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Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

Autograph letter signed (‘Ch. Darwin’) to [Henry Nottidge] Moseley, Down, Beckenham, Kent, 22 November [1876].

Three pages, 203 x 125mm, bifolium, headed notepaper. Provenance: by descent.

Charles Darwin defends the principle of natural selection, making rare use of the term evolution. Darwin thanks Moseley for the Japanese books; he is sure that his son, Frank, will be equally pleased with the two papers. Moseley’s note interested him: ‘it is pity that Peripatus is so stupid as to spit out to the viscid matter at the wrong end of its body: it would have been beautiful thus to have explained the origin of the spiders web’. In a postscript, he claims not to be disappointed by what [Charles] W[yville] Thomson says, for ‘as long as a man believes in evolution biology will progress, and it signifies comparatively little whether he admits natural selection & then gains some light on the method, or remains in utter darkness’.

Darwin used the term ‘evolution’ rarely, preferring to speak of ‘descent with modification’ when he was moved to discuss the implications of natural selection: in the present letter to Moseley he is prompted to clarify his position on the matter by Charles Wyville Thomson’s 1876 introductory lecture to the natural history class at the University of Edinburgh, in which Thomson claimed that natural selection did not provide sufficient support for the hypothesis of evolution. Darwin’s apparently sanguine reply to Moseley, who had worked under Thomson on the Challenger, belies, perhaps, a deeper frustration that was to develop: writing in response to Thomson in the 11 November 1880 edition of the journal Nature, Darwin opens ‘I am sorry to find that Sir Wyville Thomson does not understand the principle of natural selection, as explained by Mr. Wallace and myself’. As well as enclosing a 9 November cutting from The Times reporting on Thomson’s lecture – an article entitled ‘A conclusion without premisses’ – Moseley had written to Darwin earlier in November sending ‘a few volumes of grotesque pictures’ and two scientific papers, to which Darwin refers here, as well as to their dashed hopes that Peripatus capensis, a velvet worm, might shed light on the origins of the spider’s web.

Darwin Correspondence Project 10685

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