Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/March 1888/Glimpses at Darwin's Working Life

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1042124Popular Science Monthly Volume 32 March 1888 — Glimpses at Darwin's Working Life1888William Henry Larrabee



THE qualities of Mr. Darwin most prominently brought out in the reading of his "Life and Letters" are his thorough humanism, his industry, his great modesty, amounting to even distrust of his powers, his perfect candor, and his kindly spirit. The piece of his autobiography which was published in the December number of the "Monthly" describes the beginning of his life, and shows how his boyhood was like that of the youth of the majority of men, with nothing in it to suggest a probability of future greatness; a commonplace, humdrum experience, in which all his most active instincts were repressed or ignored; and he was "trained"—that is, the effort was made, with his consent or against it, to fit him to the standard handed down from of old by the schools. As he wrote years afterward for Mr. Galton's "Life Histories," his schooling omitted all habits of observation or reasoning, and was of no peculiar merit whatever. He was considered, by those who had to do with him educationally, as "a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect." It does not appear that he ever realized, until the world spoke it to him in tones that he could not fail to hear, that, in all his researches, he was doing more than the simplest, most insignificant work.

He fared but little better, so far as the recognized course was concerned, at the university (of Edinburgh), where the lectures, except those of Dr. Hope on chemistry, were "intolerably dull." But, during his second year there, his brother having ceased to attend the university, he was left to his own resources; and this proved to be to his advantage, for he became well acquainted with several young men fond of natural science. He accompanied a pair of his friends on their collecting tours for marine animals, and went trawling with the fishermen for other specimens. From some of these specimens, though without any regular practice in dissection, and having only a wretched microscope, he made a discovery, concerning which he read, in 1826, his first scientific paper before the Plinian Society. With these experiences as his start in real education, he told Mr. Galton that he considered that all that he had learned of any value had been self-taught. He found an unnamed professor's lectures on geology and zoology so intolerably dull that they produced on him as their sole effect the determination never, so long as he lived, to read a book on geology, or in any way to study the science. Happily, this determination gave way, under associations with more genial geologists and in the presence of geological phenomena.

From Edinburgh he went to Cambridge, where he was a ready listener to Professor Henslow's lectures on botany, associated with a "sporting set," became interested in pictures and music (for which he had no ear), and was fascinated with the passion for collecting beetles. "I am surprised," he says, "what an indelible impression many of the beetles which I caught at Cambridge have left on my mind. I can remember the exact appearance of certain posts, old trees, and banks where I made a good capture."

Darwin mentions his friendship with Professor Henslow as a circumstance which influenced his career more than any other. The professor kept open house once every week, which Darwin frequented regularly, and they became companions on long walks, so that he was known as "the man who walks with Henslow." Through Henslow Darwin formed the acquaintance of several other eminent men, the privilege of having associated with whom suggested to him, looking back from many years later in life, that there must have been something in him a little superior to the common run of youths, or else they would not have taken to him. "Certainly," he says, "I was not aware of any such superiority, and I remember one of my sporting friends. Turner, who saw me at work with my beetles, saying that I should one day be a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the notion seemed to me preposterous."

Professor Henslow's friendship secured a recommendation of Darwin to Captain Fitzroy, who was about to start on the famous expedition of the Beagle around the globe, "as amply qualified for collecting, observing, and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history." The elder Darwin objected to his son's going, chiefly because he was intending to become a clergyman, and the voyage might end in withdrawing him from that profession; and Darwin came very near being rejected by Captain Fitzroy on account of the shape of his nose. The father's objections were overcome by means of the representations of Darwin's uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, and Fitzroy's by further acquaintance. The voyage, the story of which is familiar, was on the whole happy and instructive, and was marked by Darwin as by far the most important event in his life, and one which determined his whole career; and to it he always felt that he owed the first real training or education of his mind. But one sequence of it is to be deplored: he returned a permanent invalid. Of the scientific aspect of the voyage he speaks: "I also reflect with high satisfaction on some of my scientific work, such as solving the problem of coral islands, and making out the geological structure of certain islands, for instance, St. Helena. Nor must I pass over the discovery of the singular relations of the animals and plants inhabiting the several islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, and of all of them to the inhabitants of South America. As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in natural science. But I was also ambitious to take a fair place among scientific men—whether more ambitious or less so than most of my fellow-workers I can form no opinion."

