RECORD: Bryce, James. 1909. Personal Reminiscences of Charles Darwin and of the Reception of the "Origin of Species". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 48 (193) (September): iii-xiv.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned by John van Wyhe. Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data. 9.2008. RN1
CENTENARY OF CHARLES DARWIN'S BIRTH
(FEBRUARY 12, 1809)
FIFTEENTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE PUBLICATION
"ORIGIN OF SPECIES"
(NOVEMBER 24, 1859)
PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF CHARLES DARWIN
AND OF THE RECEPTION OF THE
"ORIGIN OF SPECIES."
BY HIS EXCELLENCY, THE RIGHT HONORABLE JAMES BRYCE.
(Read April 23, 1909.)
I count it a great honor to be invited to attend this meeting of the Society on this celebration of a very great man, who is one of the glories of our common race, and whom it is fitting that all members—not only the members of that common race, but all who belong to the great republic of science and letters, should join in commemorating. There is nothing more inspiriting to those who are citizens of that republic than the thought that one belongs to a universal company, embracing not only all nations and tongues, but all ages and countries, which is engaged in the same common pursuit of endeavoring to discover truth and to advance the bounds of knowledge. I feel it a particular honor to be asked the bounds of knowledge. I feel it a particular honor to be asked to join to-night in celebrating one of the brightest luminaries of modern science, of whom we English are proud, and on no occasion has the function of representing my country in your country been more prized by me than when it gives me the opportunity of coming here to join in this celebration as representing, however unworthily, British men of letters and the oldest of British scientific societies.
Ladies and gentlemen, a few words may be said upon some of the general aspects of this subject, which will be dealt with more completely by the third of the speakers who is to address you to-night.
When I was first invited to attend the meeting I was asked to say something regarding the influence of the Darwinian theory, and in particular to what is called the Doctrine of Evolution upon history and the political and economic sciences. I felt obliged to decline so great a task as that, partly because it required a wider knowledge than I possess, and partly also because I have never been able to feel sure that the influence—that is to say, the direct influence—of the doctrines contained in Mr. Darwin's writings upon the historical and political sciences is so great as has sometimes been supposed. Upon this subject my mind is quite open, and I shall be very glad to be convinced by the third of the speakers, that it is greater than I have been hitherto led to believe, but it seems proper to say a few words to you on the subject in order to state the views which some at least of the students of history hold and to invite an answer to them from the subsequent speakers.
Now, there is no doubt at all about this, that great changes have passed within the last two generations upon the study of historical, political and economic science. That, I suppose, we are all agreed upon. They are studied more scientifically; that is to say, they are studied with more exactitude and more precision than formerly. But it may be doubted whether this change in the method of studying historical and economic science is due to the influence of the physical sciences. If you examine the matter chronologically, it will appear that instead of being due to the recent growth of those sciences, it is due to causes which produced the rapid contemporaneous advance of the sciences of nature as well as the progress of historical and economic science. In other words, the more exact character of the human sciences has had an independent origin and source.
Let me say in passing that the influence upon history of some writers, who have dealt both with natural science and with history and tried to handle both subjects together, attempting a sort of synthesis, appears to me to have been greatly exaggerated. It is,
to say the least of it, very doubtful whether Auguste Comte, for whom so much is claimed by his disciples, really made any substantial addition to historical science. There is little, if any, ground for thinking—I have certainly never seen any evidence to show—that either Mr. Herbert Spencer or Mr. Buckle has brought any contribution of substantial value to either historical and political or to economic science. Indeed, as regards these two last named writers, most historians would say that it is hardly possible that they could have made any contribution to the knowledge of history as a science, because when they came to the details of history, they showed themselves quite uncritical—they were not accustomed to weigh evidence, or to test it by historical standards, and the general ideas which they put forward are old ideas, which were perfectly familiar to competent historians before either of them touched the pen. The case, however, with regard to the great thinkers in the field of natural history, and particularly as regards Charles Darwin, is a different case. We all admit and gratefully recognize the immense general intellectual stimulus which the writings of Mr. Darwin gave to everybody who was working in any field of enquiry by scientific methods. He stimulated all serious students, whatever their subject was, because his researches opened up fields new to many historians, and he pursued his enquiries—I will not say by new methods, but with a greater perfection and finish of method and with a more suggestive fertility of mind than perhaps had been done before. His books were read and pondered on by not a few men of letters, who had previously known very little of science. In that way, therefore, the effect of Darwin's writings was very great indeed. Moreover, he gave an example of careful and patient observation, of scrupulous detachment, of exquisite candor and fairness of mind in the process of investigation, which told very greatly on everyone who followed his researches and reflected on his conclusions.
