Darwin's Life

THERE is nothing more useful to observe in the life of Darwin than its simplicity. He was the man of science as Marlborough was the soldier, and he was only that. From boyhood he refused all other ways of life and knowledge as by instinct, and in his maturity the ill-health which ends the career of ordinary men only confirmed him in his own; he was always the collector, the investigator, or the theorizer. A second quality, which is general enough to be constantly attracting attention, is the thoroughly English character of his life; and it is one that gives to these volumes 1 the better part of their charm. Altogether the greater interest of the biography is in the opening chapters, which consist of Darwin’s autobiography and the recollections of him by his children; and this is not only because the subject is personal and human, instead of being that scientific research whose history in detail is the real story told us, but much more because the Darwins’ home shows us English breeding in one of its most engaging forms. The stock from which he sprang was rich in old English qualities of vigor, sense, and originality ; the house in which he was reared offers an excellent type of English family life, and was as good a place to be born in as could be desired for any son ; his father’s strong character, the influences of his older relatives, the ordinary schools he attended, the smallest incidents of his childhood, even the jokes of his playfellows, belong to the moral climate of the old country ; and it does not need the grouse-shooting, the Cambridge undergraduate suppers, and the proposition that he should choose the Church for a profession to tell us where we are. Indeed, we should not quarrel with any one who might find Darwin in his youth, spirited, cordial, and overflowing with health, in his early surroundings of English strength and kindness, quite as attractive as he was in his quieter, and in some respects narrower, working life.

He certainly won upon the men whom he met at the outset of his career. “ Looking back,” he says, " I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths: otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them. Certainly 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 some day be a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the notion seemed to me preposterous.” Of these men, Henslow was the most attached to him and interested in his success. He had not done much more than work at “ his beetles,” but his scientific taste was already the ruling genius of his life. It is surprising to see how completely he remained untouched by the ordinary influences of a university training; he thought in later years that his scholastic education had been a waste of time, and he seems justified when one perceives how little good he got from it. His was a mind that belonged to himself, self-fed, almost self - made ; he lived his own life, and not another’s, from the start; though his taste for collecting was hereditary, the persistence with which he gave himself up to following it, the completeness of his surrender to his one predominant talent, was his own. He was, nevertheless, better furnished with intellectual power than he appears to have believed. “From my earliest youth,” he writes, “ I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed, that is, to group all facts under some general laws.” It is true that he started from some specific facts, had a definite tangible problem to solve ; but he felt the necessity to solve it. He differed from the collector in this, that his curiosity was not exhausted in gathering materials, but he must also order his materials ; or, to put it exactly, must organize his knowledge. This shows the great vitality of his reasoning faculty, which within its special range was really precocious. The native strength of his mind in this direction is also illustrated by the great pleasure he derived from reading Paley’s Evidences. “ The logic of this book,” he declares, “and, as I may add, of his Natural Theology, gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley’s premises ; and taking these in trust, I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation.” He acknowledges his inability in later life to follow trains of abstract reasoning, such as make the matter of metaphysics ; but he was quite aware of his aptitude for inductive reasoning, and does not overestimate its influence in the composition of his great work. “ Some of my critics have said, ‘ Oh, he is a good observer, but he has no power of reasoning ! ’ I do not think that this can be true, for the Origin of Species is one long argument from the beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men.” His taste for collecting was a sine qua non, but it was this power of reasoning, however limited in range, that made him great; and it is as clearly to be seen in operation in his formative years as was the passion for collecting which was to feed it with material to work upon. His vivacity and energy no doubt counted much in winning for him the friendship of elder men, and he possessed that indefinable but potent quality of personal attractiveness; but Henslow in the beginning, as Lyell later, must have seen in him that happy conjunction of tastes and faculties which made his genius for science, or at least they must have perceived the promise of it.

