Popular Science Monthly/Volume 74/April 1909/The Individuality of Charles Darwin

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



WE are assembled, at the invitation of an organization devoted to the dissemination of scientific knowledge, under the hospitable roof of an institution maintained for the promotion of systematic observation, for the purpose of honoring the memory of one of the greatest of seers. Charles Darwin, whose birthday we celebrate, was a man of the clearest mental vision born into a generation scientifically blind. He first, of those in his day accounted wise, was able to see all nature unfolding according to uniform and verifiable law. The outlook of other men called by his contemporaries scientists and philosophers was, as a rule, limited and obscured by a narrowing and hampering doctrine of supernatural intervention. It is hard for us, who are privileged to contemplate with admiring minds the harmonious interrelations of all natural phenomena, to realize that only fifty years ago it was commonly regarded as both irrational and immoral to believe that one great principle underlay the origin, maintenance, diversification and development of living forms and that principle was discoverable through human investigation. During the ages previous to the memorable year 1859 a few bold thinkers, now and then, had ventured to suggest a theory of general evolution, but they had failed to supply it with a substantial foundation of proof, or to assign to it a reasonable and intelligible cause, and had been, consequently, one and all, overwhelmed and suppressed by the powerful and prevalent dogma of special creation. Naturalists had been for centuries active in the collection of facts, but, until Darwin came, the various phenomena of living things remained disconnected and unexplained. Indeed, it was impossible that they should have been correlated and elucidated as long as the domain of science was in thralldom to tyrannical authority and originality of thought was little less than a crime. For a hundred years prior to Darwin even professed students of nature were not free to see what lay under their very eyes. The scientific world was awaiting a liberator. Finally the revolution was proclaimed and the first decisive blow struck by the publication of "The Origin of Species" on the twenty-fourth of November, 1859. It was no hasty and ill-considered stroke. Events had been shaping themselves to this end since the twenty-seventh of December, 1831, when the little brig Beagle sailed from Plymouth harbor, bearing the unknown and youthful Charles Darwin to the discovery of a new world—not, however, an unexplored continent to be claimed for commerce and civilization, but a vastly greater and more valuable realm of thought to be opened to knowledge and conquered for intellectual freedom. Darwin, like the prophets of old, in preparation for his exalted mission, betook himself to the uninhabited wilderness, away from the influence of other minds, in order that he might draw inspiration from untrammeled and clarifying communion with nature. In his narrow cabin on the broad Atlantic, on the desert plains of Patagonia, on desolate and unpeopled islands of the Pacific, in the dark and solemn forests of the tropics, and on the summits of the bleak and barren Andes he gained the coveted prize of wisdom which had been denied him in the populous halls of two great universities where his free spirit had rebelled against the narrow conventionality of classical education.

Although a born investigator he had been driven and harassed for fourteen years by unthinking instructors devoid of both the ability and the disposition to consider his natural endowments and inclinations and who, with one or two exceptions, according to his own later judgment, wasted their time upon an unappreciative and discouraging pupil. He says of himself that he was slow in learning, but a review of his productive life clearly shows that, if he was dull in any respect, it was solely in the matter of accepting ideas at second hand. It happened, merely, that what most of his teachers were prepared to impart he was not constituted to receive; and so one of the acutest observers the world has ever known was thought to be inattentive and unreceptive. During all the school days of his childhood, passed in his native town of Shrewsbury, not only were his superb mental gifts wholly unrecognized, but no attempt was ever made to find out if he had any such gifts. He spent seven useless years at Dr. Butler's so-called "great school," but, apparently, the head master never came to know his talented pupil, for the educational system which prevailed in that institution had no reference to "the discovery of the exceptional man." The one ceaseless effort of his schoolmasters was to crowd him into the common mold.

Receiving no sympathy and little assistance from the teachers of his boyhood, he developed "a strong taste for long solitary walks" and cultivated the habit of stealing time for more or less surreptitious collecting in several departments of natural history. Thus he became, in all important respects, self-taught and, driven to his own resources, his natural inclination to consider his path of life as lying far aside from the common highway was confirmed and strengthened. This sense of solitariness followed him to the end of his life and was, no doubt, an important factor in the formation and preservation of his extraordinary individuality and faith in his own powers. Darwin's followers may therefore bless even the obtuseness and unwisdom of his preceptors who left him unspoiled by their restraining influence.

When, in 1825, Doctor Robert Darwin concluded that his son Charles was lacking in natural aptitude for scholarship, he sent him to Edinburgh University, intending that he should follow in the footsteps of his father and of his grandfather by becoming a physician. But here, again, the young man found himself unable to receive what was offered him on the strength of ancient authority. The instruction dispensed in that hoary institution was, to him, perfunctory and uninspiring and he was once more driven to seek the real enlargement of his knowledge by self-directed methods. In this way he appears to have obtained, at Edinburgh, some sort of acquaintance with the fundamental principles of scientific research, but, as the learning thus acquired was not in the line of his intended profession, it was not appreciated by his family and friends. Accordingly, after two sessions spent at that university, it was concluded that his regular studies had been entirely misdirected and he was therefore withdrawn and sent to Cambridge. There he was still worse misguided in the endeavor to educate him in theology. Again was repeated the old story of an uncongenial curriculum ostensibly conformed to but in reality shirked and avoided in favor of natural history privately followed by side paths. The unwilling student wished to be obedient to his father's direction, but native bent proved stronger than conventional rule—the call of destiny louder than the voice of filial duty.

