Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/April 1909/The Halo of a Hundred Years: February, 1809 to February, 1909

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1579194Popular Science Monthly Volume 74 April 1909 — The Halo of a Hundred Years: February, 1809 to February, 19091909R. M. Wenley


By Professor R. M. WENLEY


IN ordinary circumstances, a humble representative of Wissenschaft der Philosophie, like myself—a pursuer rather than a possessor of knowledge, would deem any poor words of his superfluous on such an occasion, and in an assembly composed chiefly of those who have consecrated their lives to the natural sciences. But, to-night, I am so bold as to proffer claim to a little niche, because we are to make a pregnant pause, and enjoy an interchange of ideas, in commemoration of the illustrious name, services and discoveries of Charles Robert Darwin, who first saw the light at Shrewsbury, on February 12, 1809, that memorable year of memorable infants.

Place aux dames, as if Darwin were not enough, 1809 gave us Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Cowden Clarke, the Shakespeare scholar, and Fanny Kemble, the great actress. In science, it produced Grassmann and Liouville, the eminent mathematicians; the botanists K. H. E. Koch and George Engelmann; the geologist J. D. Forbes; Jakob Henle, the anatomist; Fitch, the economic entomologist; Stöckhardt, the founder of agricultural experiment stations; and Griscom, the physician. Its children made literature immensely their debtor, for, among them were Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Lever, Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton), Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Lemon (the humorist), Edward Fitzgerald, who rendered Omar Khayyam an English classic; Paludan-Müller, an ornament of Scandanavian letters; Giusti, the Tuscan poet, whom his countrymen delight to call the Béranger of Italy; and Nikolaus Becker, author of that famous song, "Der deutsche Rhein." In music we owe it Chopin and Mendelssohn; in art, Diaz de la Peña, the French landscape painter; in history, Hefele, John Hill Burton, Kinglake, Skene, Cronholm, Bruno Bauer, and Michael Horvath, greatest of Hungarian historians; in scholarship, Theodor Benfey and John Stuart Blackie; in theology, Isaac Dorner; and, in practical religion, Selwyn, the influential missionary-bishop of New Zealand. The educationist, Barnard; the jurist, Phillimore; the publicist, William Rathbone Greg; the philanthropist, Miall, and Baron Hausmann, who found Paris brick and left it marble, were born in 1809, like the philosophers Vacherot and Franck, in France; Tari, in Italy; Nielsen, in Denmark; and Bledsoe, in this country. In the arts of war it bore at least four leaders of distinction—Canrobert, marshal of France; Manteuffel, first governor of the Reichsland after the fall of Napoleon III.; Dahlgren, the American admiral, an authority on ordnance; and Menabrea, the Italian engineer, an eminent name in the science of fortification. Its most noted diplomatist was Rutherford Alcock, who saw some of the stress that accompanied the introduction of occidental civilization into Japan, and whose bread, cast upon the waters long ago, has returned to such consequence after many days. Finally, as if to round out the universe of human activity, 1809 brought to birth two immortal statesmen—Lincoln, who was born on the same day as Darwin, and Gladstone.

Now notwithstanding the multifarious activities, incalculable influence, and momentous events, connected with these fifty-four names—an extraordinary galaxy—there can be little doubt that, setting aside place and, in particular, nationality, Darwin has laid profoundest hold upon the universal imagination of mankind. And the obvious question arises, why? Let us look at this for a little; it is much easier to ask than to answer.

In this presence, it would be an impertinence on my part were I to wander into the problem of evolution as understood by students of natural science. But, possibly, I may be able to contribute my tiny mite from another standpoint.

We may take it as axiomatic that genius achieves supremacy very rarely against, or without, the cooperant "social mind," and that it pays the price for lone attainment by missing' highest rank. To adopt Matthew Arnold's phrase, the man and the moment must agree; or, as Goethe said, only he who unites with the many at the right moment ever becomes great. If I be not far wide of the mark, Darwin enjoyed peculiar fortune in this respect and, thanks to his extraordinary patience, backed by unusual perseverance and devotion, came to enthrone himself amid the master intellects typical of the nineteenth century.

