RECORD: Gray, Asa. 1874. Notice [of Charles Robert Darwin] by Asa Gray. The American Naturalist 8, No. 8. (August): 475-479.
REVISION HISTORY: OCRed and corrected by John van Wyhe 4.2007. RN2
NOTICE [of Charles Robert Darwin] BY ASA GRAY.
Two British naturalists, Robert Brown and Charles Darwin, have, more than any others, impressed their influence upon science in this nineteenth century. Unlike as these men and their works were and are we may most readily subserve the present purpose in what we are called upon to say of the latter by briefly comparing and contrasting the two.
Robert Brown died sixteen years ago, full of years and scientific honors, and he seems to have finished several years earlier all the scientific work that he had undertaken. To the other, Charles Darwin, a fair number of productive years may yet remain, and are earnestly hoped for. Both enjoyed the great advantage of being all their lives long free from any exacting professional du-
ties or cares, and so were able in the main to apply themselves to research without distraction and according to their bent. Both, at the beginning of their career, were attached to expeditions of exploration in the southern hemisphere, where they amassed rich stores of observation and materials, and probably struck out, while in the field, some of the best ideas which they subsequently developed. They worked in different fields and upon different methods; only in a single instance, so far as we know, have they handled the same topic; and in this the more penetrating insight of the younger naturalist into an interesting general problem may be appealed to in justification of a comparison which some will deem presumptuous. Be this as it may, there will probably be little dissent from the opinion that the characteristic trait common to the two is an unrivalled scientific sagacity. In this these two naturalists seem to us, each in his way, preeminent. There is a characteristic likeness, too — underlying much difference — in their admirable manner of dealing with facts closely, and at first hand, without the interposition of the formal laws, vague ideal conceptions, or "glittering generalities" which some philosophical naturalists make large use of.
A likeness may also be discerned in the way in which the works or contributions of predecessors and contemporaries are referred to. The brief historical summaries prefixed to many of Mr. Brown's papers are models of judicial conscientiousness. And Mr. Darwin's evident delight at discovering that some one else has "said his good things before him," or has been on the verge of uttering them, seemingly equals that of making the discovery himself. It reminds one of Goethe's insisting that his views in morphology must have been held before him and must be somewhere on record, so obviously just and natural did they appear to him.
Considering the quiet and retired lives led by both these men, and the prominent place they are likely to occupy in the history of science, the contrast between them as to contemporary and popular fame is very remarkable. While Mr. Brown was looked up to with the greatest reverence by all the learned botanists, he was scarcely heard of by any one else; and out of botany he was unknown to science except as the discoverer of the Brownian motion of minute particles, which discovery was promulgated in a privately printed pamphlet that few have ever seen. Although Mr.
Darwin had been for twenty years well and widely known for his "Naturalist's Journal," his works on "Coral Islands," on "Volcanic Islands," and especially for his researches on the Barnacles, it was not till about fifteen years ago that his name became popularly famous. Since then no scientific name has been so widely spoken. Many others have had hypotheses or systems named after them, but no one else that we know of a department of bibliography. The nature of his latest researches accounts for most of the difference, but not for all. The Origin of Species is a fascinating topic, having interests and connections with every branch of science, natural and moral. The investigation of recondite affinities is very dry and special; its questions, processes, and results alike — although in part generally presentable in the shape of morphology — are mainly, like the higher mathematics, unintelligible except to those who make them a subject of serious study. They are especially so when presented in Mr. Brown's manner. Perhaps no naturalist ever recorded the results of his investigations in fewer words and with greater precision than Robert Brown: certainly no one ever took more pains to state nothing beyond the precise point in question. Indeed we have sometimes fancied that he preferred to enwrap rather than to explain his meaning; to put it into such a form that, unless you follow Solomon's injunction and dig for the wisdom as for hid treasure, you may hardly apprehend it until you have found it all out for yourself, when you will have the satisfaction of perceiving that Mr. Brown not only knew all about it, but had put it upon record long before. Very different from this is the way in which Mr. Darwin takes his readers into his confidence, freely displays to them the sources of his information, and the working of his mind, and even shares with them all his doubts and misgivings, while in a clear and full exposition he sets forth the reasons which have guided him to his conclusions. These you may hesitate or decline to adopt, but you feel sure that they have been presented with perfect fairness; and if you think of arguments against them you may be confident that they have all been duly considered before.
The sagacity which characterizes these two naturalists is seen in their success in finding decisive instances, and their sure insight into the meaning of things. As an instance of the latter on Mr. Darwin's part, and a justification of our venture to compare him with the facile princeps botanicorum, we will, in conclusion, allude
to the single instance in which they took the same subject in hand. In his papers on the organs and modes of fecundation in Orchideae and Asclepiacleae, Mr. Brown refers more than once to C. K. Sprengel's almost forgotten work, shows how the structure of the flowers in these orders largely requires the agency of insects for their fecundation, and is aware that "in Asclepideae . . . the insect so readily passes from one corolla to another that it not unfrequently visits every flower of the umbel." He must also have contemplated the transport of pollen from plant to plant by wind and insects; and we know from another source that he looked upon Sprengel's ideas as far from fantastic. Yet instead of taking the single forward step which now seems so obvious, he even hazarded the conjecture that the insect-forms of some Orchideous flowers are intended to deter rather than to attract insects. And so the explanation of all these and other extraordinary structures, as well as of the arrangement of blossoms in general, and even the very meaning and need of sexual propagation, were left to be supplied by Mr. Darwin. The aphorism "Nature abhors a vacuum" is a characteristic specimen of the science of the Middle Ages. The aphorism "Nature abhors close fertilization," and the demonstration of the principle, belong to our age, and to Mr. Darwin. To have originated this, and also the principle of Natural Selection—the truthfulness and importance of which are evident the moment it is apprehended—and to have applied these principles to the system of nature in such a manner as to make, within a dozen years, a deeper impression upon natural history than has been made since Linnaeus, are ample title for one man's fame.
There is no need of our giving any account or of estimating the importance of such works as the "Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection," the "Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication," the "Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex," and the "Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,"— a series to which we may hope other volumes may in due time be added. We would rather, if space permitted, attempt an analysis of the less known, but not less masterly, subsidiary essays upon the various arrangements for ensuring cross-fertilization in flowers, for the climbing of plants and the like. These, as we have heard, may before long be reprinted in a volume, and supplemented by some long-pending but still unfinished investigations
upon the action of Dionaea and Drosera—a capital subject for Mr. Darwin's handling.
Apropos to these papers, which furnish excellent illustrations of it, let us recognize Darwin's great service to natural science in bringing back to it Teleology: so that, instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology. To many, no doubt, Evolutionary Teleology comes in such a questionable shape as to seem shorn of all its goodness; but they will think better of it in time, when their ideas become adjusted, and they see what an impetus the new doctrines have given to investigation. They are much mistaken who suppose that Darwinism is only of speculative importance and perhaps transient interest. In its working applications it has proved to be a new power, eminently practical and fruitful.
And here, again, we are bound to note a striking contrast to Mr. Brown, greatly as we revere his memory. He did far less work than was justly to be expected from him. Mr. Darwin not only points out the road, but labors upon it indefatigably and unceasingly. A most commendable noblesse oblige assures us that he will go on while strength (would we could add health) remains. The vast amount of such work he has already accomplished might overtax the powers of the strongest. That it could have been done at all under constant infirm health is most wonderful.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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