All the circumstances of his life seem to have conspired to favor this special endowment. The very fact that the classics did nothing for him helped him : he was relieved from the confusion caused by complex and disturbing elements in a varied education ; he had no difficulty in making his choice; he was not afterward drawn aside by the existence of other unsatisfied tastes, artificially cultivated ; he had no ambition for that roundness of development which is a fetich of modern times ; he did not fritter away his time and energy in directions in which he could not excel. It is not meant to hold up his luck in this respect as exemplary good fortune, but only to emphasize the way in which it told on his success. He was not less happy in the exterior circumstances of his life, and in those things which come by a kind of hazard. His appointment to the Beagle was a Napoleonic opportunity, and in looking back he realized its value to the full: “ The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career; yet it depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done, and on such a trifle as the shape of my nose.” But one ought not to exaggerate the element of chance ; and though Captain Fitzroy had continued to disapprove of Darwin’s nose, and his uncle had not interfered to overcome the elder Darwin’s objection to the voyage on the score that it would be an unbecoming adventure for a prospective clergyman, and other equally good or better grounds, yet we might have had our great naturalist. The voyage of the Beagle, nevertheless, was the turning-point of Darwin’s life. He obtained in the course of it the first real training of his mind ; it brought before him several departments of science in such a way that he approached them with active and original thoughts, and was constantly forced into an inquiring and bold attitude toward the novel material he found; it gave him five years alone with science and free from any near master to whom he might have formed the habit of deferring. Huxley does not overstate the material advantages that this training brought with it: “ In Physical Geography, in Geology proper, in Geographical Distribution, and in Palæontology, he had acquired an extensive practical training during the voyage of the Beagle. He knew of his own knowledge the way in which the raw materials of these branches of science are acquired, and was therefore a most competent judge of the speculative strain they would bear. That which he needed, after his return to England, was a corresponding acquaintance with Anatomy and Development, and their relations to Taxonomy, and he acquired this by his Cirripede work.” It is to be noticed that during his voyage in the Beagle he became convinced of the “ wonderful superiority of Lyell’s manner of treating geology ” over every other author’s. This is an illustration, like that drawn from Paley, of the character of his mind as primarily a reasoning mind ; for what he recognized in Lyell was a method. It was on this voyage, too, that he became ambitious ; he began to believe that he might add to the stock of human knowledge, and the stimulation of the welcome his success was meeting in England was evidently keenly felt. He put his whole heart into the work, and few passages are more stirring than those which describe his zeal in his first, really scientific enthusiasm, after he had given up his gun as of less use than his eye, and had found sport, even with his fond love of it, an inferior pleasure to the pursuit of knowledge ; then, alone in the Andes and the Southern Ocean, he came to his majority.

Mr. Huxley, in the passage cited, has noted the need Darwin had for further training, particularly as a naturalist. He obtained this by his work on the Cirripedes, an eight years’ labor. This concluded his education. Of the value of it merely as training and to himself, Sir Joseph Hooker says : “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 afterwards; and the trained naturalist after, and only after, the Cirripede work. That he was a thinker all along is true enough.” Huxley says that Darwin never did a wiser thing than when he devoted himself to these years of patient toil. Darwin himself does not indicate that he purposely chose to do this monograph in order to educate himself, and he doubts whether it was worth the time. He seems to have been gradually drawn into it, and to have finished it because he had gone so far. When he had done with it, at any rate, if not before, he was a thoroughly furnished man for such investigation as was to be his title to lasting fame. He had come to be thus equipped by the mere course of his life : by beetles at Cambridge, and the Beagle, and the Cirripedes. Yet if he had planned his education from the start for the express purpose of dealing in the most masterly way with the mass of diversified details out of which the Origin of Species and the other derivative coördinate works grew, it is hard to see in what way his course could have been improved. The ill-health which seized him so soon was almost a blessing in disguise, since it isolated him from the distractions of modern London, made him value his life and his time, and possibly, by the economy of his strength which it necessitated, aided as much as it hindered him.

It is not within the scope of this notice to follow him through the composition of his books, or even through the elaboration of the theory of natural selection, during the many years that it was growing in his laboratory of notes. For him the formulating of that theory was inevitable : it seems, as one observes him, natural enough to have been foretold of him ; but it followed, not from his position, which another man might have occupied, but from his genius. The qualities of mind which it required were not many, and one understands readily why it is so commonly said that all is explained by his power of observation and its vast range; but it did require one high faculty of the mind, and a rare one at that, which Darwin had preëminently among the men of his time, — the faculty, namely, of discerning the lines of inquiry in a mass of as yet unrelated facts. He somewhere says that he had found it harder, perhaps, to put the question than it was to reach the answer. This power is the great economizer of mental energy, in any branch of investigation ; it is, to the man who has it, equivalent to a compass, and to Darwin it was the one talent without which his stores of knowledge would have been no more than a heap of unclassified specimens in a museum cellar. Moral and physical qualities he had, besides; his patience and his practiced vision were invaluable; but it was the intellectual part that penetrated the secrets of nature. This sense of the problem, this eye for the question, was most serviceable to his success, His acuteness in perceiving the importance of the infinitely little, which is often mentioned as one of his distinguishing traits, was only an incident of this larger endowment ; and his power to make other men useful to him, specialists in horticulture or physiology, or even common observing men, was only the knowledge of how to put practical questions. The point is worth emphasizing, because in this age of the accumulation of scientific detail it is too apt to be forgotten that the thinking mind is as rare in science as in other departments, and is, nevertheless, the indispensable thing which makes a man great.

