Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/June 1882/Editor's Table
|←Sketch of Charles R. Darwin, LL.D.||Popular Science Monthly Volume 21 June 1882 (1882)
THE present year will be memorable in the history of science as bringing to a close the labors of two illustrious scientific thinkers—one, perhaps, the most eminent man of science in America, Dr. John William Draper, and the other probably the most celebrated scientific man of the world at the present time, Dr. Charles Robert Darwin. Both men had accomplished their work, the former dying at the age of seventy-one, and the latter at the age of seventy-three; and it is remarkable that both were among the most distinguished representatives of the same school of progressive scientific thought. Their names will be for ever associated with that great revolution of ideas for which all modern science has prepared, but which has been accomplished only within the present generation. Both men made large and important contributions, by observation and experiment, to the departments of science which they respectively cultivated, but they will be measured in future chiefly by the bearing of their work upon the great intellectual movement of the period.
Everybody knows what we mean in speaking of the movement of thought with which the names of Draper and Darwin are identified; and which we have referred to as a revolution of ideas already accomplished. One of its leading aspects is the application of the scientific method to the phenomena of life in order to explain their changes by natural causes. Mr. Darwin's name has been so closely associated with this extension of scientific method to cover the origin of the diversities of living beings upon earth that he has come to be a representative of the idea; while the term "Darwinism" has been vaguely employed to stand for the doctrine.
The twenty volumes of "The Popular Science Monthly" bear uniform and abundant record that "Darwinism" has been generally accepted as true in the world of science for the last ten years. But there is a sharper test of the change of opinion that has taken place than any affirmation regarding the verdicts of scientific men. At its earliest promulgation "Darwinism" was denounced by the whole body of religious authorities as false and execrable. There was never such unanimity in the pulpit as was displayed in cursing the new apostle of the doctrine of man's descent from an ancestry of inferior animals. The devil got a considerable respite while the batteries were all being turned upon Darwin as the archenemy and subverter of all religion. But, as the movement of ideas went on all the same, common sense began to assert itself in various quarters, so that there has latterly been more temperateness of condemnation, and even a readiness to accept the long-detested doctrine as probably true, and by no means so bad as it at first seemed. And, now that Darwin is dead, there is a universal burst of admiration for the man, accompanied by abundant admissions that his ideas are true; and he is laid in Westminster Abbey alongside of Newton, while the most eminent preachers of London agree in declaring that there has been nothing in his teaching that is not wholly consistent with the soundest Christian belief. Canon Liddon, of St. Paul's, author of "The Divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ," is reported to have said in a sermon that "Mr. Darwin's theories are not necessarily hostile to the fundamental truths of religion"; and Canon Barry, author of "Orthodox Commentaries on Portions of the Bible," declared that "the doctrine of evolution lent itself as readily to promises of God as less complete explanations of the universe."
To explain the world-wide fame of Mr. Darwin and the expressions of high appreciation that have been elicited by his death, several circumstances must be taken into account. In the first place, his pre-eminence as a naturalist is not for a moment to be questioned. He had a genius for investigation in this field, as is shown by the immense amount of valuable and original work that he has accomplished. As an accurate and indefatigable observer, of keen insight, and equally fertile and skillful in his experimental devices to bring out the secrets of Nature, he was probably without a rival. Descended from a race of naturalists, he seemed to have a constitutional intuition for penetrating the mysteries of living beings, and detecting subtilties that had eluded previous observers. Patient, industrious, and concentrated upon his work, he has enriched natural history with a multitude of new facts, which will make his name an authority for all future time.
But Mr. Darwin was more than a mere observer and accumulator of facts; he was a man of ideas capable of methodising his observations and making them tributary to the progress of theoretical views. He found the problem of the origin of the diversities of living beings unsettled, he subordinated all his researches to its solution, and he put forth a theory upon the subject that has made him famous. This was the principle of natural selection, called also the survival' of the fittest, and it was elaborated with a wealth of illustration that rapidly commended it to the acceptance of the scientific world. In a nutshell it is this: There is a law of heredity, or descent of traits, from generation to generation, in the kingdom of organic life—a law under which "like produce like." But there is also a law of variation by which like always produces the slightly unlike—a modification from generation to generation, and adaptation to ever changing conditions. At the same time the rate of multiplication gives rise to a destructive struggle for existence, in which multitudes perish and but comparatively few survive, while the survivors are those best fitted to the new conditions. In this way new characters are strengthened and developed, and old traits are weakened and disappear, so that the progress of life is at the same time a slow transformation, in which at first new varieties and then new species gradually arise by minute increments of change. Thus the diversities among living creatures are accounted for by the operation of natural agencies.
But, besides the intrinsic character of his work, the traits of the man were eminently calculated to produce the most favorable impression. He was not a controversialist, and, instead of going roughly athwart men's prejudices, he was kindly, considerate, and conciliatory in all his writings. He was also modest and eminently candid and fair minded, always seeking to do justice to the views of his opponents. Men felt that his supreme object was simply to get at the truth. For this he labored incessantly and untiringly, and thus won the respect of all who can appreciate sincerity of aim and elevation of purpose. Added to this he was a very genial and pleasant man in his personal relations, and most highly regarded by those who were honored with his acquaintance and friendship.