Among the spoils brought home from the voyage were a number of specimens of fossil edentata, the discovery of which, says Mr. Francis Darwin, "has a special importance as a point in his own life, since it was the vivid impression produced by excavating them with his own hands that formed one of the chief starting-points of his speculation on the origin of species." Recording in July, 1837, the opening of the first note-book on transmutation of species, Darwin refers to the character of the fossils in the Galapagos Archipelago as the origin of all his views. In the early fall of 1837 he made his first observations on earth-worms, on which he based a paper in the Geological Society.

In September, 1838, while busy on his book on volcanoes and coral reefs, he wrote to Mr. Lyell concerning what was to be the grand achievement of his life: "I have lately been sadly tempted to be idle—that is, as far as pure geology is concerned—by the delightful number of new views which have been coming in thickly and steadily—on the classification and affinities and instincts of animals—bearing on the question of species. Note-book after note-book has been filled with facts which begin to group themselves clearly under sub-laws"; and to his cousin, W. D. Fox: "I am delighted to hear you are such a good man as not to have forgotten my questions about the crossing of animals. It is my prime hobby, and I really think some day I shall be able to do something in that most intricate subject, species and varieties." In another letter to Fox, he says: "The smallest contributions thankfully accepted; descriptions of offspring of all crosses between all domestic birds and animals, dogs, cats, etc., very valuable. Don't forget, if your half-breed African cat should die that I should be very much obliged for its carcass sent up in a little hamper for the skeleton; it, or any cross-bred pigeons, fowl, duck, etc., will be more acceptable than the finest haunch of venison or the finest turtle."

His eldest child was born in 1839, and he began upon him the observations which grew into the book on the "Expression of the Emotions." In October, 1846, Darwin informed Hooker that he was about to prepare some papers on the lower marine animals, after which he should begin looking over his ten-year-long accumulation of notes on species and varieties, by reason of which, when published, "I dare say I shall stand infinitely low in the opinion of all sound naturalists." The papers referred to were the treatise on cirripedes, to which eight years, instead of the "some months" he had anticipated, were devoted. The importance of this labor was not fully appreciated at the time—"I hate a barnacle," he said once in his weariness over the task, "as no man ever did before, not even a sailor in a slow-sailing ship"—but Sir Joseph Hooker has written to Mr. Francis Darwin: "Your father recognized three stages in his career as a biologist: the mere collector at Cambridge; the collector and observer in the Beagle, and for some years afterward; and the trained naturalist after, and only after, the cirripede work. That he was a thinker all along is true enough, and there is a vast deal in his writings previous to the cirripedes that a trained naturalist could but emulate. . . . He often alluded to it as a valued discipline, and added that even the 'hateful' work of digging out synonyms, and of describing, not only improved his methods but opened his eyes to the difficulties and merits of the works of the dullest of cataloguers. One result was that he would never allow a depredatory remark to pass unchallenged on the poorest class of scientific workers, provided that their work was honest, and good of its kind. I have always regarded it as one of the finest traits of his character—this generous appreciation of the hod-men of science, and of their labors, . . . and it was monographing the barnacles that brought it about."

Darwin's letters, during the time he was engaged upon the "Origin of Species" and the related works, reveal the minute care with which he examined every trifle of a detail, and sought information from every possible quarter. Here we see him inquiring of Mr. Fox how early the tail-feathers of young fantail pigeons are developed, and remarking upon the difference in the weight of the foot or the wing of a wild and a tame duck. He wants to ascertain whether the young of our domestic breeds differ as much from one another as do their parents, and has no faith in anything short of actual measurement and the rule of three. He asks for lizards' and snakes' eggs to see whether they will float on sea-water, and whether they will keep alive thus floating for a month or two in his cellar.