Here it is worth while to advert to that persistent discussion respecting the nature of a modern education, which Darwin’s autobiography is bound to bring to the fore with new vigor. His testimony, both in the chart of himself which he gave Mr. Galton and in the account he wrote for his children, is unequivocal. He says he was self-taught; that his training at the university was of no use to him, speaking generally; and that the classics in particular were barren. He seems to be quite correct in his statement; the claim that his powers of observation and comparison were really developed by schoolboy attention to Latin and Greek terminations is purely pedagogical; nor is there any reason to question that men of genius can be successful, achieve eminent greatness for themselves, and do work of the highest value to society without immediate obligation to those studies usually called the humanities. This is nothing new. Instances of self-education for special careers are to be found in other walks than those of science: in war, in administration, and generally in active life, and not infrequently in literature itself. But it is worth observing what testimony these volumes bear to the wonderful vitality of the Greek intelligence. Speaking of the theory of Pangenesis, Darwin writes to a correspondent that the views of Hippocrates “ seem almost identical with mine, — merely a change of terms, and an application of them to classes of facts necessarily unknown to the old philosopher.” Again, he writes of Aristotle: “ From quotations which I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle’s merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was. Linnæus and Cuvier have been my two gods, though in very different ways, but they were mere schoolboys to old Aristotle. ... I never realized, before reading your book, to what an enormous consummation of labor we owe even our common knowledge.” A more striking passage is that of Huxley’s, where he says : “ The oldest of all philosophies, that of evolution, was bound hand and foot and cast into utter darkness during the millennium of theological scholasticism. But Darwin poured new lifeblood into the ancient frame ; the bonds burst, and the revivified thought of ancient Greece has proved itself to be a more adequate expression of the universal order of things than any of the schemes which have been accepted by the credulity and welcomed by the superstition of seventy later generations of men.” Rediscovery, however, is not obligation ; and perhaps, if Darwin had been thoroughly imbued with the Greek mode of looking upon the universe, he would not have been really indebted to it for his own views ; for he went upon different grounds in forming his conceptions. The real question is not whether Darwin succeeded without Greek influences, but whether he lost anything because of his failure to assimilate them. The answer seems to us plain. It is written all over these pages, and is expressly given by Darwin in more than one passage.

No words can be too strong to express the lovableness of Darwin’s personality, or the moral beauty of his character. In these volumes, it is true, he is presented as the man of science ; but he is seen occasionally in other aspects. He was a dutiful, respectful, and affectionate son, at the outset of his life. He thought his father was sometimes unjust, but he always spoke of him as “ the wisest man he ever knew ; ” and there is a touching passage in one of his letters home, when his father had sent him a note : “ I almost cried for pleasure at receiving it; it was very kind, thinking of writing to me.” He was also, in his turn, an admirable father, considerate, patient, and more tender. One of his sons tells a most significant anecdote of once having drawn on himself some indignant exclamation “ almost with fury,” and the end of it being that “ next morning, at seven o’clock or so, he came into my bedroom and sat on my bed, and said he had not been able to sleep, from the thought that he had been so angry with me, and after a few more kind words he left me.” His description of his little daughter who died is of itself enough to show the extraordinarily fine quality of his affections; and in general his relations with his children are almost ideal in gentleness, kindness, and companionableness. He was also a good friend and acquaintance. In a word, in his private social relations he was exemplary, judged by the standard of a high civilization. He was not without a sense, too, of public duty. He felt strongly only upon the subject of slavery, and this was largely because of his travels in slave countries. He was interested in philanthropic efforts to some degree, and especially in furthering the increase of kindness to animals. But he was remote from public affairs, and led even in his sympathies a life somewhat narrowly confined to his own circle and his work in science. In other parts of his character there is nothing to displease. He was modest, and just, and free from envy, conscientious to an extreme, and as ready to give as to receive help in all ways. He was more pleased with his fame than he acknowledged; he cared deeply for the success of his theory, and was well aware of its influence on his own reputation as one to be classed with Newton’s ; he liked praise and distinction, though he limited his desire to the commendation and respect of naturalists ; but this is only to wish to be approved by the most competent judges. He was fair to Wallace, and exhibited the best of tempers toward him; but between the lines one reads that he was nettled and annoyed by the incident, and it must be concluded that as he was ambitious in youth, he was desirous of having his due in manhood, and valued fame.

