RECORD: Cobbe, Frances Power. 1894. [Recollection and letters of Darwin]. In Cobbe. Life of Frances Power Cobbe. By herself. London: Richard Bentley & Son, vol. 2, pp. 123-129.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by John van Wyhe 11.2010. RN1

NOTE: Part of this recollection is reprinted in Thomas Glick, What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2010.


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With the great naturalist who has revolutionized modern science I had rather frequent intercourse till the same sad barrier of a great difference of moral opinion arose between us. Mr. Charles Darwin's brother-in-law, Mr. Hensleigh Wedgwood, was, for a time tenant here at Hengwrt; and afterwards took a house named Caer-Deon in this neighbourhood, where Mr. and Mrs. Charles Darwin and their boys also spent part of the summer. As it chanced, we also took a cottage that summer close by Caer-Deon and naturally saw our neighbours daily. I had known Mr. Darwin previously, in London, and had also met his most amiable brother, Mr. Erasmus Darwin, at the house of my kind old friend Mrs. Reid, the foundress of Bedford Square College. The first thing we heard concerning the illustrious arrivals was the report, that one of the sons had had "a fall off a Philosopher;" a word substituted by the ingenious Welsh mind for "velocipede" (as bicycles were then called) under an easily understood confusion between the rider and the machine he rode!

Next, the Welsh parson of the little church close by, having fondly calculated that Mr. Darwin would

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certainly hasten to attend his services, prepared for him a sermon which should slay this scientific Goliath and spread dismay through the ranks of the skeptical host. He told his congregation that there were in these days persons, puffed up by science, falsely-so-called, and deluded by the pride of reason, who had actually been so audacious as to question the story of the six days of Creation as detailed in Sacred Scripture. But let them note how idle were these skeptical questionings! Did they not see that the events recorded happened before there was any man existing to record them, and that, therefore, Moses must have learned them from God himself, since there was no one else to tell him?

Alas! the philosopher, I fear, never went to be converted (as he surely must have been) by this ingenious Welsh parson, and we were for a long time merry over his logic. Mr. Darwin was never in good health, I believe, after his Beagle experience of seasickness, and he was glad to use a peaceful and beautiful old pony of my friend's, yclept Geraint, which she placed at his disposal. His gentleness to this beast and incessant efforts to keep off the flies from his head, and his fondness for his dog Polly (concerning whose cleverness and breeding he indulged in delusions which Matthew Arnold's better dog-lore would have swiftly dissipated), were very pleasing traits in his character.

In writing at this time to a friend I said:

"I am glad you like [John Stuart] Mill's book. Mr. Charles Darwin, with whom I am enchanted, is greatly excited about it, but says that Mill could learn some things from physical science; and that it is in the struggle for existence and (especially) for the possession of women that men acquire their vigour and courage. Also he intensely agrees with what I say in my review of Mill about inherited qualities being more important than education, on which alone Mill

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insists. All this the philosopher told me yesterday, standing on a path 60 feet above me and carrying on an animated dialogue from our respective standpoints."

Mr. Darwin was walking on the footpath down from Caer-Deon among the purple heather which clothes our mountains so royally; and impenetrable brambles lay between him above and me on the road below; so we exchanged our remarks at the top of our voices, being too eager to think of the absurdity of the situation, till my friend coming along the road heard with amazement words flying in the air which assuredly those "valleys and rocks never heard" before, or since. When we drive past that spot, as we often do now, we sigh as we look at the "Philosopher's Path," and wish (o, how one wishes!) that he could come back and tell us what he has learned since!

At this time Mr. Darwin was writing his Descent of Man, and he told me that he was going to introduce some new view of the nature of the Moral Sense. I said: "Of course you have studied Kant's Grundlegung der Sitten?" No, he had not read Kant, and did not care to do so. I ventured to urge him to study him, and observed that one could hardly see one's way in ethical speculation without some understanding of his philosophy. My own knowledge of it was too imperfect to talk of it to him, but I could lend him a very good translation. He declined my book, but I nevertheless packed it up with the next parcel I sent him.

On returning the volume he wrote to me:

"It was very good of you to send me nolens volens Kant, together with the other book. I have been extremely glad to look through the former. It has interested me much to see how differently two men may look at the same points. Though I fully feel how presumptuous it sounds to put myself even for a moment in the same bracket with Kant—the one man a great philosopher looking exclusively into

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his own mind, the other a degraded wretch looking from the outside through apes and savages at the moral sense of mankind."