In similar experiments on seeds he is so full of exultant anticipation that he will discover something that will conflict with Hooker's views, that the children are asking him often whether he shall beat Dr. Hooker; and when the seeds have germinated after a salt-water soaking that ought to have killed them, he has pangs of conscience and of vexation because the botanist seemed "to view the experiment like a good Christian." Then he acknowledges Hooker to be a good man to confess that he expected the cress—which vegetated after twenty-one days' immersion—would be killed in a week, "for this gives me a nice little triumph." But he is also making experiments at which Hooker would have a good right to sneer, "for they are so absurd, even in my opinion, that I dare not tell you." Everything—for he was trying to show that seeds and eggs could be carried on ocean-currents for indefinite distances and then develop—depended on the seeds floating. If, however, the seeds should sink, and sink after new trials, he would still not give up the floating, but, as a last resource, "must believe in the pod, or even whole plant or branch washed into the sea; with floods, and slips, and earthquakes, this must be continually happening, and, if kept wet, I fancy the pods, etc., would not open and shed their seeds." Again, he begins to think the floating question more serious than the germinating one, and is making all the inquiries he can on the subject. He tells how three plants have come up out of the earth perfectly inclosed in the roots of trees, and twenty-nine plants out of the tablespoonful of mud from the little pond; and how Hooker was struck when shown how much mud had been scraped off one duck's feet; these facts all being regarded as illustrating the ways in which seeds might have been transported to different islands. He thanks Wallace for an offer to look after horses' stripes; wants him to add donkeys, if there are any; and expresses a community of interest with him in bees' combs. He tries experiments on the struggle for existence with thick plantations of weeds in which the fate of each seedling is noted; and observes how young fir-trees flourish in ground that is fenced, while others, in the same plantation, unprotected from cattle, are invisible till closely looked for, and do not grow to be more than three inches high in twenty-six years.

While thus attentive to the minutest details of fact, he declares himself "a firm believer that without speculation there is no good and original observation"; and that "the naturalists who accumulate facts and make many partial generalizations are the real benefactors of science. Those who merely accumulate facts I can not very much respect."

The "Origin of Species" was at first intended to be published simply as an "Abstract," because the author regarded the use of some such term as the only possible apology for not giving references and facts in full, but the publisher objected to it, and the work appeared under the title it bears. There was a question whether it would be advisable to tell Mr. Murray that the book was "not more unorthodox than the subject makes inevitable"; or would it be better to say nothing to Mr. Murray, "and assume that he can not object to this much unorthodoxy, which, in fact, is not more than any geological treatise which runs slap counter to Genesis"?

Mr. Darwin had much difficulty with his style. While engaged upon his earlier works, he wrote: "I shall always feel respect for every one who has written a book, let it be what it may, for I had no idea of the trouble which trying to write common English could cost one," and, "It is an awful thing to say to one's self, ' Every fool and every clever man in England, if he chooses, may make as many ill-natured remarks as he likes on this unfortunate sentence.'" Eight years later, "Writing plain English grows with me more and more difficult, and never attainable." While writing the "Origin of Species," although, he says, "No nigger with lash over him could have worked harder at clearness than I have done," he found the style incredibly bad, and most difficult to make clear and smooth. When informed by Lubbock of a blunder he had made in the principle of some calculation, which it would require two or three weeks of work to correct, he exclaimed, "I am the most miserable, bemuddled, stupid dog in all England, and am ready to cry with vexation at my blindness and presumption"; and, "If I am as muzzy on all subjects as I am on proportion and chance, what a book I shall produce!"

