear Lyell | Yours most gratefully | C. Darwin

(From Burkhardt, Frederick, ed. Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection 1825-1859. [Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998])

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