Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Sir E. Ray Lankester (1847–1929)
CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN, the great naturalist and author of the “Darwinian theory,” was the son of Dr. Robert Waring Darwin (1766–1848) and grandson of Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802). He was born at Shrewsbury on February 12th, 1809. W. E. Gladstone, Alfred Tennyson, and Abraham Lincoln were born in the same year. Charles Darwin was the youngest of a family of four, having an elder brother and two sisters. He was sent to a day school at Shrewsbury in the year of his mother’s death, 1817. At this age he tells us that the passion for “collecting” which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in him, and was clearly innate, as none of his brothers or sisters had this taste. A year later he was removed to the Shrewsbury grammar school, where he profited little by the education in the dead languages administered, and incurred (as even to-day would be the case in English schools) the rebukes of the head-master Butler for “wasting his time” upon such unprofitable subjects as natural history and chemistry, which he pursued “out of school.”  1
  When Charles was sixteen his father sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine, but after two sessions there he was removed and sent to Cambridge (1828) with the intention that he should become a clergyman. In 1831 he took his B. A. degree as what is called a “pass-man.” In those days the injurious system of competitive examinations had not laid hold of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge as it has since, and Darwin quietly took a pass degree whilst studying a variety of subjects of interest to him, without a thought of excelling in an examination. He was fond of all field sports, of dogs and horses, and also spent much time in excursions, collecting and observing with Henslow the professor of botany, and Sedgwick the celebrated geologist. An undergraduate friend of those days has declared that “he was the most genial, warm-hearted, generous and affectionate of friends; his sympathies were with all that was good and true; he had a cordial hatred for everything false, or vile, or cruel, or mean, or dishonorable. He was not only great but pre-eminently good, and just and lovable.”  2
  Through Henslow and the sound advice of his uncle Josiah Wedgwood (the son of the potter of Etruria) he accepted an offer to accompany Captain Fitzroy as naturalist on H. M. S. Beagle, which was to make an extensive surveying expedition. The voyage lasted from December 27th, 1831, to October 2d, 1836. It was, Darwin himself says, “by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career.” He had great opportunities of making explorations on land whilst the ship was engaged in her surveying work in various parts of the southern hemisphere, and made extensive collections of plants and animals, fossil as well as living forms, terrestrial as well as marine. On his return he was busy with the description of these results, and took up his residence in London. His ‘Journal of Researches’ was published in 1839, and is now familiar to many readers in its third edition, published in 1860 under the title ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage; Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle round the World, under the command of Captain Fitzroy, R. N.’  3
  This was Darwin’s first book, and is universally held to be one of the most delightful records of a naturalist’s travels ever produced. It is to be placed alongside of Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative,’ and is the model followed by the authors of other delightful books of travel of a later date, such as Wallace’s ‘Malay Archipelago,’ Moseley’s ‘Naturalist on the Challenger,’ and Belt’s ‘Naturalist in Nicaragua.’ We have given in our selections from Darwin’s writings the final pages of ‘A Naturalist’s Voyage’ as an example of the style which characterizes the book. In it Darwin shows himself an ardent and profound lover of the luxuriant beauty of nature in the tropics, a kindly observer of men, whether missionaries or savages; an incessant student of natural things—rocks, plants, and animals; and one with a mind so keenly set upon explaining these things and assigning them to their causes, that none of his observations are trivial, but all of value and many of first-rate importance. The book is addressed, as are all of Darwin’s books, to the general reader. It seemed to be natural to him to try and explain his observations and reasonings which led to them and followed from them to a wide circle of his fellow-men. The reader at once feels that Darwin is an honest and modest man, who desires his sympathy and seeks for his companionship in the enjoyment of his voyage and the interesting facts and theories gathered by him in distant lands. The quiet unassuming style of the narrative, and the careful explanation of details in such a way as to appeal to those who have little or no knowledge of natural history, gives a charm to the ‘Naturalist’s Voyage’ which is possessed in no less a degree by his later books. A writer in the Quarterly Review in 1839 wrote, in reviewing the ‘Naturalist’s Voyage,’ of the “charm arising from the freshness of heart which is thrown over these pages of a strong intellectual man and an acute and deep observer.” The places visited in the course of the Beagle’s voyage, concerning each of which Darwin has something to say, were the Cape Verd Islands, St. Paul’s Rocks, Fernando Noronha, parts of South America, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos Islands, the Falkland Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Keeling Island, the Maldives, Mauritius, St. Helena, Ascension. The most important discoveries recorded in the book—also treated at greater length in special scientific memoirs—are the explanation of the ring-like form of coral islands, the geological structure of St. Helena and other islands, and the relation of the living inhabitants—great tortoises, lizards, birds, and various plants—of the various islands of the Galapagos Archipelago to those of South America.  4