To begin with, then, we must bear in mind that centuries are arbitrary divisions, that no break assails the onward movement of thought, and that every age serves itself upon its successor. The immense displacements, due to the Renascence in the fifteenth century, and to the Reformation in the sixteenth, carried over into the seventeenth; while the seventeenth lived on in the eighteenth, just as the eighteenth, thanks probably to political and social conditions, continued to rule the nineteenth to 1873 (death of John Stuart Mill), say, especially in the English-speaking countries. Indeed, much of the opposition encountered by evolution from the man in the street, and from pseudo-thinkers, may be traced to this simple fact. Nay, we can trace its potent influence in Darwin himself. The main limitation of his theory results from its bondage to the idea of utility—a heritage from the eighteenth century. In illustration of these cross-currents, still inexplicable, recall that Monge, the mathematician, though born in 1746, was essentially a nineteenth century man; so was Lamarck, born two years earlier; so was Erasmus Darwin, even if sixty-nine of his seventy-one years belonged to the heyday of Pope, Johnson and Paley. Similarly, when we face towards the future rather than the past, we find the seminal ideas of the nineteenth century already astir soon after the middle of the eighteenth. Winckelmann, in 1758; Lessing, in 1766; and, more plainly. Herder, in 1786, are apostles of synthetic as opposed to analytic methods, of "life-history" as against mere taxonomy. Listen to Herder, and note how he prophesies the genetic era:

Among millions of creatures whatever could preserve itself abides, and still after the lapse of thousands of years remains in the great harmonious order. Wild animals and tame, carnivorous and graminivorous, insects, birds, fishes and man are adapted to each other.

And again, on the side now of the human sciences:

All the songs of primitive peoples turn on actual things, doings, events, circumstances, incidents, on a living, manifold world. All this the eye has seen, and since the imagination reproduces it as it has been seen, it must needs be reproduced in an abrupt fragmentary manner. There is no other connection between the different parts of these songs than there is between the trees and bushes of the forest, the rocks and caverns of the desert, and between the different scenes of the events themselves.

You see the same thing in Goethe's "Iphigenie" (1787), in his "Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären" (1790), and his "Zur Morphologic" (1795-1807), above all, in "Faust," erster Theil (1808). Small wonder, then, that the systematic thinkers bred in the same movement, Kant aside, should be dominated by the genetic idea of development; and even Kant, especially in his "Kritik der Urtheilskraft" (1790), to say nothing of the extraordinary prevision of his "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels" (1755), is not without latent suspicions concerning the direction to be taken by the new tide. To mention none of his other manifold services—of which, in a company of investigators, the part he played at the foundation of the University of Berlin should merit particular remembrance—Fichte's "Der geschlossene Handelsstaat" (1800), originates a line of socio-economic thought thoroughly characteristic of Darwin's lepoch, and affiliated sometimes with biology. Schelling's "Einleitung zum Entwurf eines Systems der Naturphilosophie" (1799), as I have tried to show in another place,[2] exercised no little formativepower over a group of his countrymen who made important contributions to the early modern phases of physiology, chemistry, botany, anatomy and medicine. Still, when all is said and done, Hegel shone the bright particular star of the constellation. Indeed, so far as our perplexing proximity permits fair judgment, we must rank him foremost among the systematic thinkers of the nineteenth century. The ceaseless praises and recriminations that have encompassed his memory ever since his death, in 1831, prove no less. Present signs of his returning influence among the Teutonic peoples indicate much the same thing. But, some one will inquire, what has all this to do with Darwin's hold upon the general imagination? I answer, everything! For while, schooled by long neglect, even contumely, we philosophers have learned to consume our own smoke in comparative silence, you, my scientific colleagues, may be prepared to take the word of one who, perhaps more than any of your coadjutors, possesses the right to speak with authority on the occasion of the Darwin Centennial. Professor H. F. Osborn writes:

It is a very striking fact that the basis of our modern methods of studying the evolution problem was established not by the early naturalists nor by the speculative writers, but by the philosophers. They alone were upon the main track of modern thought.[3]

Many proofs might be adduced readily. Two mere indications must suffice here. Hegel, for instance, insists, and rightly, that the botanists of his day, obsessed by classification, did not realize the force of Goethe's position, "eben well ein Ganzes darin dargestellt wurde."[4] Again, Goethe himself formulated Spencer's famous principle about the passage from indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to definite, coherent heterogeneity. Goethe points out:

The more imperfect a being is the more do its individual parts resemble each other, and the more do these parts resemble the whole. The more perfect the being is, the more dissimilar are its parts. In the former case the parts are more or less a repetition of the whole; in the latter case they are totally unlike the whole. The more the parts resemble each other, the less subordination is there of one to the other. Subordination of parts indicates high grade of organization.[5]