His father, in most things a wise man, saw in his son's insect-and bird-hunting proclivity a tendency to the life of "an idle sporting man" and was sorely grieved and disappointed when he was obliged to concede the failure of his plan to connect the house of Darwin with the Church of England. Fortunately, however, the youthful Darwin came under the influence, at Cambridge, of a teacher endowed with more than ordinary discernment and, in this particular matter, with somewhat unusual independence and courage, and he took the budding naturalist and his lawless pursuits under his patronage and protection. To the faith and friendship of Professor J. S. Henslow Darwin was indebted for his appointment to the Beagle expedition, and to Professor Henslow, who robbed the church to enrich science, the world owes an incalculable debt of gratitude for the discovery, if not for the development, of one of its loftiest geniuses.

Others besides Henslow, however, had contributed to the fixation of Darwin's inborn talents and abilities, but Darwin never admitted that he received, either at Edinburgh or at Cambridge, anything like systematic mental training. He was, from the beginning of his school days to the end of his university life, a person set apart for individual preparation for a special and peculiar career. When he bade farewell to Christ's College, Cambridge, in the summer of 1831, his actual education was yet to be acquired, but not through human instruction. He has himself declared: "I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind.'*

It was therefore no professional scientist who eagerly accepted the unsalaried post of naturalist to the Beagle expedition around the world, but a modest, though confident, youth of twenty-two whose most important article of outfit was the first volume of the first edition of Lyell's "Principles of Geology," which had been published the year before, the second volume of which was not issued until after Darwin had reached South America. Thus it was providentially ordered that during the formative period covered by this epoch-making voyage, Darwin should remain as free as possible from human influences. If, instead of proceeding, raw as he was, directly from the seclusion of the university to the isolation of the voyage, he had directed his steps to the metropolis and had there mingled with the leaders in scientific thought, it is quite possible, if not probable, that he would have fallen under their authority and would have accepted the orthodox beliefs of his time. If that had been the case, we might be dominated to-day by the prohibitive doctrine of the immutability of species, instead of enjoying that freedom of thought and liberty of investigation to which Darwin made us heirs. But, happily for the intellectual world, during the five years which Darwin spent on the Beagle, under the intimate tutelage of mother nature, he laid, for our benefit, as well as for his own, the solid foundations of that never-failing habit of mind in which open-eyed teachableness ever supplemented unwavering honesty of purpose and fearlessness of approach.

After Darwin's return from the circumnavigation of the globe, he resided, for a little more than five years, in London, and that was the only portion of his life during which he was in actual personal contact with any considerable number of his fellow men. Even then, however, he was mostly engaged with his own thoughts, for he was arranging his collections and preparing for publication the results of his observations made while on the Beagle voyage. It was at the very beginning of this residence in London (July, 1837), while the things he had seen in South America and the Pacific Islands were still fresh in his memory that he opened his first note-book for facts in relation to the origin of species, about which he says he "had long reflected." For twenty-two years thereafter Mr. Darwin continued to pursue this revolutionizing subject with unexampled patience and, except as to two or three intimate friends, entirely within the privacy of his own mind.

In September, 1842, he went into retirement at Down, an out-of-the-way village in Kent. There, partly compelled by ill-health, he dwelt as a recluse for forty years, serenely contemplating nature and diligently gathering information, but seldom emerging into the world from which his richly-stored and phenomenally creative intellect had little to gain, but to which it never ceased to give, during the remainder of his life. Bare knowledge he welcomed from any source, but opinions and deductions he invariably produced for himself. What he wrote to H. W. Bates, who complained of a want of advice, is true of Darwin himself: "Part of your great originality of views," he said, "may be due to the necessity of self-exertion of thought." What has been said by his son Francis is equally true of Mr. Darwin—one of his most striking characteristics was "that supreme power of seeing and thinking what the rest of the world had overlooked."

Mr. Darwin was what we are accustomed to call a genius, but I know of no good definition of a genius but a man of insight. The person who by his unaided mental vision is able to see into and through problems which to other men are baffling or insoluble, has the highest right to be considered inspired. Darwin's wonderful endowment in this respect constituted him, by divine right, a leader of men. The world has always justly honored its standard bearers and we are here to pay homage to the name of one of the most attractive and commanding of them all. In other parts of this city and of this land, our fellow-citizens are gathering to-day to pay grateful tribute to the estimable character, and to recall the memorable deeds of a great emancipator. We likewise are celebrating the beneficent acts of a man, simple and modest as that other, who, at a critical period, spoke courageous words which conferred freedom on millions of his fellow creatures. It is altogether fitting that the birthdays of these two benefactors should be the same.

We now dedicate this monument in this approprite place not only to the honor and memory of Charles Darwin the great thinker, whose life and personality we admire, but also to the encouragement and guidance of all who may hereafter frequent these halls—as a testimony to the power of self-reliance and independence of mind which Charles Darwin preeminently exemplified and illustrated. May this portrait of a noble truth-seeker which we now unveil, signify, for all time to come, to him who would advance the boundaries of scientific knowledge that nature will yield up her secrets only when appealed to directly and in humility and purity of spirit.

  1. An address given at the American Museum of Natural History on February 12, on the occasion of the presentation of a bust of Darwin by the New York Academy of Sciences to the museum.