This was a character which might well spare the humanities. The fact remains that he did spare them. What he lost was culture. The confession that he makes of the gradual atrophy of his æsthetic tastes will be long quoted as one of the most remarkable facts of his life. He began with a susceptibility to music, which by his son’s account he did not lose ; with a liking for poetry, such that he read The Excursion twice, and he would not have read it except for pleasure ; and he used to take Milton with him in his pocket. In art he went but a little way, if indeed he ever really had any eye for it. He was religious, as an English boy usually is; but his interest in belief regarding religious subjects died out, and, what is of more consequence, the emotions which were called out by it in early life ceased to be exercised. There was a deadening, in other words, of all his nature, except so far as it was fed by his work, his family, and his friends in its intellectual and social parts. So complete was this change that it affected even his appreciation of beautiful scenery, which had evidently given him keen delight in his youth and travels. He dates this change from just after his thirtieth year, when he became absorbed in scientific pursuits as his profession. Something, no doubt, and perhaps much, is to he set down to the effect of his ill-health, which left him with diminished energies for any recreation ; his strength was exhausted in his few hours of work. He was himself so convinced that his life had been narrowed in these ways that he says if he had it to live over he would have planned to give a certain time habitually to poetry.

It would be too much to say that the failure of Darwin to appropriate the humane elements in his university education accounts in any perceptible degree for these defects. In culture as in science, the self-making power of the man counts heavily ; and there is such inefficiency in those whose duty it is to give youth a liberal education from classical sources, there are such wrong methods and unintelligent aims in the universities, that it might easily prove to be the case that a student with the most cordial temperament toward the humanities would profit only imperfectly by his residence at seats of learning. In spite of these reservations, however, the Greek culture is the historical source of what are traditionally the higher elements in our intellectual life, and has been for most cultivated men the practical discipline of their minds. But it is to be further observed that the example of Darwin, if it should be set up as showing that Greek culture is unnecessary in modern days, goes just as directly and completely to prove that all literary education, as well by modern as by ancient authors, is superfluous. It is enough to indicate to what a length the argument must be carried, if it is at all admitted. The important matter is rather the question, How much was Darwin’s life injured for himself by his loss of culture, in the fact that some of those sources of intellectual delight which are reputed the most precious for civilized man were closed to him ?

The blank page in this charming biography is the page of spiritual life. There is nothing written there. The entire absence of an element which enters commonly into all men’s lives in some degree is a circumstance as significant as it is astonishing. Never was a man more alive to what is visible and tangible or in any way matter of sensation ; on the sides of his nature where an appeal could be made, never was a man more responsive ; but there were parts in which he was blind and dull. Just as the boy failed to be interested in many things, the man failed, too ; and he disregarded what did not interest him with the same ease at sixty as at twenty. What did interest him was the immediately present, and he dealt with it admirably, both in the intellectual and the moral world; but what was remote was as if it were not. The spiritual element in life is not remote, but it is not matter of sensation, and Darwin lived as if there were no such thing; it belongs to the region of emotion and imagination, and those perceptions which deal with the nature of man in its contrast with the material world. Poetry, art, music, the emotional influences of nature, the idealizations of moral life, are the means by which men take possession of this inner world of man ; to which, for man at least, nature in all its immensity is subsidiary. Darwin’s insensibility to the higher life — for so men agree to call it — was partly, if not wholly, induced by his absorption in scientific pursuits in the spirit of materialism. We praise him for his achievements, we admire his character, and we feel the full charm of his temperament; he delights us in every active manifestation of his nature. We do not now learn for the first time that a man may be good without being religious, and successful without being liberally educated, and worthy of honor without being spiritual ; but a man may be all this, and yet be incomplete. Great as Darwin was as a thinker, and winning as he remains as a man, those elements in which he was deficient are the noblest part of our nature.

On finishing the story of his life, the reflection rises involuntarily in the mind that this man, in Wordsworth’s line, “ hath faculties that he has never used.”

  1. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. Including an Autobiographical Chapter. Edited by his son, FRANCIS DARWIN. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1887.