Coming particularly to what is called the doctrine of Evolution, let it be at once admitted that in the branch of history that belongs to primitive man, that considers the growth of our race in its very earliest stages, and the development of his moral ideas and social habits, some of Mr. Darwin's suggestions were striking and illumina-
tive. But the specific doctrine of evolution, as applied to history, is not a new thing. In history it is a very old thing. All thoughtful and penetrating historians have always seen and recognized that there was constant progress and growth in human affairs, not necessarily permanent and perpetual progress, but at any rate change. They have recognized that there has been a process of flux and a ceaseless development always going on through human society. The process of change in ideas takes place by the action of what may be called the critical spirit—that is to say, the meaning and the effect, the scope and the limitations of all our ideas and all our conceptions are constantly being played upon by an analytic and speculative mind. The whole mind of the community—that is to say, all the thinking part of the community—is incessantly dealing with the conceptions and ideas which it has received from its predecessors, and these are thus being always imperceptibly altered under the influence of this examination and of the speculation which accompanies it, so that each succeeding generation hands on to the next something different from what it had received. That is what "evolution" substantially means in the sphere of philosophical thought, and that has long been practically recognized and understood. The process has in it something which is analogous to the process by which change and differentiation go on in the animal and vegetable kingdoms. But it is not the same thing, and instead of requiring the long and careful observation which modern naturalists have applied to determine how it goes on in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, it was a thing that was in a certain sense so obvious that great historians have perceived it from comparatively early times. For instance, the development of the civilized races of mankind out of a very low and brutish state had been recognized as far back as the philosophers of Greece. You remember the familiar lines of Horace
Cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris
Mutum et turpe pecus.And in the sphere of institutions, historians and political thinkers have always recognized that man is largely the creation of the conditions that surround him, and is profoundly influenced by them. They have always seen that institutions grow through being de-
veloped by the gradual and constant process of experiment succeeding experiment, and reaction followed by reaction. Institutions are the result of many efforts after improvement made sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. If an experiment succeeds, it is developed further. If it fails, it is dropped and another takes its place. If you look at the Roman Constitution, or at the English Constitution, you will see that either in its mature form represents a regular process of development by a constant series of small changes. That is in the historical sphere, what we mean by evolution. So it has always been known that the stronger races survive and weaker races perish; that efficient institutions—that is to say, such as are fitted to stand the strain of strife—maintain themselves in the struggle for life, while other and weaker institutions, which do not so well hold men together, and give strength and vigor and vitality to the body politic, disappear. This is one of the lessons of history, and a lesson which men could not but begin to read pretty early. Accordingly the doctrine of evolution in that sense was a doctrine long ago understood, if not always fully and explicitly set forth by historians, and the scientific spirit in historical science seems to be not the daughter of the same spirit in natural science, but the sister, beginning to show itself about the same time. You can fix that roughly at not less than one hundred and fifty years ago, in the first half of the eighteenth century. In the end of the seventeenth century when the Royal Society was founded and more markedly in the eighteenth century the world began to have a critical and analytical spirit, and it spread in all directions and to all subjects. This spirit was already alive and working among the votaries of the historical and modern sciences. It was known to Bentley. Such a book as Wolf's "Prolegomena" to the Iliad is a remarkable example of it. It had begun to be applied to the early Hebrew writings. One finds it in Adam Smith and in Gibbon. Niebuhr was not the first to be inspired by it in dealing with Roman history. This was happening at the very same time, when it was at work in such sciences as physics, chemistry and geology in the days of Black and of Priestley and of Lavoisier and of Hutton, and, let us never forget, when it was exemplified
and applied by the illustrious of this Society, Benjamin Franklin.