  In 1839 (shortly before the publication of his journal) Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood of Maer, and in 1842 they took the country-house and little property of Down near Orpington in Kent, which remained his home and the seat of his labors for forty years; that is, until his death on April 19th, 1882. In a letter to his friend Captain Fitzroy of the Beagle, written in 1846, Darwin says, “My life goes on like clockwork, and I am fixed on the spot where I shall end it.” Happily, he was possessed of ample private fortune, and never undertook any teaching work nor gave any of his strength to the making of money. He was able to devote himself entirely to the studies in which he took delight; and though suffering from weak health due to a hereditary form of dyspepsia, he presented the rare spectacle of a man of leisure more fully occupied, more absorbed in constant and exhausting labors, than many a lawyer, doctor, professor, or man of letters. His voyage seems to have satisfied once for all his need for traveling, and his absences from Down were but few and brief during the rest of his life. Here most of his children were born, five sons and three daughters. One little girl died in childhood; the rest grew up around him and remained throughout his life in the closest terms of intimacy and affection with him and their mother. Here he carried on his experiments in greenhouse, garden, and paddock; here he collected his library and wrote his great books. He became a man of well-considered habits and method, carefully arranging his day’s occupation so as to give so many hours to noting the results of experiments, so many to writing and reading, and an hour or two to exercise in his grounds or a ride, and playing with his children. Frequently he was stopped for days and even weeks from all intellectual labor by attacks of vomiting and giddiness. Great as were his sufferings on account of ill health, it is not improbable that the retirement of life which was thus forced on him, to a very large extent determined his wonderful assiduity in study and led to the production by him of so many great works.  5
  In later years these attacks were liable to ensue upon prolonged conversation with visitors, if a subject of scientific interest were discussed. His wife, who throughout their long and happy union devoted herself to the care of her husband so as to enable him to do a maximum amount of work with least suffering in health, would come and fetch him away after half an hour’s talk, that he might lie down alone in a quiet room. Then after an hour or so he would return with a smile, like a boy released from punishment, and launch again with a merry laugh into talk. Never was there an invalid who bore his maladies so cheerfully, or who made so light of a terrible burden. Although he was frequently seasick during the voyage of the Beagle, he did not attribute his condition in later life in any way to that experience, but to inherited weakness. During the hours passed in his study he found it necessary to rest at intervals, and adopted regularly the plan of writing for an hour and of then lying down for half an hour, whilst his wife or daughter read to him a novel! After half an hour he would again resume his work, and again after an hour return to the novel. In this way he got through the greater part of the circulating libraries’ contents. He declared that he had no taste for literature, but liked a story, especially about a pretty girl; and he would only read those in which all ended well. Authors of stories ending in death and failure ought, he declared, to be hung!  6
  He rarely went to London, on account of his health, and consequently kept up a very large correspondence with scientific friends, especially with Lyell, Hooker, and Huxley. He made it a rule to preserve every letter he received, and his friends were careful to preserve his; so that in the ‘Life and Letters’ published after his death by his son Frank—who in later years lived with his father and assisted him in his work—we have a most interesting record of the progress of his speculations, as well as a delightful revelation of his beautiful character. His house was large enough to accommodate several guests at a time; and it was his delight to receive here for a week’s end not only his old friends and companions, but younger naturalists, and others, the companions of his sons and daughters. Over six feet in height, with a slight stoop of his high shoulders, with a brow of unparalleled development overshadowing his merry blue eyes, and a long gray beard and mustache,—he presented the ideal picture of a natural philosopher. His bearing was, however, free from all pose of superior wisdom or authority. The most charming and unaffected gayety, and an eager innate courtesy and goodness of heart, were its dominant notes. His personality was no less fascinating and rare in quality than are the immortal products of his intellect.  7
  The history of the great works which Darwin produced, and especially of his theory of the Origin of Species, is best given in his own words. The passage which is here referred to is a portion of an autobiographical sketch written by him in 1876, not for publication but for the use of his family, and is printed in the ‘Life and Letters.’ Taken together with the statement as to his views on religion, it gives a great insight both into the character and mental quality of the writer. It is especially remarkable as the attempt of a truly honest and modest man to account for the wonderful height of celebrity and intellectual eminence to which he was no less astonished than pleased to find himself raised. But it also furnishes the reader with an admirable catalogue raisonné of his books, arranged in chronological order.  8
