RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1905. [Letters to John Phillips, 1859]. In W. J. Sollas, The age of the earth and other geological studies, London, pp. 99; 251-3. Edited by John van Wyhe (Darwin Online, http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 4.2022. RN1

NOTE: For the full text of the letters see Correspondence vol. 7, pp. 372 and 403.

"Phillips, John, 1800-74. Geologist. 1834 FRS. 1844 Prof. Geology Dublin University. 1845 Wollaston Medal Geological Society. 1854-70 Keeper of Ashmolean Museum Oxford. 1856 Reader Geology Oxford University. ?1856 CD to P on foliation and offers copies of three vols. of geology of Beagle. CCD6. 1859 P to CD, to acknowledge award of Wollaston Medal of Geological Society. 1859-60 President Geological Society London. 1859 CD sent 1st edn of Origin. Sollas, The age of the earth, pp. 251-3, 1905, J.M. Edmonds, Proc. of Ashmolean Nat. Hist. Soc., for 1948-50, pp. 25-9, 1951. 1860 P gave Rede lectures at Cambridge, anti-Origin, but very fair. Life on earth, Cambridge 1860, contains substance of Rede lectures, CD wrote to Hooker that they were "unreadably dull". 1869 P sent CD his Vesuvius, Oxford 1869. CCD17. 1870 CD to Herschel, recommending that P be asked to revise 4th edn of Manual of scientific enquiry, 1871, which he did. CCD18." (Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin: A Companion, 2021)


[page] 99

No one who has any notion of the extraordinary thoroughness with which Darwin attacked this as every other problem that he investigated, will be at all surprised to learn that the same solution had already occurred to him, and in a letter to A. Agassiz (May 5, 1881) he sighs for ''some doubly rich millionaire, who would take it into his head to have borings made in some of the Pacific and Indian atolls, and bring home cores for slicing from a depth of 500 or 600 feet.' [Previously published in LL3: 183.] As the wished-for millionaire did not appear to be forthcoming, it appeared to me that the boring might be achieved in another way, by a method very familiar to this Association—I allude, of course, to a ''Committee."

[page] 251

Towards the end of his career, geology, like all other science, was confronted by the reappearance of an old and discredited doctrine, but now presented afresh with new and startling vigour; it was the doctrine of evolution as expounded in the famous 'Origin of Species by Natural Selection." Once more an Oxford professor was called upon to pronounce judgment on one of those momentous questions which arise from time to time to disturb the

steady current of established thought. Darwin's present of a copy of his book was accompanied by the following letter:—

[11 November [1859]] 'My DEAR PHILLIPS, —I have directed Murray to send you a copy of my book on the 'Origin of Species,' which as yet is only an abstract. I fear that you will be inclined to fulminate awful anathemas against it. I assure you that it is the result of far more labour than is apparent in its present highly condensed state. If you have time to

[page] 252

read it, let me beg you to read it all straight through, as otherwise it will be unintelligible. Try not to condemn it utterly till you have finished it and reflected on the recapitulation. Not that I am so foolish as to expect to convert any one who has long viewed the subject from an opposite point of view. I remember too well how many long years my own conversion took. The utmost which I hope is that you may see that more can be said on the side of mutability of specific forms than is at first sight apparent. If, indeed, your own observations have made you at all sceptical on the subject, then my book may produce some effect…

'Yours very sincerely,

'"CHARLES DARWIN."

Phillips had for a long time previously given careful attention to the "Succession of Life on the Earth," and had chosen this subject for the Read lecture, [Rede lecture] which he delivered before the University of Cambridge, shortly before the appearance of the ''Origin of Species." His pronouncement on Darwin's work was adverse. "Dead against," as Darwin wrote. His opinion as expressed in a letter to Darwin, of which he did not preserve a copy, called forth the following reply:—

'"ILKLEY WELLS HOUSE,

'"ORTLEY, YORKSHIRE, 26th November, 1859.

'My DEAR PHILLIPS, —Thank you for your note. Permit me to say one word about my book. Though many facts in paleontology may appear, or be really, opposed to my notions, and though my explanations may be quite fallacious, I earnestly beg you to consider whether a theory wholly false would explain, as it seems to me to explain, several classes of facts—as affinity of inhabitants of islands to nearest continent; the nature of the inhabi-

[page] 253

tants of oceanic islands; the affinities and classification of organic beings and their arrangement in groups; the strange fact of a member of one group being adapted to the habits of another group; the facts of morphology or homology; embryology and rudimentary organs. If you think the theory of Natural Selection does not to a large extent explain these classes of facts, I have not a word to say. Pray forgive me saying a word in favour of my own

offspring to one whom I consider an important judge.

"Yours very sincerely,

"C. DARWIN."

That Phillips was thoroughly justified in his position towards evolution is suggested by the fact that even Huxley, the most philosophic advocate of the theory, fully admitted that at the time of publication of the "Origin," palaeontology lent to its doctrine no support.


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