RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1880. Sir Wyville Thomson and natural selection. Nature. A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science 23 (11 November): 32.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8, textual corrections by Sue Asscher 3.2007. RN3

[page] 32

Sir Wyville Thomson and Natural Selection

I AM sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson1 does not understand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself. If he had done so, he could not have written the following sentence in the Introduction to the Voyage of the Challenger:—"The character of the abyssal fauna refuses to give the least support to the theory which refers the evolution of species to extreme variation guided only by natural selection."2 This is a standard of criticism not uncommonly reached by theologians and metaphysicians, when they write on scientific subjects, but is something new as coming from a naturalist. Prof. Huxley demurs to it in the last number of NATURE;3 but he does not touch on the expression of extreme variation, nor on that of evolution being guided only by natural selection. Can Sir Wyville Thomson name any one who has said that the evolution of species depends only on natural selection? As far as concerns myself, I believe that no one has brought forward so many observations on the effects of the use and disuse of parts, as I have done in my "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication"; and these observations were made for this special object. I have likewise there adduced a considerable body of facts, showing the direct action of external conditions on organisms; though no doubt since my books were published much has been learnt on this head. If Sir Wyville Thomson were to visit the yard of a breeder, and saw all his cattle or sheep almost absolutely true, that is closely similar, he would exclaim: "Sir, I see here no extreme variation; nor can I find any support to the belief that you have followed the principle of selection in the breeding of your animals." From what I formerly saw of breeders, I have no doubt that the man thus rebuked would have smiled and said not a word. If he had afterwards told the story to other breeders, I greatly fear that they would have used emphatic but irreverent language about naturalists.


Down, Beckenham, Kent, November 5

1 Charles Wyville Thomson (1830-1882), Scottish naturalist and oceanographer. Francis Darwin referred to this letter as 'the only instance in which [Darwin] wrote publicly with anything like severity'. LL 3: 242. The letter was reprinted in ML 1: pp. 388-389 with an additional paragraph.

2 Thomson 1880, p. 50.

3 Huxley 1880.

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