Charles Darwin never doubted the common ancestry of the human races. But he was open-minded about whether the races might nevertheless be so different from each other that they ought to be classified not as varieties of one species but as distinct species. He pondered this varieties-or-species question on and off for decades, from his time aboard the Beagle through to the publication of the Descent of Man. A constant throughout was his concern with something that he first learned on the Beagle voyage and that, on the face of it, seemed to favour the species ranking: the different races, he was told, play host to distinct species of lice. This paper reconstructs the long run of Darwin's reflections and interactions on race, lice and history, using his extended correspondence with Henry Denny – curator of the scientific collections of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and Britain's leading expert in the natural history of lice – as a window onto the social world whose imprint is everywhere in the pages of the Descent.