But still other elements must be taken into account in explaining the extent of his popularity. He was a remarkably fortunate man. We refer not so much to his easy circumstances, which gave him command of resources and allowed full consecration to a life of study; but we mean that he came at a great crisis of thought, when a leader was wanted in a comprehensive scientific field. It was his happy fortune to avail himself of a previous advance of biological inquiry, which was much greater than is generally supposed. Mr. Darwin has himself fully pointed out to what various extents his idea of natural selection had been discerned by preceding naturalists. It was a discovery all ready to be made, and how inevitably it grew out of the state of knowledge that had been attained, and how imminent it was in the thought of the time, is shown by the fact that he was compelled to publish on the subject earlier than he had intended, to prevent being anticipated by Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace, who had already arrived at and worked out the same principle. It was fortunate for the fame of Mr. Darwin that Mr. Wallace so gracefully and generously stepped aside, and surrendered to him the full leadership of the new biological reform.
Nor is it to be forgotten, in enumerating the causes that have conspired to give such prominence to the name and fame of Darwin, that his subject was one of intense and universal interest. No matter how unpalatable were the theories proposed, everybody was concerned with questions of the origin of life, because they involved explanations of human origin. Whence we came has always been a riddle which there has been an irrepressible curiosity to solve. Mr. Darwin's explanation came in the name of science, and, apparently involving but a single principle of such simplicity and familiar illustration that everybody could understand it, his little book was sought for and read with avidity by all 'classes. And yet, in the nature of things, it was impossible that the work should be generally understood with any thoroughness. It dealt with an order of ideas for which our higher education made no preparation, so that the college graduate was little better equipped than the uneducated country farmer to read intelligently and appreciatingly the argument of the "Origin of Species." There was, consequently, a great deal of popular confusion and misapprehension as to what Mr. Darwin had really done, and which naturally led to erroneous and even extravagant claims as to the nature and scope of his work. To those who were not well instructed he came to be regarded as the creator of an epoch and the originator of the whole scheme of ideas connected with his investigations. We see this in the tendency to attribute to Mr. Darwin the fatherhood of the law of evolution, and to identify evolution with Darwinism. He contributed to that universal law a most important principle, but he was neither its founder nor did he ever attempt anything like its general exposition. That great doctrine had been overwhelmingly proved, had been resolved into its forces, formulated, and extensively applied to the reorganization of scientific knowledge, before Mr. Darwin had ever published a word upon the subject. He has done noble work, and his position is for ever assured among the greatest in science; and, if circumstances have tended to favor some exaggeration of his real claims, we may leave to time the correction of imperfect judgments, and the equitable award of all honors among those to whom honors are due.
Commenting, two months ago, upon Goldwin Smith's article attacking scientific ethics, we pointed out the extensive co-existence of supernatural beliefs with a lax morality. The "Christian Union," under the title of "A Very Ancient Reproach," charges "The Popular Science Review" with reviving a stale old accusation of Thomas Paine. It, moreover, attempts to confound us with "History," and offers a quotation from Gibbon, declaring that through conversions by the early Church "the most abandoned sinners" in many cases became "the most eminent saints." The "Union" then proceeds to remark: "If 'The Popular Science Monthly' desires further information as to the actual effect which evangelical religion has produced on the morals of the community, it will be found in abundance in Lecky's 'History of European Morals,' in the same author's 'History of England in the Eighteenth Century,' and in Professor Draper's 'History of the Intellectual Development of Europe,' and none of these authors can be accused of being eulogists of Christianity. We leave the ' Review ' to settle it with Gibbon which horn of the dilemma it will accept."
We have no issue with Lecky or Draper, and nothing to settle with Gibbon. If we had no other source of information respecting the relations of faith and morals as manifested in human conduct, than what was written a hundred years ago about what took place sixteen hundred years earlier, it would be different; but the illustrations of the relation of religious belief to ethical practice are too clear, familiar, and impressive all around us to make this course necessary. On living questions we prefer living authorities, and judgments based upon immediate observation and experience, to historic inferences regarding what took place at remote periods. Accordingly, we value the testimony of the editor of the "Christian Union" higher than even that of Gibbon, while his record is far more to the point. The article entitled "A Very Ancient Reproach" is immediately followed by another which serves as an instructive comment upon it by showing that the "reproach" is also both very modern and very real. Its title is "A Missouri Saint," and the editor writes upon the subject with an openness which "The Popular Science Monthly" has never emulated. He says:
Death seems to settle all accounts; and no sooner was this murderous villain dead, than the whole community set to work with extraordinary unanimity to canonize him. His funeral was an ovation; the attendant throng crowded the Baptist church, "where he was converted in 1866"—heavens! what sort of a man would he have been if he had not been converted?—the sheriff and under-sheriff acted among the pall-bearers; the services were opened with the hymn "What a friend we have in Jesus!" the officiating ministers comforted the stricken community with extracts from the plaints of Job and David, and with a comforting discourse on Christ's forbearance and forgiveness of sins; and, finally, the procession to the grave was one of immense proportions.Out upon such a religion as this! If a Dr. Thomas intimates that there may be perhaps a probation in another world for those who seem to have had no true probation in this, he is turned out of the fellowship of the church as a heretic. If a Mr. Jones and a Mr. Martin send a freebooter and a life-long robber and murderer straight to heaven in a chariot of fire without as much as a baptismal bath by the way, will any church call them to account for their falseness to the law of God and the sacredness of morality? We shall see.
Excellent, certainly! But, if exactly the same sentiments, only pitched in a lower key of indignation, appear in "The Popular Science Monthly," we are accused of reviving the obsolete reproaches of infidelity, and the "Christian Advocate" breaks into a pious diatribe about "Sugar-coated Poison."
The view of the "Christian Union" is well confirmed by "The Nation," as follows: