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Record number: WCP4811

Sent by:
Alfred Russel Wallace
Sent to:
W. J. Farmer
3 December 1908

Sent by Alfred Russel Wallace, Old Orchard, Broadstone, Wimborne, Dorset to W. J. Farmer [none given] on 3 December 1908.

Record created:
26 October 2012 by Catchpole, Caroline


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Record contains:

  • letter (1)
  • publication (1)

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LETTER (WCP4811.5206)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
American Philosophical Society
Finding number:
Alfred Russel Wallace Collection Mss.B.W15a
Copyright owner:
ŠA. R. Wallace Literary Estate

Physical description

Transcription information




Old Orchard,



Dec[embe]r. 3rd. 1908

W.J. Farmer Esq.

Dear Sir

Thanks for your interesting letter -- after reading "My Life".

I presume your question "Why?" -- as to the varying colour of individual hairs & feathers, & the regular varying of adjacent hairs &c. to form the surface pattern, applies to the ultimate cause which enables those patterns to be hereditary, & in the case of birds, to be reproduced after moulting yearly.

The purpose, or end they serve,1 [[2]] I have, I think, sufficiently dealt with in my "Darwinism", the method by which such useful tints & marking are produced[,] because useful[,] is, I think, clearly explained by the law of "natural selection" or "survival of the fittest" -- acting through the universal facts of heredity and variation.

But the "Why" -- which goes further back, to the directing agency which not only brings each special cell of the highly complex structure of the feather, into its exactly right position, but, further, carries pigments or produces surface strié[?] (in [[3]] the case of the metallic or interference colours) also to their exactly right place, & nowhere else -- is the mystery, which -- if we knew -- we should (as Tennyson said of the flower in the wall)2 -- know what God & Man is". --

The idea that "cells" are all conscious beings & go to their right has been put forward by Butler3 in his wonderful book "Life & Habit"4 -- and now even Haeckel5 seems to adopt it. All theories of heredity, including Darwin's "Pangenisis" do not touch it, and it seems to me as fundamental as life [[4]] and consciousness, & to be absolutely inconceivable by us till we know what life is, what spirit is, & what matter is -- and it is probable that we must develope [sic] in the spirit world some few thousand million years before we get to this knowledge -- if then!

My book "Man's Place in the Universe" -- shows I think, indications of the vast importance of the Universe as the producer of Man, which so many scientific men to day try to be-little, because of what may be, in the infinite!

Yours very truly | Alfred R. Wallace [signature]


1. There is inserted text pencilled in the bottom left corner of the page: "se £60".

2. "Flower in the Crannied Wall" (1863). A poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892).

3. Samuel Butler (1835-1902). English author.

4. Life and Habit, Trubner and Co., London, 1878.

5. Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (1834-1919). German biologist, naturalist and philosopher.

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