RECORD: Anon. 1882. [Obituary of Charles Darwin].Sydney Morning Herald (22 April): 3.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 8.2022. RN1

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Our telegrams from London this morning announce the death of the patriarch of naturalists, Charles Darwin, at the ripe age of 73 years. In him England loses another of the bright lights which have made the age of Victoria illustrious in the annals of science and literature. To say that the name of Darwin is a household word would be true enough, but it would not fully describe his place in popular estimation.

Hitherto it has been rather a symbol of battle than a loadstone of affection; and though the last twenty years have witnessed great changes in public opinion, to this day the name of the founder of the school of evolution is perhaps more widely feared than loved. By the side of the grave now open to receive his last remains the combatants will ground their arms and unite in paying a tribute of respect to one of the keenest, truest, most persevering, courageous, and successful students of nature that have appeared in the nineteenth century.

He was born at Shrewsbury on the 12th February, 1809, a date five years later than that of Richard Owen's birth, 12 years later than that of Charles Lyell's, and 18 later than that of Michael Faraday's—three other great names which stand, perhaps, as high as his in the muster roll of scientific fame. His grandfather, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, has a place among the didactic poets of England, and still finds readers and admirers for his "Botanic Garden," although it was published a hundred years ago upon a somewhat abstruse theme, devoid of dramatic interest. The father of the great naturalist followed the medical profession, and was himself a man of science and culture, a Fellow of the Royal Society. Genius cannot be properly termed hereditary, but blood tells in the race of life for all that, and unless it is too heavily handicapped by adverse influences, it helps to win the victory. Young Darwin of third generation was sent to the Grammar School of his native city, and as it has long been one of the best in England, he had, doubtless, the benefit of a sound training. At the age of sixteen he went to Edinburgh, where he attended lectures at the University for two years; after that he was entered at Christ Church, Cambridge, taking the B.A. degree there in 1831. Exactly at this time an incident occurred which gave tone and direction to the whole of his life. The Government were anxious to complete some surveys in the Pacific, and commissioned Captain Fitz Roy of the Beagle to perform the work. With a regard for the progress of science, which has had the happiest results, Captain Fitz Roy offered a place in his cabin to any competent scientist who would join the expedition. Darwin volunteered, and was accepted. The ship sailed on the 27th December, 1831, and reached England again on the 2nd October, 1836. Immediately after landing he published his first work, "A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World," and from that day he became one of the foremost authorities in the field of natural science. The book is too well known to need a description here, but there is one passage we cannot refrain from quoting. It is almost the last entry in his journal, and reads as follows:—"On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God I shall never again visit a slave country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls, with painful vividness, my feelings when passing a house near Pernambuco. I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet know that I was as powerless a child even to remonstrate... And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen, and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect that we, at least, have made a greater sacrifice than was ever made by any nation to expiate our sin." The sacrifice to which Darwin refers was the payment by the British nation of twenty millions sterling for the total abolition of slavery throughout the British dominions. The bill for the accomplishment of that work was passed in 1833, only three years before Darwin wrote the above sentences, which prove that naturalist's heart was not buried in his geological and biological researches, but beat with all the strong sympathies of humanity towards his fellow-men. Another passage in the same work may be interesting to Australian readers, written by such a pen half a century ago:—"In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilization, which, at some not very remote period, will rule as Empress over the Southern Hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag seems to draw with it, as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization." At that time all Australasia did not contain more than 80,000 Europeans, and now, within the lifetime of the writer of those words, we have grown into nearly three millions.

In 1839, and at the age of thirty, Darwin married the granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood, inventor of the beautiful species of Staffordshire ware which bears his name. He lived long enough to see his sons win distinction in this own fields of investigation, and become most able assistants in his recent observations. At intervals of about two years, after his marriage he continued to issue new works, all masterpieces in their sphere, and accepted as authorities almost everywhere. But the one work which made him the most widely known was the "Origin of Species," published in 1859. Up to that time it was all but universally believed that every species of plants and animals originated in a separate act of creation, and that no such thing was possible as the transmutation of one species into another. But the theory now put forward by Darwin was that the various species are continually changing, under the influence of changing circumstances, and by a natural law of adaptation, so that all the plants and animals on the globe are but modifications of the same prototype, descendants of a common ancestor, transformed in millions of ways, through an almost infinite series of ages. The appearance of such a work may be termed an event of the century. It initiated a controversy which still rages as fiercely as ever. The book was assailed from every pulpit, denounced in all the religious magazines, and derided in most of the secular journals. The wits made merry over it to their hearts' content, and perhaps some readers of this article may remember a political cartoon of the time in London Punch on Mr. Disraeli. That honorable gentleman had been making one of his bamboozling speeches to the electors, in which there was some reference to the new Darwinian theory. Thereupon a clever artist caricatured Disraeli, with the features of a monkey, and a pair of small wings peeping over his shoulders, admiring his own image in a large mirror, and exclaiming in the words of his own speech, "The question is, whether man originated in a monkey or an angel. I go in for the angel.'' But other men of science speedily came to the rescue, notably Professor Huxley and Tyndall, and from another point of view Herbert Spencer—three names which carry, perhaps, greater weight in this field of inquiry than any others of the present day. The doctrine of evolution was not absolutely new when first enunciated and formulated by Darwin. Something of it is to be found in "Vestiges of Creation," a book which created no small stir when it was first appeared; and Lord Beacons field's "Tancred," published in 1847, 12 years before the "Origin of Species," has a young lady who talks about all of us having once been fishes, and being destined to become birds. The theory has gone far beyond ridicule now; and it may perhaps be safely affirmed that the idea of the origin of the flora and fauna of the globe in a separate and distinct act of creation for each species of plant and animal is no longer entertained by one man in ten of those who stood foremost in the ranks of physical science. Be that, however, as it may, there can be no doubt that Darwin has become the founder of a scientific school as distinct as any of the great schools of philosophy at Athens, but upon the methods of Bacon and Locke.

The latest work from his pen appeared only last year, and the reviews are still occupied in discussing its merits. Its full title is "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the action of Worms, with observation on their habits." It is an octavo volume of 330 pages, and is as fine a specimen of scientific observation and inductive reasoning, although the author was 72 years old, as his first work, "A Naturalist's Voyage," begun at the age of 22 years, or his "Origin of Species," published when he was 50. In a recent review of it a critic who repudiates the doctrine of evolution, says of the author's works in general:—"No such rich storehouse of facts respecting the natural history of vegetable, animal, and even human life has perhaps ever been accumulated by a single man." That is high praise, coming from the Quarterly Review, and it does not surpass the truth. Darwin's whole life has been one long honest, unobtrusive, patient, fearless questioning of nature. Fierce as the controversy of opinion around him has been, his own writings are free from passion and bitterness; and those who differ most from his conclusions must respect his transparent sincerity. Of his private life the world knows little, the man has been so completely identified with his work. But loving hands have preserved records which will some day see the light, and loving hearts cherish memories of him dearer than the great fame he has won; and we may fitly close this brief notice with the eloquent lines written by Dr. Erasmus Darwin in 1781, as no unworthy epitaph on that stone which will soon mark the last resting-place of his still more distinguished grandson in his green English grave:—

"Roll on, ye stars! Exult in youthful prime.

Mark, with bright curves, the printless steps of Time.

Near, and more near, your beamy cars approach,

And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach.

Flowers of the sky! ye, too, to age must yield,

Frail as your silken sisters of the field.

 Star after star from Heaven's high arch shall rush;

Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush;

Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,

And death, and night, and chaos mingle all!

Till o'er the wreck, emerging from the storm,

Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form;

Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,

And soars and shines another and the same."


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