RECORD: Anon. 1882. Obituary: Charles Robert Darwin F.R.S. Lancet (29 April) pp. 693-694; 712-714.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 11.2011. RN1


[pages 693-694; 712-714]

IN the death of CHARLES DARWIN we have to deplore the loss of one of the greatest minds that this country has produced—of one who, though he had attained a ripe old age, was still in the full maturity of his intellectual powers, and was still engaged in the congenial task of strengthening and completing the edifice, the foundations of which he had himself laid more than half a century ago.

The work he has done, astonishing in its variety and accuracy, is yet more remarkable for the vivifying influence it has exercised on every department of biological science, for the new paths of research it has opened up, and for the admirable model it presents of the method in which science should be pursued. Following, and still improving, on the precepts of the Father of Modern Philosophy, he turned at an early age to experiments as the sure guide to knowledge, and from these, constantly varied and modified, he drew conclusions so cautiously and temperately that they have proved practically unassailable in the midst of the searching criticism to which they have been subjected. That method of inquiry disarms opposition, and there has probably never been any man whose influence has been so great, yet whose personal enemies have been so few. The doctrines he advanced were no doubt at first in some quarters received with surprise and incredulity, and in others with contempt or indignation; but entrenched behind the bulwark of facts, he left it to his adversaries to furnish a better explanation of the facts, or failing that to admit the theory which he put forth. It is not often the fortune of men, however eminent, to find their opinions, and the doctrines they have advanced, crystallise into a system, and, in spite of strenuous opposition, receive general acceptation, and become everywhere recognised by their name. To effect such a result not only is wide knowledge required, but rare powers of exposition, and these high qualifications DARWIN possessed in perfection. The mere quantity of work which with impaired health he was able to accomplish is surprising. Year by year, with occasional interruptions, he brought out a volume, full of novel and interesting facts, containing the records of observations that had often been extended over long periods of time, and of experiments that must have demanded much thought and sagacity in their contrivance, as well as skill in their execution, and patience and accuracy in their registration.

The most important of the works that were published by Mr. DARWIN, and that with which his name will always be associated, is the "Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection." In this the theory of Evolution, often termed Darwinism, is advanced; and the other volumes written by him for the most part contain evidence collected with a view to support or illustrate the doctrines here expressed. Its appearance in 1859 created great excitement; it was read and commented on not only by the scientific, but the public press, and very strong opinions were expressed in regard to it. By men of science it was almost everywhere with delight. It was known that it was the outcome of long and laborious work, and that every statement had been long and maturely weighed. The tone of the book was good; there was no attempt at fine writing, no haste in arriving at a conclusion; the facts in favour of his views were stated clearly and succinctly, and if any seemed to be opposed to them, these also were specified, and due weight assigned to them with perfect candour. No doubt the way had been prepared for its reception by the appearance of various memoirs and treatises, and especially the anonymously published "Vestiges of Creation," but none of them took root; and the "Origin of Species" owed its success to its intrinsic merits, to its carefully selected details, its judiciously stated and temperate argument, and to its logical conclusions. The reader who followed the reasoning closely felt himself irresistibly borne along till he was astonished, as he closed the book, to find that he had become a Darwinian; he had unconsciously cast off the old views and doctrines, and had become a convert to the new, which he could not but feel opened out a higher, better, and more rational explanation of the mode of origin of the living world around him. The fundamental doctrine held by Mr. DARWIN in that work in regard to the origin of species was that animals or plants are not immutable, but are liable to change, and that if such changes afforded any advantage, it would aid in their preservation in that straggle for existence which is constantly in operation. New features, new forms, new organs would thus arise by natural selection, not suddenly, but by gradual modification of the old, every such peculiarity tending to perpetuate itself by inheritance. Thus the species at present existing represent the survival of the fittest, for they hold their place in virtue of their ancestors having slowly undergone and transmitted by inheritance favouring changes adapting them more and more perfectly for the special conditions under which they live, and enabling them to resist the destructive agencies by which their extinction is constantly threatened. The doctrine of evolution, as thus propounded, was shown to afford an explanation of a multitude of facts that were otherwise unintelligible.

IN the "Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication," and his "Descent of Man," Mr. DARWIN applied the theory of evolution to the human race, and showed how it was possible that man himself might be only the gradually perfected form of some originally ape-like ancestor—a view that is even yet in some quarters regarded with horror and repugnance. His treatise on the "Formation of Mould" has too recently been noticed in these columns to need comment, except to express regret that it should be his last work.

Yet let us not, in conclusion, regard his loss as irreparable. He has left behind him sons who have already shown that they appreciate, as well as inherit, their father's genius—sons who have been able to share his labours; who have assisted him in many of his researches, and who, we doubt not, can carry on some at least of the investigations he commenced. It was, we are sure, with a feeling of pleasure and gratification that every man of science is this country read that the liberal-minded Dean of Westminster

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determined that the remains of CHARLES DARWIN should be buried in the Abbey. He well deserves that high honour, and the large concourse of eminent men who attended him to his last resting place testified to the estimation, love, and reverence in which he was held by his contemporaries.

Obituary.

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN, F.R.S.