From this comparison of the growth of this scientific spirit in these two branches, the human sciences, and the sciences of observation in the natural world, such as physics and chemistry and natural history, let us return to note the great effect which during the last eighty years the growth and rapid advance of natural science in all its branches has exerted upon the students of historical and political sciences. To-day natural science, to a degree which was never known before, has come to permeate the atmosphere that we breathe. It is impossible for anyone who has any tincture of letters or knowledge not to feel that he is moving about in a world permeated by ideas and methods of natural science to the extent that was never known at an earlier period of history. This has, of course, told upon the students of historical and political science. It has made them endeavor to emulate that attention to the smallest details, that accuracy in observing and recording, which the votaries of natural science bring to their work. We are all debtors to the men of science for helping to impress these things upon us and for giving us the highest standard of diligence, of patience, of care, of the removal of all personal emotion and feeling from the quest of truth. In this way there can be no doubt at all that the natural sciences have had a potent influence upon the growth of the sister sciences which deal with human affairs. It would indeed be a good thing if everyone who studied history and those other sciences were to acquire some knowledge—at least an elementary knowledge, and elementary knowledge need not be a superficial knowledge—of the methods of some one of the natural sciences, because it would tend to raise his conception of what the exactitude and finish of scientific method may be, and improve him in applying it to his own line of research. Every serious student, whatever his special subject, must be grateful to Charles Darwin for the light he cast on the field of natural knowledge. He enlarged our conception of the reign of law through the whole realm of animate nature, and he also presented in his own person a shining ensample of the mental and moral qualities and habits which every man ought to bring with him into the search for truth. In these respects we who follow the study of history honor
him, a little further off than you votaries of the natural sciences do, but not less sincerely and not less reverentially.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am asked to say a few words to you about the effect which was produced by Mr. Darwin's writings when they first appeared in England. I am, unfortunately, old enough to be able to remember that time: and one of the few compensations that one finds in advancing years is the opportunity to call upon for the benefit of friends recollections which are still fresh of days now so far past that they are becoming matters of written history. The effect of the "Origin of Species" was extraordinary. There has been no such effect before or since, in the way it stirred men's minds in England. I recollect that in or about the year 1853 the British Associated for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in Glasgow, and I was taken by my father, who was himself a scientific man, to attend that meeting. I was only a boy of fifteen, but he, very properly, thought that you cannot begin too soon to endeavor to bring the youthful mind into contact with science and men of science, and, accordingly, he took me to attend the meetings of the Association. I remember that at an evening meeting there was delivered a lecture, supposed to be of a comparatively popular kind, intended to bring scientific conceptions to the minds of those members of the association who were interested in science, but not skilled scientific students. The lecture was upon Species, and it was delivered by Dr. William B. Carpenter, who was a well-known and much respected scientific writer in that time, careful and thoughtful, though not a discoverer. The lecturer and the audience and the impression come back to me as if it was yesterday. He brought out with great fulness and clearness all the difficulties that attach to every hypothesis about the origin of species. He stated the old familiar doctrine of separate creation, and showed the objections to it. He threw out various conjectures upon the subject, and explained the objections that attached to each one of the various hypotheses advanced. And he left us as much in the dark as we were before. This was startling to a youthful and ingenuous mind, who had expected to be told what to think. We who were not in the inner scientific circles said to ourselves "Why in the world is this lecture given to us, if we are, after all, to be left with no positive
conclusion which we may carry away? There must be some problem more perplexing than we knew of." But in meditating upon the matter one perceived that the scientific world had been slowly moving up to the threshold, and was pausing at the threshold, of some great discovery. Some solution must be at hand, but nobody knew—nobody at least, outside of a very small circle—how near the solution was or what it was going to be. We left the lecture room, excited, perplexed, recognizing difficulties that we had never known of before, and wondering what the outcome was going to be. Five or six years later the "Origin of Species" appeared, and the impression which it produced was enormous. No book dealing with a scientific subject had ever, I suppose, been so largely read by people who were not scientific. I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and I recollect very well that many of my fellow undergraduates who never opened—I will not say a scientific, but hardly even a serious book before—procured the treatise and read it with avidity. We all talked about it. We discussed it with the greatest ardor, indeed, with a positiveness which was in inverse ratio to our knowledge; and it was the same all over England. "The Origin" was not only the subject of constant comment in magazines and newspapers as well as at meetings of scientific societies, but it furnished a theme for constant jests in the comic papers, and it was an unfailing topic for conversation in all cultivated private houses. There was, of course, a good deal of alarm created by it. The alarm was perhaps not quite as great as some people have since represented. In England we had long been occupied by what was called the "conflict between theology and geology," so the new doctrine in its bearings on the Scriptural account of the creation did not find us altogether unprepared. There had been a good many scientific geologists, who were also religious men, some, like Dean Buckland and dear old Professor Sedgwick, of Cambridge, some of them clergymen, and who had continually said there could not be any conflict between science and religion. But still, apart from the more educated persons and those whom they influenced, there was in many circles, particularly, of course, in the ecclesiastical circles, a good deal of alarm and a great deal of somewhat heated discussion. Some hard words were said even about Mr. Darwin himself.