But, like other incalculable human forces, the idealists bore their manifest limitations. And Hegel may be taken as their consecrated representative. Perhaps we may understand this matter best by saying that, after a fashion, he came too soon. His central thesis embodied a theory of universal development, a theory that has had no parallel for boldness and penetration since Plato and his unique pupil, Aristotle. Now, a huge framework of this sort needs multifarious filling in. And one may well admire the temerity of the philosopher when he recalls the condition of knowledge between 1813 and 1816, the years that witnessed the successive volumes of Hegel's masterpiece. All things considered, the physical sciences as we know them now—astronomy, geology, physics and chemistry, as well as mathematics in large part—had hardly begun their latest growth; the biological sciences, in their splendid structure of to-day, were still ahead; while the entire group of human sciences, created mainly by the impetus lent by Hegel himself, in the nature of the case, had not entered upon significant formulation. In a word, the idea of development saturated the intellectual atmosphere; nevertheless, the elaborate and toilsome labor of thinking it through piecemeal for the endless realms of nature, and for the subtlest manifestations of consciousness, lay in the future. Here Darwin, like many another, found his opportunity.

In the second place, he was favored by the situation dominant in the field of science as a whole, no less than by his own preeminently cautious and "concrete" mind. With regard to the latter, we have a characteristic statement from his pen, in the form of a letter to Herbert Spencer, acknowledging a copy of the "Essays." Recall that, not long before, Spencer had been writing to Huxley on the subject of Owen, who was to damn Darwin with faint praise eighteen months after,[6] and had expressed himself as follows:

I am busy with the onslaught on Owen. I find on reading, the "Archetype and Homologies" is terrible bosh—far worse than I had thought. I shall make a tremendous smash of it, and lay the foundations of a true theory on its ruins.[7]

From one point of view, this is still the nineteenth century against the eighteenth. Darwin's letter, dated 25th November, 1858—one year precisely before the "Origin of Species"—runs thus:

Your remarks 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.[8]

If Hegel evinced intuitive grasp upon the general framework of development, Darwin's cautious genius led him to exercise superlative perseverance in conquering difficult provinces of the detailed phenomena incidental to evolution.

At the same time, Darwin valued the aid of generalization and hypothesis, to which many naturalists, misled by Bacon's thoroughly unscientific temper, had been too averse: Accordingly, the trend of scientific method had become tainted, if not with disastrous consequences, at least with results inimical to progress, as we account means of progress now. This, the former of the two aspects mentioned above, has been delineated admirably by Romanes, from whom, I may say in passing, I derived the only knowledge of Darwin's personality, conveyed at first-hand by a mutual friend, that I possess.

He nowhere loses sight of the primary distinction between fact and theory; so that, thus far, he loyally follows the spirit of revolt against subjective methods. But, while always holding this distinction clearly in view, his idea of the scientific use of facts is plainly that of furnishing legitimate material for the construction of theories. Natural history is not to him an affair of the herbarium or the cabinet. The collectors and the species-framers are, as it were, his diggers of clay and makers of bricks; even the skilled observers and the trained experimentalists are his mechanics. Valuable as the work of all these men is in itself, its principal value, as he has finally demonstrated, is that which it acquires in rendering possible the work of the architect. Therefore, although he has toiled in all the trades with his own hands, and in each has accomplished some of the best work that has ever been done, the great difference between him and most of his predecessors consists in this—that while to them the discovery or accumulation of facts was an end, to him it is the means. In their eyes it was enough that the facts should be discovered and recorded. In his eyes the value of the facts is due to their power of guiding the mind to a further discovery of principles. And the extraordinary success which has attended his work in this respect of generalization immediately brought natural history into line with the other inductive sciences, behind which, in this most important of all respects, she has so seriously fallen. For it was the " Origin of Species " which first clearly revealed to naturalists as a class, that it was the duty of their science to take as its motto, what is really the motto of natural science in general,

Felix quit potuit rerum cognoscere causas.

Not facts, then, but causes or principles, are the ultimate objects of scientific quest. . . . The spirit of speculation is the same as the spirit of science, namely, as we have just seen, a desire to know the causes of things. . . . And to frame hypotheses is to speculate. . . . The difference between science and speculation is not a difference of spirit; nor, thus far, is it a difference of method. The only difference between them is in the subsequent process of verifying hypotheses. . . . The only danger of speculation consists in its momentum being apt to carry away the mind from the more laborious work of adequate verification; and therefore a true scientific judgment consists in giving a free rein to speculation on the one hand, while holding ready the break of verification with the other. Now, it is just because Darwin did both these things with so admirable a judgment, that he gave the world of natural history so good a lesson as to the most effectual way of driving the chariot of science.[9]