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN was the grandson of the well-known Erasmus Darwin, the author of the Botanic Garden and Phytologia, and the son of Dr. Darwin, who was a physician at Shrewsbury. His mother was a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood. He was born on February 12th, 1809, and died April 19th, 1882. He was educated at Shrewsbury Grammar School under Dr. Butler, who was afterwards the Bishop of Lichfield, and being intended for the medical profession, was sent to Edinburgh in 1825, where his grandfather had been educated and took his degree. At the close of 1826, after spending two sessions at Edinburgh, where he had the opportunity of studying marine zoology, he read before the Plinian Society—which was a student's debating club—a paper on the Ova of Flustra, showing the direction of his studies. About this period he became possessed of considerable property, and his intention of pursuing medicine was abandoned. He then went to Cambridge, and was entered on the books of Christ's College, where he graduated in 1831 and proceeded to M.A. in 1837. Long after, in 1877, the University tardily and with some misgiving conferred upon him the honorary degree of LL.D.

Darwin's first scientific work was done between the years 1831 and 1836 on board H.M.S. Beagle, to which ship he had been appointed Naturalist. The Beagle, a ten-gun brig, was commanded by the Hon. Captain Fitzroy, who subsequently became the head of the meteorological department, and Darwin joined the expedition in consequence of a wish expressed by Captain Fitzroy to have some scientific person on board, accompanied by an offer from him to give up part of his own accommodation. The general history of the voyage, with a sketch of such observations in natural animals and plants under changed conditions of life, the influence of heredity, the advantages of crossing, and the laws to which variation is regulated. In accordance with the views maintained by him in this work and elsewhere he came to the conclusion not only that the various domestic races, but the most distinct genera and orders, within the same great class—for instance, mammals, birds, reptiles, and fishes—are all the descendants of one common progenitor, and that the whole vast amount of difference between these forms must have primarily arisen from simple variation.

The curious manner in which Erasmus Darwin anticipated the views of his grandson on this point is shown in the following quotation:—"Would it be too bold to imagine that in the great length of time since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind—would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended by new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end?"

The "Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex" appeared in 1871, and produced a profound impression; for the name of the author and the interest of the subject procured for it attention from a class of readers that might not otherwise have cared to attack it. This work was drawn up with great skill. The general similarity of structure and of embryonic development between animals and man was insisted on, their mental powers were compared, and it was shown how many instincts and faculties—as curiosity, imitation, attention, memory, reason, capability of progression, of improvement, and the like, were common to both. The variability of man himself was then considered, and the action of the conditions of life on his bodily and mental powers. The great influence of sexual selection was demonstrated, and the importance of rudimentary and reversionary character was particularly insisted on. The general conclusion at which he arrived was that man is descended from some lees highly organised form; and that conclusion, he was of opinion, was so strongly supported by the facts and arguments he adduced that it would never be shaken. The book excited violent controversy, the echoes of which have scarcely yet died away.

It is not surprising that the new views met with opposition. In the preface to the last-named work, Darwin, after quoting with manifest satisfaction the statement made by Vogt, to the effect that no one in Europe now maintained the independent creation of species, was obliged to admit that of the older and honoured chiefs in natural science many were unfortunately opposed to evolution in every form. Nor did the contents of this work tend to diminish the opposition which he felt existed. The idea that man is descended from a lower form of animal, that he was even to be regarded as cognate with animals at all, was so repulsive to the minds of those who had been brought up in the religious notions of the day and without any knowledge of the anatomy and physiology of the human body, that it was repudiated with scorn, treated as a subject for ridicule, not as one to be gravely discussed, or was referred to with quiet contempt as one of the absurdities of science. The prodigious differences between man and animals in regard to their intellectual, and more especially in regard to their moral attributes, constituted the staple of the arguments adduced by his opponents; and it was impossible to convince them that, if man be regarded as having risen from the lower members of the organic scale, reasonable hope is afforded that he has a still higher destiny before him in the future.

The "Expression of the Emotions" followed in 1872, in which it was attempted to be shown that all the chief gestures and expressions of emotion exhibited by man are the same throughout the world, which afforded a new argument in favour of the several races being descended from a single parent stock, and further that these expressions resembled in many important particulars the movements and gestures of animals.

The works subsequently issued were—the "Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants," which first appeared in the Journal of the Linnæan Society published in 1865, but was reproduced in an extended form as a separate treatise in 1875; the "Insectivorous Plants," published in the same year; the "Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom," published in 1876; the "Different Forms of Flowers on Plants of the same Species," published in 1877; the "Powers of Movement in Plants," published in 1880, in which Mr. Darwin acknowledged the assistance of his son Francis; and lastly, the treatise which has been recently noticed in these columns, on the "Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits," published in 1881. These one and all bear witness to the indefatigable industry, the varied attainments and objects of inquiry, and the habits of exact observation to which he had trained himself, and were all directly associated by their line of inquiry with the Origin of Species.

Mr. Darwin leaves a widow with a family of five sons and two daughters. He had long resided at Down, in Beckenham, Kent. His health was greatly impaired by the frequent sea-sickness and privation from which he suffered during his service on board the Beagle; and he was compelled to spend many hours of the day ou his couch at perfect rest. His death appeared to be referable to some cardiac affection. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 26th inst., amidst the regrets of many friends.

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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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