The question of priority, which arose between Mr. Darwin and Mr. Wallace—both having an announcement of the theory of natural selection ready to publish at the same time—was settled in a manner creditable to both gentlemen, and which adds luster to the scientific spirit. The letters show how far from rivalry were the feelings of both. Another question of priority arose after the "Origin" was published, when Mr. Patrick Matthew brought forth an extract from a work on "Naval Timber and Architecture," published in 1831, in which, says Mr. Darwin, "he briefly but completely anticipates the theory of natural selection. I have ordered the book, as some few passages are rather obscure, but it is certainly, I think, a complete but not developed anticipation!. . . Anyhow, one may be excused in not having discovered the fact in a work on naval timber." Mr. Darwin published an apology to Mr. Matthew for his entire ignorance of this publication; but the latter could not get over the feeling that another man had won the fame that he had missed. It afterward appeared that a Dr. Schaaffhausen had nearly anticipated his view in a pamphlet published at Bonn in 1853; and still later that Dr. Wells had applied "most distinctly" the principle of natural selection to the races of men in his "Essay on Dew," which was read to the Royal Society in 1813. A letter to Herbert Spencer, written in 1858, acknowledging the receptions of a volume of essays from him, is of interest as showing the relations of the work of these two laborers in adjoining fields. "Your remarks," says Mr. Darwin, "on the general argument of the so-called development theory seem to me admirable. I am at present preparing an abstract of a larger work on the changes of species; but I treat the subject simply as a naturalist, and not from a general point of view, otherwise, in my opinion, your argument could not have been improved on, and might have been quoted by me with great advantage." Of one of the numbers of Spencer's "Principles of Biology" Mr. Darwin observed: "I feel rather mean when I read him; I could bear, and rather enjoy feeling that he was twice as ingenious and clever as myself, but when I feel that he is about a dozen times my superior, even in the master-art of wriggling, I feel aggrieved. If be bad trained himself to observe more, even at the expense, by the law of balancement, of some loss of thinking power, be would have been a wonderful man." To E. Ray Lankester he acknowledged a suspicion that hereafter Spencer would be looked at as "by far the greatest living philosopher in England; perhaps equal to any that have lived."

A copy of the "Origin" was sent to Professor Agassiz, with the explanation that, "as the conclusions at which I have arrived on several points differ so widely from yours, I have thought (should you at any time read my volume) that you might think that I had sent it to you out of a spirit of defiance or bravado; but I assure you that I act under a wholly different frame of mind. I hope that you will at least give me credit, however erroneous you may think my conclusions, for having earnestly endeavored to arrive at the truth."

Mr. Darwin's relations with American men of science began with a letter to Asa Gray, in April, 1855, seeking for information on American Alpine plants, and offering an apology for the presumption of the writer, not a botanist, in making "even the most trifling suggestion to such a botanist as yourself." The correspondence was continued in frequent letters embodying discussions of subjects on which Mr. Darwin sought information or explanations from Professor Gray, the chief use of which was "to show a botanist what points a non-botanist is curious to learn; for I think every one who studies profoundly a subject often becomes unaware on what points the ignorant require information." After the publication of the "Origin," Mr. Darwin wrote to Professor Gray: "I should, for several reasons, be very glad of an American edition. I have made up my mind to be well abused; but I think it of importance that my notions should be read by intelligent men, accustomed to scientific argument, though not naturalists. It may seem absurd, but I think such men will drag after them those naturalists who have too firmly fixed in their heads that a species is an entity. . . . I should be infinitely obliged if you could aid an American edition." Professor Gray interested himself to secure a republication in the United States, and applied to a Boston house, while a New York house also moved in the matter. As he tells the story in a letter to Darwin: "All looked pretty well, when, lo! we found that a second New York publishing-house had announced a reprint also! I wrote then to both New York publishers, asking them to give way to the author and his reprint of a revised edition. I got an answer from the Harpers that they withdraw—from the Appletons that they had got the book out (and the next day I saw a copy); but that, ' if the work should have any considerable sale, we certainly shall be disposed to pay the author reasonably and liberally.' The Appletons being thus out with their reprint, the Boston house declined to go on. So I wrote to the Appletons, taking them at their word, offering to aid their reprint, to give them the use of the alterations in the London reprint, as soon as I find out what they are, etc., etc." This was on the 23d of January, 1860. On the 22d of May of the same year, Mr. Darwin wrote acknowledging "a very pleasant remittance of £22" ($110), and adding, "If you have any further communication to the Appletons, pray express my acknowledgments for their generosity; for it is generosity, in my opinion." While Darwin and Gray were corresponding concerning the interests of the book and the reviews of it—favorable and adverse—in American periodicals, our civil war broke out; and we have, on the 5th of June, 1861, the expression:

"I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. North America does not do England justice; I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, and I am one of them, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in! Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm. Great God! how I should like to see the greatest curse on earth—slavery—abolished!" In September Darwin said, "If abolition does follow with your victory, the whole world will look brighter in my eyes, and in many eyes."

