John Lord.

Beacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents online

. (page 9 of 26)
Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents → online text (page 9 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Shrewsbury, well known to the amateur makers of Latin verse by the
volume entitled "Sabrinae Corolla." He expressed the opinion in later
life that nothing could have been worse for the development of his mind
than this school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else being
taught except a little ancient biography and history. During his whole
life he was singularly incapable of mastering any language. With respect
to science, he continued collecting minerals with much zeal, and after
reading White's "Selborne" he took much pleasure in watching the habits
of birds. Towards the close of his school life he became deeply
interested in chemistry, and was allowed to assist his elder brother in
some laboratory experiments. In October, 1825, he proceeded to Edinburgh
University, where he stayed for two years. He found the lectures
intolerably dull, with the exception of those on chemistry. Curiously
enough, while walking one day with a fellow-undergraduate, the latter
burst forth in high admiration of Lamarck and his views on evolution. So
far as Darwin could afterwards judge, no impression was made upon his
own mind. He had previously read his grandfather's "Zo├Ânomia," in which
similar views had been propounded, but no discernible effect had been
produced upon him. Nevertheless, it is probable enough that the hearing
rather early in life such views maintained and praised may have favored
his upholding them under a different form in the "Origin of Species."

While at Edinburgh, Darwin was a member of the Plinian Society, and read
a couple of papers on some observations in natural history. After two
sessions had been spent at Edinburgh, Darwin's father perceived that the
young man did not like the thought of being a physician, and proposed
that he should become a clergyman. In pursuance of this proposal, he
went to the University of Cambridge in 1828, and three years later took
a B.A. degree. In his autobiography the opinion is expressed that at
Cambridge his time was wasted. It was there, however, that he became
intimately acquainted with Professor Henslow, a man of remarkable
acquirements in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology.
During his last year at Cambridge Darwin read with care and interest
Humboldt's "Personal Narrative," and Sir John Herschel's "Introduction
to the Study of Natural Philosophy." These books influenced him
profoundly, arousing in him a burning desire to make even the most
humble contribution to the structure of natural science. At Henslow's
suggestion he began the study of biology, and in 1831 accompanied
Professor Sedgwick in the latter's investigations amongst the older
rocks in North Wales.

It was Professor Henslow who secured for young Darwin the appointment of
naturalist to the voyage of the "Beagle." This voyage lasted from Dec.
27, 1831, to Oct. 2, 1836. The incidents of this voyage will be found
set forth in Darwin's "Public Journeys." The observations made by him in
geology, natural history, and botany gave him a place of considerable
distinction among scientific men. In 1844 he published a series of
observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of the
"Beagle," and two years later "Geological Observations on South
America." These two books, together with a volume entitled "Coral
Reefs," required four and a half years' steady work. In October, 1846,
he began the studies embodied in "Cirripedia" (barnacles). The outcome
of these studies was published in two thick volumes. The time came when
Darwin doubted whether the work was worth the consumption of the time
employed, but probably it proved of use to him when he had to discuss in
the "Origin of Species" the principles of a natural classification. From
September, 1854, and during the four ensuing years, Darwin devoted
himself to observing and experimenting in relation to the transmutation
of species, and in arranging a huge pile of notes upon the subject. As
early as October, 1838, it had occurred to him as probable, or at least
possible, that amid the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on
in the animal world, favorable variations would tend to be preserved,
and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result would be the formation
of new species.

It was not until June, 1842, however, that Darwin allowed himself the
satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of his theory in
thirty-five pages. This was enlarged two years later into one of 230
pages. Early in 1856, Sir Charles Lyell, the well-known geologist,
advised him to write out his views upon the subject fully, and Darwin
began to do so on a scale three or four times as extensive as that which
was afterwards followed in his "Origin of Species." He got through about
half the work on this scale. His plans were overthrown, owing to the
curious circumstance that, in the summer of 1858, Mr. Alfred E. Wallace,
who was then in the Malay archipelago, sent him an essay "On the
Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type." It
turned out upon perusal that this essay contained exactly the same
theory as that which Darwin was engaged in elaborating. Mr. Wallace
expressed the wish that, if Darwin thought well of the essay, he should
send it to Lyell. It was Sir Charles Lyell and Sir Joseph Hooker who
insisted that Darwin should allow an abstract from his manuscript,
together with a letter to Prof. Asa Gray, dated Sept. 5, 1857, to be
published at the same time with Wallace's essay. Darwin was unwilling to
take this course, being then unacquainted with Mr. Wallace's generous
disposition. As a matter of fact, the joint productions excited very
little attention, and the only published notice of them asserted that
what was new in them was false, and that what was true was old. From the
indifference evinced to the papers which first propounded the theory of
natural selection, Darwin drew the inference that it is necessary for
any new view to be explained at considerable length in order to obtain
the public ear.