While it may well be impossible to assail Romanes's panegyric, and while it is eminently fitting that we should throb to its mood at this time, Darwin would have been the last man to magnify his own office, or to deny his heritage from predecessors. Just as the Neapolitan philosopher-jurist, Vico (1668-1744), foresaw some of the transitive ideas that thinkers from Herder to Hegel, and philologists from F. A. "Wolf and Niebuhr, were to clarify, so, too, Goethe and Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck and Chambers, had substituted evolution for spontaneous generation and special creation ere Darwin's day. But two tasks remained, for whose accomplishment Darwin's endowments of mind and character were to the manner born. First, an enormous accumulation of evidence stood in need. This Darwin furnished on a scale still unparalleled by any single investigator. Second, it was necessary to experiment with tentative and candid applications of the evolution hypothesis, apart altogether from flamboyant allegations that the key to every mystery had been grasped at length. Darwin's scientific conscience, and his eminently sane, self-effacing character, equipped him rarely for these essential services. And, with him, evolution may be said to have attained a poise lost somewhat since, I fear, amid the clash of new theories and rival schools, even nations. After long years devoted to excursions in many fields of intellectual activity, I, at least, have met no one who, with such a heady prospect in plain sight, knew how to hold the balance so true as the author of the "Origin of Species." One might almost go so far as to call him the proof, in propria persona, of Hegel's profound deliverance: "Not only must philosophy be in harmony with experience, but empirical natural science is the presupposition and condition of the rise and formation of the philosophical science of nature."[10]

And this leads, naturally, to a few words concerning Darwin's circumstances, and his character as a man.

Taken on the whole, his achievement happens to be thoroughly typical of English science, in contrast with German, French, or even Scottish, not to say American, methods. He wrought in an independence of others that amounted almost to loneliness. He seems to have gained no inspiration from his teachers at Edinburgh and at Cambridge from none except Henslow, through whose instrumentality he undertook the famous voyage on the Beagle. In 1842, while yet a young man, he retired to Down, in Kent, there to mature his epoch-making investigations "far from the madding crowd," but, nevertheless, to show his age its own express image.

As with so many Englishmen of foremost rank in science, he stood apart from that organization of Wissenschaft provided by the institute and academies of France, by the university system in Germany and Scotland. We must think of him, in the main, as we think of Young, who presented his fundamental discoveries on the undulatory theory of light in such obscure ways and channels that they never received due contemporary recognition; of Dalton, who, working as a private teacher at Manchester, was first appreciated in the University of Glasgow; of George Green, the self-taught Nottingham genius, who anticipated Gauss in elaborating the general mathematical theory of potential function, and who was also made known to European science by my alma mater; of Boole, who, though the founder of the science of invariants, taught in "venture" schools at Doncaster and Lincoln, and never climbed higher than the professorship of mathematics at an inconspicuous Irish college;[11] of Faraday and Joule, whose pertinacious, unaided labors were also rated first at their real worth in the University of Glasgow; of the Yorkshire shepherd, Dawson, who made Senior wranglers at Sedbergh in the last years of the eighteenth century. All these men—and I might name others, like the classical succession of English philosophers—were personalities, not ranking officers in a national syndicate of scientific feudalism. Darwin stood latest in their wonderful, and characteristically English, line. The Englishman's passion for independence, his desire for the free play of idiosyncrasy, may account for this. More powerful, in my judgment, is the fact that the pursuit of science had not become a profession, and with the astonishing consequences noted so caustically by Brewster, in 1830.

The great inventions and discoveries which have been made in England during the last century have been made without the precincts of our universities. In proof of this we have only to recall the labours of Bradley, Dollond, Priestley, Cavendish, Maskelyne, Rumford, Watt, Wollaston, Young, Davy and Chenevix; and among the living to mention the names of Dalton, Ivory, Brown, Hatchett, Pond, Hersehel, Babbage, Henry, Barlow, South, Faraday, Murdoch and Christie; nor need we have any hesitation in adding that within the last fifteen years not a single discovery or invention of prominent interest has been made in our colleges, and that there is not one man in all the eight universities of Great Britain who is at present known to be engaged in any train of original research.[12]

(A research club takes due note, I hope!) Science lay in far deeper debt to the unusual endowment of individuals than to the patronage of academies, or the fostering stimulus of universities, true to the highest trust of education. In this connection, then, note finally that Darwin's character furnished an ideal instrument for the continuation of this process, more Anglicano.