  A few more notes as to Darwin’s character will help the reader to appreciate his work. His friendships were remarkable, characterized on his side by the warmest and most generous feeling. Henslow, Fitzroy, Lyell, Hooker, and Huxley stand out as his chief friends and correspondents. Henslow was professor of botany at Cambridge, and took Darwin with him when a student there for walks, collecting plants and insects. His admiration for Henslow’s character, and his tribute to his fine simplicity and warmth of feeling in matters involving the wrongs of a down-trodden class or cruelty to an individual, are evidence of deep sympathy between the natures of Darwin and his first teacher. Of Fitzroy, the captain of H. M. S. Beagle—with whom he quarreled for a day because Fitzroy defended slavery—Darwin says that he was in many ways the noblest character he ever knew. His love and admiration for Lyell were unbounded. Lyell was the man who taught him the method—the application of the causes at present discoverable in nature to the past history of the earth—by which he was led to the solution of the question as to the origin of organic forms on the earth’s surface. He regarded Lyell, who with Mrs. Lyell often visited him at Down, more than any other man as his master and teacher. Hooker—still happily surviving from among this noble group of men—was his “dear old friend”; his most constant and unwearied correspondent; he from whom Darwin could always extract the most valuable facts and opinions in the field of botanical science, and the one upon whose help he always relied. Huxley was for Darwin not merely a delightful and charming friend, but a “wonderful man,”—a most daring, skillful champion, whose feats of literary swordsmanship made Darwin both tremble and rejoice. Samples of his correspondence with these fellow-workers are given below. The letter to Hooker (September 26th, 1862) is particularly interesting, as recording one of the most important discoveries of his later years,—confirmed by the subsequent researches of Gardiner and others,—and as containing a pretty confession of his jealous desire to exalt the status of plants. Often he spoke and wrote in his letters of individual plants with which he was experimenting as “little rascals.”  9
  Darwin shared with other great men whose natures approach perfection, an unusual sympathy with and power over dogs, and a love for children. The latter trait is most beautifully expressed in a note which was found amongst his papers, giving an account of his little girl, who died at the age of ten years. Written for his own eyes only, it is a most delicate and tender composition, and should be pondered side by side with his frank and—necessarily to some readers—almost terrifying statement of his thoughts on religion.  10
  Darwin’s only self-indulgence was snuff-taking. In later years he smoked an occasional cigarette, but his real “little weakness” was snuff. It is difficult to suppose that he did not benefit by the habit, careful as he was to keep it in check. He kept his snuff-box in the hall of his house, so that he should have to take the trouble of a walk in order to get a pinch, and not have too easy an access to the magic powder.  11
  The impression made on him by his own success and the overwhelming praise and even reverence which he received from all parts of the world, was characteristic of his charming nature. Darwin did not receive these proofs of the triumphs of his views with the solemnity of an inflated reformer who has laid his law upon the whole world of thought. Quite otherwise. He was simply delighted. He chuckled gayly over the spread of his views, almost as a sportsman—and we must remember that in his young days he was a sportsman—may rejoice in the triumphs of his own favorite “racer,” or even as a schoolboy may be proud and happy in the success of “the eleven” of which he is captain. He delighted to count up the sale of his books, not specially for the money value it represented, though he was too sensible to be indifferent to that, but because it proved to him that his long and arduous life of thought, experiment, and literary work was not in vain. To have been or to have posed as being indifferent to popular success, would have required a man of less vivid sympathy with his fellow-men; to have been puffed up and pretentious would have needed one less gifted with a sense of humor, less conscious of the littleness of one man, however talented, in the vast procession of life on the earth’s surface. His delight in his work and its success was of the perfect and natural kind, which he could communicate to his wife and daughters, and might have been shared by a child.  12
  I, who write of him here, had the great privilege of staying with him from time to time at Down, and I find it difficult to record the strangely mixed feeling of reverential admiration and extreme personal attachment and affection with which I came to regard him. I have never known or heard of a man who combined with such exceptional intellectual power so much cheeriness and love of humor, and such ideal kindness, courtesy, and modesty. Owing to the fact that my father was a naturalist and man of letters, I as a boy knew Henslow and Lyell, Darwin’s teachers, and have myself enjoyed a naturalist’s walk with the one and the geological discussions of the other. I first saw Darwin himself in 1853, when he was recommended to my boyish imagination as “a man who had ridden up a mountain on the back of a tortoise” (in the Galapagos Islands)! When I began to work at and write on zoölogy he showed his kindness of heart by writing to me in praise of my first book: he wrote to me later in answer to my appeal for guidance, that “physiological experiment on animals is justifiable for real investigation; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep to-night.” When I prosecuted Slade the spiritualistic impostor, and obtained his conviction at Bow Street as a common rogue, Darwin was much interested, and after the affair was over wrote to say that he was sure that I had been