In September, 1858, Darwin, at the earnest advice of Lyell and Hooker,
set to work to prepare a volume on the transmutation of species. The
book cost him more than thirteen months' hard labor. It was published in
November, 1859, under the title of "Origin of Species." This, which
Darwin justly regarded as the chief work of his life, was from the first
highly successful. The first edition was sold on the day of publication,
and the book was presently translated into almost every European tongue.
Darwin himself attributed the success of the "Origin" in large part to
his having previously written two condensed sketches, and to his having
finally made an abstract of a much larger manuscript, which itself was
an abstract. By this winnowing process he had been enabled to select the
more striking facts and conclusions. As to the current assertion that
the "Origin" succeeded because the subject was in the air, or because
men's minds were prepared for it, Darwin was disposed to doubt whether
this was strictly true. In previous years he had occasionally sounded
not a few naturalists, and had never come across a single one who seemed
to doubt about the permanence of species. Probably men's minds were
prepared in this sense, that innumerable well-verified facts were stored
away in the memories of naturalists, ready to take their proper places
as soon as any theory which would account for them should be strongly
supported. Darwin himself thought that he gained much by a delay in
publishing, from about 1839, when the "Darwinian" theory was clearly
conceived, to 1859; and that he lost nothing, because he cared very
little whether men attributed most originality to him or to Wallace.

Darwin's "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication" was begun
in 1860, but was not published till 1868. The book was a big one, and
cost him four years and two months' hard labor. It gives in the first
volume all his personal observations, and an immense number of facts,
collected from various sources, about domestic productions, animal and
vegetable. In the second volume the causes and laws of variation,
inheritance, etc., are discussed. Towards the end of the work is
propounded the hypothesis of Pangenesis, which has been generally
rejected, and which the author himself looked upon as unverified,
although by it a remarkable number of isolated facts could be connected
together and rendered intelligible.

The "Descent of Man" was published in February, 1871. Touching this
work, Darwin has told us that, as soon as he had become (in 1837 or
1838) convinced that species were mutable productions, he could not
avoid the belief that man must come under the same law. Accordingly, he
collected notes on the subject for his own satisfaction, and not for a
long time with any intention of publishing. In the "Origin of Species,"
the derivation of any particular species is never discussed; but in
order that no honorable man should accuse him of concealing his views,
Darwin had thought it best to add that by that work, "light would be
thrown on the origin of man and his history." It would have impeded the
acceptance of the theory of natural selection if Darwin had paraded,
without giving any evidence, his conviction with respect to man's
origin. When he found, however, that many naturalists accepted his
doctrine of the evolution of species, it seemed to him advisable to work
up such notes as he possessed, and to publish a special treatise on the
origin of man. He was the more glad to do so, as it gave him an
opportunity of discussing at length sexual selection, a subject which
had always interested him.

Darwin's book on the "Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals" was
published in the autumn of 1872. This had been intended to form a
chapter on the subject in the "Descent of Man," but as soon as Darwin
began to put his notes together he saw that it would require a separate
treatise. In July, 1875, appeared the book on "Insectivorous Plants."
The fact that a plant should secrete, when properly excited, a fluid
containing an acid and ferment closely analogous to the digestive fluid
of an animal, was certainly a remarkable discovery. In the autumn of
1876 appeared "The Effects of Cross and Self Fertilization," a work in
which are described the endless and wonderful contrivances for the
transportation of pollen from one plant to another of the same species.
About the same time was brought out an enlarged edition of the
"Fertilization of Orchids," originally published in 1862. Among the
minor works issued during the later years of Darwin's life may be
mentioned particularly the little book on "The Formation of Vegetable
Mould through the Action of Worms." This was the outgrowth of a short
paper read before the Geological Society more than fourteen
years before.

In order to appreciate the enormous amount of research accomplished by
Charles Darwin, it is needful to keep in mind the conditions of
ill-health under which almost continually he worked. For nearly forty
years he never knew one day of the health of ordinary men. His life was
one long struggle against the weariness and drain of sickness. During
his last ten years there were signs of amendment in several particulars,
but a loss of physical vigor was apparent. Writing to a friend in 1881,
he complained that he no longer had the heart or strength to begin any
prolonged investigations. In February and March, 1882, he frequently
experienced attacks of pain in the region of the heart, attended with
irregularity of the pulse. On April 18 he fainted, and was brought back
to consciousness with great difficulty. He seemed to recognize the
approach of death, and said, "I am not the least afraid to die." On the
afternoon of Wednesday, April 19, he passed away. On April 26 he was
interred in Westminster Abbey. The funeral was attended by
representatives of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Russia, and by
delegates of the universities and learned societies of which he had been
a member. Among the pall-bearers were Sir John Lubbock, Sir Joseph
Hooker, Professor Huxley, Mr. A.R. Wallace, Mr. James Russell Lowell,
the Duke of Argyll, and the Duke of Devonshire. The grave is
appropriately placed in the north aisle of the nave, only a few feet
from the last resting-place of Sir Isaac Newton.


