RECORD: Darwin, C. R. Beauty / An object is beautiful when it excites pleasure from form colour. (1871.05.24) CUL-DAR87.90-91 Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker, and John van Wyhe (Darwin Online,

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Kees Rookmaaker and John van Wyhe. 7.2012. RN1

NOTE: Introductory note by Laurence Shaff:

This appears to be a note for certain sections of Descent, 1st edn, Vol. 1, such as pp. 64, 105, 76-78 and 353-354 but Descent was published in January and the notes are dated May so they may be further thoughts for the second edition published in 1874. It also reads like some notes from his 'Notebook M', pp. 36-37. What makes it interesting is that this note is one of the few places where Darwin appears to suggest that simple beauty is perceived by man and not by other animals. (He also wrote in 'Notebook B', p. 161: 'Animals have no notions of beauty, therefore instinctive feelings against other species for sexual ends, whereas man has such instincts very little.') Beauty in its simplest form is the pleasure we receive from certain colours and forms. In the note, Darwin implies that other animals do not find corals, shells and flowers beautiful. He says that only the 'mind of men is so constituted'. That is, he has identified a capability that distinguishes us from other animals, something he denies elsewhere. For example, in Expression he writes: 'It can hardly be doubted that many animals are capable of appreciating beautiful colours and even forms, as is shown by the pains which the individuals of one sex take in displaying their beauty before those of the opposite sex' (p. 364). In Descent, p 353 he wrote 'No doubt the perceptive powers of man and the lower animals are so constituted that brilliant colours and certain forms, as well as harmonious and rhythmical sounds, give pleasure and are called beautiful'. In this note, he starts by writing: 'The beholder [of a beautiful object] may be any animal or man'. Therefore, it is likely that in the second paragraph he was thinking about humans rather than excluding other animals.

Reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and William Huxley Darwin.


Beauty May 24 — 71


An object is beautiful when it excites pleasure from form, colour, [shiny] &c in some beholder, & so into certain sounds in former or in certain [succeccions].

The beholder may be any animal or man; but we generally took consider the latter alone.

Beauty in certain or most birds we very easily infer excites the sense of beauty of the individuals of the same species (whether of any other animal is very doubtful) & of man. — There is not to no best reason to suppose that the most beautiful coral shells, & certainly not the most beuatiful corals or flowers excite a sense of beauty in other shells or corals or flowers. but only in the mind of men; so that to question why such objects are beautiful resolves itself into why the mind of men is so constituted that we it receives pleasure from certain shells, corals & flowers —

Then again in its simplest form apparently reduces itself at why the [eyes] have pleasure from certain


brilliant colours & symmetrical or complex forms & curves which we call graceful.

In the case of the higher animals their beauty vary, & we have good reason to believe does give pleasure to individuals of the same species, & then when confined to one sex, we have a right to enquire why the beauty has been acquired by one sex, & to [illeg] if it by the other sex or by both sexes. —

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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 14 August, 2012