at great expense in effecting what he considered to be a public benefit, and that he should like to be allowed to contribute ten pounds to the cost of the prosecution. He was ever ready in this way to help by timely gifts of money what he thought to be a good cause, as for instance in the erection of the Zoölogical Station of Naples by Dr. Anton Dohrn, to which he gave a hundred pounds. His most characteristic minor trait which I remember, was his sitting in his drawing-room at Down in his high-seated arm-chair, and whilst laughing at some story or joke, slapping his thigh with his right hand and exclaiming, with a quite innocent and French freedom of speech, “O my God! That’s very good. That’s capital.” Perhaps one of the most interesting things that I ever heard him say was when, after describing to me an experiment in which he had placed under a bell-jar some pollen from a male flower, together with an unfertilized female flower, in order to see whether, when kept at a distance but under the same jar, the one would act in any way on the other, he remarked:—“That’s a fool’s experiment. But I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.” A great deal might be written as comment on that statement. Perhaps the thoughts which it suggests may be summed up by the proposition that even a wise experiment when made by a fool generally leads to a false conclusion, but that fools’ experiments conducted by a genius often prove to be leaps through the dark into great discoveries.  13
  As examples of Darwin’s writings I have chosen, in addition to those already mentioned, certain passages from his great book on the ‘Origin of Species,’ in which he explains what he understands by the terms “Natural Selection” and the “Struggle for Existence.” These terms invented by Darwin—but specially the latter—have become “household words.” The history of his thoughts on the subject of the Origin of Species is given in the account of his books, written by himself and already referred to. His letter to Professor Asa Gray (September 5th, 1857) is a most valuable brief exposition of his theory and an admirable sample of his correspondence. The distinguished American botanist was one of his most constant correspondents and a dear personal friend.  14
  I have also given as an extract the final pages of the ‘Origin of Species,’ in which Darwin eloquently defends the view of nature to which his theory leads. A similar and important passage on the subject of ‘Creative Design’ is also given: it is taken from that wonderful collection of facts and arguments published by Darwin under the title of ‘The Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication.’ It cannot be too definitely stated, as Darwin himself insisted, that his theory of the Origin of Species is essentially an extension of the argument used by Lyell in his ‘Principles of Geology.’ Just as Lyell accounted for the huge masses of stratified rocks, the upheaved mountain chains, the deep valleys, and the shifting seas of the earth’s surface, by adducing the long-continued cumulative action of causes which are at this present moment in operation and can be observed and measured at the present day: so Darwin demonstrates that natural variation, and consequent selection by “breeders” and “fanciers” at the present day, give rise to new forms of plants and animals; and that the cumulative, long-continued action of Natural Selection in the Struggle for Existence, or the survival of favorable variations, can and must have effected changes, the magnitude of which is only limited by the length of time during which the process has been going on.  15
  The style of Darwin’s writings is remarkable for the absence of all affectation, of all attempt at epigram, literary allusion, or rhetoric. In this it is admirably suited to its subject. At the same time there is no sacrifice of clearness to brevity, nor are technical terms used in place of ordinary language. The greatest pains are obviously given by the author to enable his reader to thoroughly understand the matter in hand. Further, the reader is treated not only with this courtesy of full explanation, but with extreme fairness and modesty. Darwin never slurs over a difficulty nor minimizes it. He states objections and awkward facts prominently, and without shirking proceeds to deal with them by citation of experiment or observation carried out by him for the purpose. His modesty towards his reader is a delightful characteristic. He simply desires to persuade you as one reasonable friend may persuade another. He never thrusts a conclusion nor even a step towards a conclusion upon you, by a demand for your confidence in him as an authority, or by an unfair weighting of the arguments which he balances, or by a juggle of word-play. The consequence is that though Darwin himself thought he had no literary ability, and labored over and re-wrote his sentences, we have in his works a model of clear exposition of a great argument, and the most remarkable example of persuasive style in the English language—persuasive because of its transparent honesty and scrupulous moderation.  16
  Darwin enjoyed rather better health in the last ten years of his life than before, and was able to work and write constantly. For some four months before his death, but not until then, it was evident that his heart was seriously diseased. He died on April 19th, 1882, at the age of seventy-three. Almost his last words were, “I am not the least afraid to die.” In 1879 he added to the manuscript of his autobiography already referred to, these words:—“As for myself, I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to Science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow-creatures.”  17
  From his early manhood to old age, the desire to do what was right determined the employment of his powers. He has done to his fellow-creatures an imperishable good, in leaving to them his writings and the example of his noble life.  18

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.