An outline of Darwin's personality would not be complete without a
glance at some of his mental characteristics, and at his attitude toward
religion. Of his intellectual powers, he himself speaks with
extraordinary modesty in his autobiography. He points out that he always
experienced much difficulty in expressing himself clearly and concisely,
but he opines that this very difficulty may have had the compensating
advantage of forcing him to think long and intently about every
sentence, and thus enabling him to detect errors in reasoning and in his
own observations, or in those of others. He disclaimed the possession of
any great quickness of apprehension or wit, such as distinguished
Huxley. He protested, also, that his power to follow a long and purely
abstract train of thought was very limited, for which reason he felt
certain that he never could have succeeded with metaphysics or
mathematics. His memory, too, he described as extensive, but hazy. So
poor in one sense was it that he never could remember for more than a
few days a single date or a line of poetry. On the other hand, he did
not accept as well founded the charge made by some of his critics that,
while he was a good observer, he had no power of reasoning. This, he
thought, could not be true, because the "Origin of Species" is one long
argument from the beginning to the end, and has convinced many able
men. No one, he submits, could have written it without possessing some
power of reasoning. He was willing to assert that "I have a fair share
of invention, and of common sense or judgment, such as every fairly
successful lawyer or doctor must have, but not, I believe, in any higher
degree." He adds humbly that perhaps he was "superior to the common run
of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in
observing them carefully."

Writing in the last year of his life, he expressed the opinion that in
two or three respects his mind had changed during the preceding twenty
or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty or beyond it poetry of many
kinds gave him great pleasure. Formerly, too, pictures had given him
considerable, and music very great, delight. In 1881, however, he said:
"Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry; I have
tried lately to read Shakspeare, and found it so intolerably dull that
it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music.
Music generally sets me thinking too energetically of what I have been
at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine
scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it
formerly did." Darwin was convinced that the loss of these tastes was
not only a loss of happiness, but might possibly be injurious to the
intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the
emotional side of one's nature. So far as he could judge, his mind had
become in his later years a kind of machine for grinding general laws
out of large collections of facts, and that atrophy had taken place in
that part of the brain on which the higher aesthetic tastes depend.
Curiously enough, however, he retained his relish for novels, and for
books on history, biography, and travels.

It is well known that Darwin was extremely reticent with regard to his
religious views. He believed that a man's religion was essentially a
private matter. Repeated attempts were made to draw him out upon the
subject, and some of these were partially successful. Writing to a Dutch
student in 1873, he said: "I may say that the impossibility of
conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious
selves, arose through chance seems to me the chief argument for the
existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value I have
never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a First Cause,
the mind still craves to know whence it came and how it arose. Nor can I
overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the
world. I am also induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of
the many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see
how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me that
the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do
his duty." To questions put by a German student in 1879, he replied:
"Science has nothing to do with Christ, except in so far as the habit of
scientific research makes a man cautious in admitting evidence. For
myself I do not believe that there ever has been any revelation. As for
a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting
vague probabilities." In the same year he told another correspondent:
"In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the
sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and
more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would
be the more correct description of my state of mind." His latest view is
indicated in a letter dated July 3, 1881. Here he expressed the "inward
conviction that the universe is not the result of chance." He adds,
however: "But, then, with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the
convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the
lower animals, are of any value, or at all trustworthy. Would any one
trust the convictions in a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions
in such a mind?" The Duke of Argyll has recorded the few words on the
subject spoken by Darwin in the last year of his life. The Duke said
that it was impossible to look at the wonderful contrivances for
certain purposes in nature, and fail to recognize that they were the
effect and the expression of mind. Darwin looked at the Duke very hard,
and said, "Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force; but
at other times" - here he shook his head vaguely - "it seems to go away."