To those he never replied. He showed the greatest dignity and the greatest wisdom, never descending into the arena. But he soon found champions, and among others he found one, who then first came into notice and then first showed his remarkable controversial powers, powers which he was fond of displaying—and indeed could not help displaying, because when a man has a gift he cannot help enjoying the use of it—I mean the late Professor Huxley. Huxley was then a comparatively young man. He embraced Mr. Darwin's doctrines with great eagerness, and he championed him with passionate zeal. I recollect a little incident that happened about that time, which may possibly be worth recalling to your memory. There was a meeting of the British Association held not long after the "Origin of Species" had appeared—I think within two or three years—at which the then Bishop of Oxford, Dr. Samuel Wilberforce, was brought down as an ecclesiastical champion to demolish Darwin. He was a man of remarkable oratorial powers, with a quick, ready and flexible mind, acute and witty, and able, like a practiced rhetorician, to make the best of any case presented to him, with not much regard to the truth of the facts or the soundness of the argument. There occurred a controversy between him and Mr. Huxley at one of those meetings. The bishop had made a clever and amusing speech, in which he showed up what he conceived to be the weak points of the Darwinian theory, and turned it, as far as he could, into ridicule—asking the audience, with some scorn, whether they wished to be descendants from apes, whether that was the kind of ancestors they could look back to with pride, and sat down amid a tempest of applause, after having, as his supporters thought, succeeded in making the Darwinian theory not only improbable, but even contemptible. Mr. Huxley rose to reply, and after setting forth with great force and ample knowledge his serious argument, observed that the Bishop of Oxford has asked whether any man there would like to have an ape for his ancestor. For his part, he would say only this, that if he were obliged to choose between having for his ancestor an ape, or having for his ancestor a man who, enjoying a high position and a great reputation, being possessed of brilliant oratorial powers and a fund of sarcastic wit, were to use that position and those powers for the sake of obstructing the progress
of truth, and trying to pour ridicule and scorn upon those who were humbly and patiently trying to discover truth, then, he proceeded, "If I were compelled to make that choice, I would—." At this he stopped and said, "But perhaps I better go no further."
These personalities, however, so far as Mr. Darwin was concerned, soon died down. In the year 1870 he was offered an honorary degree by the University of Oxford, which was then a very much more clerical and conservative body than it is now, and the offer was made at the suggestion of Lord Salisbury, who was then Chancellor of the University, leader of the Conservative party in England, and himself a political champion of the Church of England. Everyone felt that the right thing had been done when the degree was offered, although, unfortunately, the weak state of Mr. Darwin's health prevented him from coming to receive it at Oxford. During the latter part of his life he was one of the most honored men in England. There was no one who did not respect and admire him, no one who did not consider it a privilege to have the opportunity of seeing him. He was, however, very seldom seen. Rarely has it happened that a man so famous should be so little personally known. His health had been weak for many years. He took up his residence at a hamlet called Down, in a hollow among the chalk hills of Kent, about fifteen or twenty miles southeast of London, quite a little remote place, three or four miles from the nearest railway station, with practically no neighbors, and there he lived, pursuing his researches, seldom receiving visits. I do not suppose he visited London once a year during the time he lived there. It was a happy, peaceful life that he led. He was surrounded by a devoted family, who took the greatest care of his health, and who helped him in his researches. He was singularly fortunate in his domestic relations and he had the unusual happiness for a scientific man of finding that nearly all his sons had scientific tastes, while one or two of them helped him effectively in the prosecution of his researches. Several of them have become eminent men or science. One was President of the British Association three years ago, and is a distinguished astronomer. Another one was President of the British Association last year and is a distinguished botanist. It was at his home that I saw him, a year and a half before his death.