On the intellectual side, Darwin's character presented a combination, unique in modern times at least, of extensive knowledge, profound sagacity and deliberative caution. His mastery over detail simply overwhelms one. His sense for relationship and consequent power to detect a single principle, no matter how confusing the multiplied phenomena might be, lent him the ability that was to restore synthesis to its lost place in scientific method. Still, fertile though he proved along theoretical lines, his caution prevented him from riding off, heedless, upon preconceived notions. In this connection, it is a fact worthy of constant note that he refused to discuss questions about the origin of life, and the genesis of the earliest living organisms—subjects fraught with wandering lights. My own ignorance of the field wherein he labored may lead me into error, but, nevertheless, I do not think I am far wrong when I affirm that the adjuncts of his systematization which have least stood the test of time, thanks to manifold discoveries, his fruitage, were precisely those framed as concessions to the opinions of others. His very inability to dogmatize, and his readiness to enter into the standpoint of colleagues, illustrated his mighty virtue of second thought, nigh in the act of overreaching itself. Accordingly, it makes small difference to what extent further investigation may have complicated the problem of the means of evolution; his illuminating and thorough presentation of the fact stands untouched. The dilemma becomes plainer every day—either evolution, or irrational chaos.

On what may be called the ethical side, his personality exercised immense influence over his intimates and won upon them deeply. A brilliant and witty conversationalist, his refinement and sensitiveness placed even the youngest at ease, while his benevolent wisdom tied men to him by bands stronger than steel. Like all real masters of those who know, he was charmingly unconscious of his eminent genius, and his unaffected modesty led him to see achievements surpassing his own in many a one. What he wrote of Henslow offers a most apposite commentary upon himself.

Reflecting over his character with gratitude and reverence, his moral attributes rise, as they should do in the highest characters, in preeminence over his intellect.

But, to my mind, the most impressive testimony to Darwin's personal nobility comes, not from any of his devoted friends, but from Leslie Stephen, a critic averse constitutionally from ecstatic praise of any one. He even says: "I should like to succeed in praising somebody some day."[13] Remember, too, that Stephen was on terms of familiarity with the chief figures of the Victorian era, that his own family had produced men of high distinction, and that he married a daughter of Thackeray. Yet, temperament and opportunity notwithstanding, Darwin overtopped all others with him. The venerable naturalist had been to see him in London, and Stephen writes to Charles Eliot Norton, in 1877:

You may believe that I was proud to welcome him, for of all eminent men that I have ever seen he is beyond comparison the most attractive to me. There is something almost pathetic in his simplicity and friendliness.
I heard a story the other day about a young German admirer, whom Lubbock took to see him. He could not summon up courage to speak to the great man; but, when they came away, burst into tears. That is not my way; but I can sympathize to some extent with the enthusiastic Dutchman.[14]"

Although Darwin must have been tried sorely by vulgar misrepresentation, partisan spite, ignorant invective and foul traduction, "he never took an ill-natured view of any one's character." His conduct midmost the cataract of abuse let loose upon the "Origin of Species" constitutes a glorious monument to his elevation of soul. His open simplicity earned the reverence no less than the affection of those who were privileged to know him. And, as we now place our bays upon his crowned memory, we may adopt the words of the Scottish poet, an acquaintance of my college days, whose sonnet voices the truth so finely:

Man's thought is like Antæus, and must be
Touched to the ground of Nature to regain
Fresh force, new impulse, else it would remain
Dead in the grip of strong Authority.
But, once thereon reset, 'tis like a tree.
Sap-swollen in spring-time: bonds may not restrain;
Nor weight repress; its rootlets rend in twain
Dead stones and walls and rocks resistlessly.

Thine then it was to touch dead thoughts to earth,
Till of old dreams sprang new philosophies,
From visions systems, and beneath thy spell
Swiftly uprose, like magic palaces,—
Thyself half-conscious only of thy worth—
Calm priest of a tremendous oracle!

  1. Address of the president of the Research Club of the University of Michigan, on the occasion of the Darwin commemoration.
  2. "The Movement Towards 'Physiological' Psychology," pp. 75 f.
  3. "From the Greeks to Darwin," p. 87.
  4. "Naturphil.," p. 489.
  5. "Life of Goethe," G. H. Lewes, p. 358.
  6. It is generally understood now that the review of the "Origin of Species" published in the Edinburgh Review for April, 1860, was by Owen. At this time, all who have access to it should refresh their memories by reading it. The tone of Spencer's references explains not a little to be found in this critique, especially its concluding emphasis upon the superiority of Cuvier.
  7. "Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer," D. Duncan, Vol. I., p. 112,
  8. Ibid., p. 113.
  9. "Darwin and After Darwin," Vol. I., pp. 4-7 (London, 1892).
  10. "Naturphil.," p. 11.
  11. Queen's College, Cork.
  12. Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIII., p. 327. This article led to the foundation of the British Association. Cf. "The English Utilitarians," Leslie Stephen, Vol. I., pp. 47 f., 112.
  13. "The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen," p. 307.
  14. Ibid., pp. 300, 301.