We pass to a consideration of Darwin's masterworks, the "Origin of
Species," the "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication," and
the "Descent of Man." Before indicating the conclusions reached in the
first of these works, we should point out to what extent Darwin had been
preceded by dissenters from the belief once almost universally
entertained by biologists that species were independently created, and,
once created, were immutable. Lamarck was the first naturalist whose
divergent views upon the subject excited much attention. In writings
published at various dates from 1801 to 1815, he upheld the doctrine
that all species, including man, are descended from other species. He
pronounced it probable that all changes in the organic, as well as in
the inorganic world, were the result of law, and not of miraculous
interposition. He seems to have been led to his opinion that the change
of species had been gradual by the difficulty experienced in
distinguishing species from varieties by the almost perfect gradation of
forms in certain groups, and by the analogy of domestic productions.
With respect to the means of modification, he attributed something to
the direct action of the physical conditions of life, something to the
crossing of already existing forms, and much to use and disuse, or, in
other words, to the effect of habit. Finally, he held that characters
acquired by an existing individual might be transmitted to its

In 1813 Dr. W.C. Wells read before the Royal Society "An Account of a
White Female, Part of whose Skin resembles that of a Negro." In this
paper the author distinctly recognized the principle of natural
selection, but applied it only to the races of man, and in man only to
certain characters. After remarking that negroes and mulattoes enjoy an
immunity from certain tropical diseases, he observed, first, that all
animals tend to vary in some degree, and, secondly, that
agriculturalists improve their domesticated animals by selection. He
added that what is done in the latter case by art seems to be done with
equal efficacy, though more slowly, by nature in the formation of
varieties of mankind fitted for the countries which they inhabit. Again
in 1831 Mr. Patrick Matthew published a work on "Naval Timber and
Arboriculture," in which he put forth precisely the same view
concerning the origin of species as that propounded by Mr. Wallace and
by Darwin. Unfortunately for himself, the view was cursorily suggested
in scattered passages of an appendix to a work on a different subject,
so that it remained unnoticed until Mr. Matthew himself drew attention
to it in 1860, after the publication of the "Origin of Species." We
observe finally that Mr. Herbert Spencer, in an essay published in 1852,
and republished six years later, contrasted the theories of the creation
and the development of organic beings. He argued from the analogy of
domestic productions, from the changes which the embryos of many species
undergo, from the difficulty of distinguishing species and varieties,
and from the principle of general gradation, that species have been
modified; and he attributed the modification to the change of

The two volumes comprising the "Origin of Species" constitute, as the
author said, one long argument. It is, of course, impossible in the
space at our command to recapitulate in detail even the leading facts
and inferences which are brought forward to prove that species have been
modified during a long course of descent. We must confine ourselves to a
succinct statement of the author's general conclusions. What he
undertakes to prove is that the modification of species during a long
course of descent has been effected chiefly through the natural
selection of numerous successive slight favorable variations, aided in
an important manner by the inherited effects of the use and disuse of
parts; and in an unimportant manner, - that is, in relation to adaptive
structures, whether past or present, by the direct action of external
conditions, and by variations which seem to us, in our ignorance, to
arise spontaneously. It should be observed that Darwin does not
attribute the modification exclusively to natural selection. What he
asserts is: "I am convinced that natural selection has been the main,
but not the exclusive, means of modification." He submits that a false
theory would hardly explain in so satisfactory a manner as does the
theory of natural selection the several large classes of facts
marshalled in the two volumes now under review. If it be objected that
this is an unsafe method of arguing, Darwin rejoins that it is a method
usual in judging of the common events of life, and has often been used
by the greatest natural philosophers. The undulatory theory of light,
for instance, has thus been arrived at; and the belief in the revolution
of the earth on its own axis was, until lately, supported by scarcely
any direct evidence. It is no valid objection to the Darwinian theory of
the origin of species that science as yet throws no light on the far
higher problem of the essence or origin of life. Neither has any one
explained what is the essence of the attraction of gravity, though
nobody now objects to following out the results consequent on this
unknown element of attraction.

Why, it may be asked, did nearly all the most eminent naturalists and
geologists until recently decline to believe in the mutability of
species? Darwin replies that the belief that species were immutable
productions was almost unavoidable as long as the history of the world
was thought to be of short duration. Even now that we have acquired some
idea of the lapse of time, men are too apt to assume without proof that
the geological record is so perfect that it would have afforded plain
evidence of the mutation of species if they had really undergone
mutation. The chief cause, however, of the once-prevalent unwillingness
to admit that one species has given birth to other and distinct species
is the fact that men are slow to admit great changes of which they do
not see the steps. The difficulty is the same which was experienced by
many geologists when Lyell first insisted that long lines of inland
cliffs had been formed and great valleys excavated, not by catastrophes,
but by the slow-moving agencies which we see still at work. The human
mind cannot grasp the full meaning of the term of even a million years;

Online LibraryJohn LordBeacon Lights of History, Volume 14 The New Era; A Supplementary Volume, by Recent Writers, as Set Forth in the Preface and Table of Contents → online text (page 9 of 26)