One could converse with him for a few minutes only because his health was so feeble that it was necessary to save all the time he could spare for the prosecution of his work, as he was only able to work for two or three hours a day, perhaps even less, and talking fatigued him. The conversation I had with him lasted less than twenty-five minutes, and at the end of that time one of his sons came in and took him away to lie down and rest.
The portraits of him which you have seen are extremely good and give a correct impression of his features and air. I can hardly imagine a more faithful representation, both of the features and of the expression of his face than you have in the picture placed on the easel in this room.1 He was one of those men whose character was palpably written on his face. He had a projecting brow, with a forehead very full over the eyes, and a fine dome-shaped head. His eyes were deep set, because the brow projected so far, and were of a clear and steady blue, and he had a quiet, contemplative look, with an occasional slight smile passing over his countenance which made one feel perfectly at ease in his company. There was nothing about him to make a stranger feel constrained or timorous in his company, however deep one's reverence, because his manner was simple, natural, with nothing to indicate any consciousness of distinction. As I knew two of his most illustrious contemporaries in the field of science, you may like to hear how their faces and that of Darwin struck an observer. One was Lord Kelvin, whom many of you here knew, and whom we lost only two years ago. He also had a striking face, but the thing that most impressed one was the activity, alertness and vivacity, the constant play of mind, the quickness and mobility of his expression. The other of these two great men was Helmholtz. He had a look of steadiness, concentration and solidity. His face was a kindly one, friendly and genial, but much quieter than Kelvin's. Helmholtz seemed to be continually bent upon thinking out some thought or calculation calmly and persistently. Mr. Darwin had the same tranquility, the same patience. His look was both penetrative and meditative. It was not so quick and capable of swift change as Kelvin's was, but it had nevertheless the keenness and sensitiveness of the man whom nothing escaped,
1 Collier's portrait, etched by Flamang.
who saw everything that there was to see, whose eyes seemed to pierce beneath the surface of things. Acute observation and patient reflection were both written in it. One felt that hardly any problem would be too difficult to be solved by the steadiness and persistence of his thought.
As often happens, one cannot after the lapse of years remember much of the conversation that passed, and only a few things that Mr. Darwin said rise to my mind now. The subject of malaria and malarial diseases happened to be mentioned and their prevalence over large parts of the world. It was before the time of the discovery of the malaria-bearing mosquito, and he observed that if any one could discover a method of inoculation which would make men immune against malaria, that that would be one of the greatest discoveries of the world. He thought at that time that if this discovery came about it would be of supreme significance for commercial and political affairs by making possible the development by white men of large parts of the earth's surface, such as tropical Africa. He added it was a mistake to suppose that malaria was confined to marshy districts. In the Cape Verde Islands, which he had visited, when a heavy shower falls malaria appears within a day or two afterwards. The Cape Verde Islands are, he said, of dry volcanic rock, and yet in spot on them where there were no marsh at all heavy rains falling upon this volcanic rock would be quickly followed by an outbreak of malarial fever. Of course, we know now how to explain that, but he had been struck by the fact before others had discovered the part played by the mosquito.
The impression which his whole demeanour and conversation made was that of perfect candour and naturalness. There was nothing of what people call "self-consciousness."
Darwin left on every one who knew him the impression of a philosopher in that old sense of the word which makes it denote not only the love of wisdom and truth but the tranquility of mind, the calmness and peace, which devotion to truth brings. In him wisdom and the search for truth appeared to have had their perfect work, in forming a character, so beautiful in its earnestness, its modesty, its simplicity, its sweet serenity.
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