Professor John Fiske, whose "Cosmic Philosophy," and Professor Morse, whose address on "What American Scientists have done for Evolution," he read with interest; and Professor Marsh, whose "Odontornithes" he regarded as having "afforded the best support to the theory of evolution which has appeared within the last twenty years," were other American scientific correspondents.

Mr. Darwin was not inclined to make public statements respecting his religious views, because he felt that a man's religion is an essentially private matter concerning himself alone, and because he thought that a man ought not to publish on a subject to which he had not given special and continuous thought.

In his twentieth year he had determined to become a clergyman, with full acceptance in his mind of the doctrines of the Church of England. While on the Beagle his faith in the literal interpretation of the Scriptures was regarded as something remarkable; but it was gradually surrendered in the face of his critical reflections, though very unwillingly, and disbelief creeping over his mind at a rate so slow as to give no distress, became at last complete. At a later period he was doubtful respecting the existence of a personal God; but, as he wrote in 1879, he was never an atheist in the sense of denying such existence, but considered that the term agnostic would be the more correct designation of his state of mind. He acknowledged to Miss Julia Wedgwood that the result of his reflections respecting design in Nature had been a maze, and that "where one would most expect design—viz., in the structure of a sentient being—the more I think on the subject, the less I see proof of design." He wrote to Mrs. Boole in 1866, "It has always appeared to me more satisfactory to look at the immense amount of pain and suffering in this world as the inevitable result of the natural sequence of events—i. e., general laws—rather than from the direct intervention of God, though I am aware this is not logical with reference to an omniscient Deity."

He wrote to a Dutch student in 1873: "The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose from chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of a God; but whether this is an argument of real value I have never been able to decide. . . . The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect; but man can do his duty." In 1879 he wrote in the letter first made public by Haeckel: "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." When the Duke of Argyll remarked to him in 1885, concerning some wonderful adaptations which he had described, that it was impossible to look at them without seeing that they are the effect and the expression of mind, he replied, "Well, that often comes over me with overwhelming force, but at other times it seems to go away."

One of the characteristics of Mr. Darwin's manner of working was his great respect for time. He used to say that saving the minutes was the way to get work done, and never allowed a few spare minutes to go to waste from thinking that it was not worth while to set to work. He would work up to the very limits of his strength and then suddenly stop, saying, "I believe I mustn't do any more." All his movements were performed as quickly as possible; but, in cases requiring care, he gave it. He saved a good deal of time through not having to do things twice—that is, by doing them right at first. His love of experiment was very strong, and was exemplified by his often saying, "I sha'n't be easy till I have tried it"; and he stuck unflinchingly to a subject on which he had once begun, for he could not bear to be beaten, and was accustomed to recall the phrase, "It's dogged as does it."

He was fond of light reading, and particularly enjoyed having novels read to him—provided they had good endings. He also liked a biography or a book of travels occasionally, but cared little for the old standards. In later life, he felt his taste for recreation fading out, and he regretfully wrote to Sir Joseph Hooker, in 1868, respecting the "Messiah": "It is the one thing that I should like to hear again, but I dare say I should find my soul too dried up to appreciate it as in old days; and then I should feel very flat, for it is a horrid bore to feel, as I constantly do, that I am a withered leaf for every subject except science. It sometimes makes me hate science, though God knows I ought to be thankful for such a perennial interest, which makes me forget for some hours every day my accursed stomach." An extreme tenderness for suffering marked his whole life. But when the subject of vivisection came under discussion, he recognized the importance of experimental physiology. While insisting upon the imposition of close restrictions in operation, and the adoption of all possible measures to save pain to the objects of experiment, he approved of that method of study, for the sake of the wide and permanent relief from suffering that would accrue from the knowledge thereby gained.