There was irony, and perhaps not a little pride in his reference to himself as a ''degraded wretch looking through apes and savages at the moral sense of mankind"! Between the two great Schools of thinkers, — those who study from the Inside (of human consciousness), and those who study from the Outside, — there has always existed mutual animosity and contempt. For my own part, while fully admitting that the former needed to have their conclusions enlarged and tested by outside experience, I must always hold that they were on a truer line than the (exclusively) physico-scientific philosophers. Man's consciousness is not only a fact in the world but the greatest of facts; and to overlook it and take our lessons from beasts and insects is to repeat the old jest of Hamlet with Hamlet omitted. A philosophy founded solely on the consciousness of man, may; and, very likely, will, be imperfect; and certainly it will be incomplete. But a philosophy which begins with inorganic matter and the lower animals, and only includes the outward facts of anthropology, regardless of human consciousness, — must be worse than imperfect and incomplete. It resembles a treatise on the Solar System which should omit to notice the Sun.

I mentioned to him in a letter, that we had found some seeds of Tropaeolum, very carefully gathered from brilliant and multicoloured varieties, all revert in a single year to plain scarlet. He replied: — "You and Miss Lloyd need not have your faith in inheritance shaken with respect to Tropaeolum until you have prevented for six or seven generations any crossing between the varieties in the same garden. I have lately found the very shade of colour is transmitted of a most fluctuating garden variety if the flowers are carefully self-fertilized during six or seven generations."

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The Descent of Man of which Mr. Darwin was kind enough to give me a copy before publication, inspired me with the deadliest alarm. His new theory therein set forth, respecting the nature and origin of conscience, seemed to me then, and still seems to me, of absolutely fatal import. I wrote the strongest answer to it in my power at once, and published in the Theological Review, April, 1871 (reprinted in my Darwinism in Morals, 1872). Of course I sent my review to Down House. Here is a generous message which I received in reply: —

"Mr. Darwin is reading the Review with the greatest interest and attention and feels so much the kind way you speak of him and the praise you give him, that it will make him bear your severity, when he reaches that part of the review."

Referring to an article of mine in the Quarterly Review (Oct., 1872) on the Consciousness of Dogs, Mr. Darwin wrote
to me, Nov. 28th, 1872:—

"I have been greatly interested by your article in the Quarterly, It seems to me the best analysis of the mind of an animal which I have ever read, and I agree with you on most points. I have been particularly glad to read what you say about the reasoning power of dogs, and about that rather vague matter, their self-consciousness. I dare say however that you would prefer criticism to admiration.

"I regret that you quote J. so often: I made enquiries about one case (which quite broke down) from a man who certainly ought to know Mr. J. well; and I was cautioned that he had not written in a scientific spirit. I regret also that you quote old writers. It may be very illiberal, but their statements go for nothing with me and I suspect with many others. It passes my powers of belief that dogs ever commit suicide. Assuming the statements to be true, I should think it more probable that they were distraught, and did not know what they were doing; nor am I able to credit about fetishes.

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"One of the most interesting subjects in your article seems to me to be about the moral sense. Since publishing the Descent of Man I have got to believe rather more than I did in dogs having what may be called a conscience. When an honourable dog has committed an undiscovered offence he certainly seems ashamed (and this is the term naturally and often used) rather than afraid to meet his master. My dog, the beloved and beautiful Polly, is at such times extremely affectionate towards me; and this leads me to mention a little anecdote. When I was a very little boy, I had committed some offence, so that my conscience troubled me, and when I met my father, I lavished so much affection on him, that he at once asked me what I had done, and told me to confess. I was so utterly confounded at his suspecting anything, that I remember the scene clearly to the present day, and it seems to me that Polly's frame of mind on such occasions is much the same as was mine, for I was not then at all afraid of my father."

In a letter to a friend (Nov., 1869) I say:

"We lunched with Mr. Charles Darwin at Mr. Erasmus D's house on Sunday. He told us that a German man of science, (I think Carl Vogt), the other day gave a lecture, in which he treated the Mass as the last relic of that Cannibalism which gradually took to eating only the heart, or eyes of a man to acquire his courage. Whereupon the whole audience rose and cheered the lecturer enthusiastically! Mr. Darwin remarked how much more decency there was in speaking on such subjects in England."

This pleasant intercourse with an illustrious man was, like many other pleasant things, brought to a close for me in 1875 by the beginning of the Anti-vivisection crusade. Mr. Darwin eventually became the centre of an adoring clique of vivisectors who (as his Biography shows) plied him incessantly with encouragement to uphold their practice, till

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the deplorable spectacle was exhibited of a man who would not allow a fly to bite a pony's neck, standing forth before all Europe (in his celebrated letter to Prof. [Frithiof] Holmgren of Sweden) as the advocate of Vivisection.

Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), Anglo-Irish journalist and founder of the Anti-Vivisection Society in 1875. Darwin responded to Cobbe with a second letter to The Times on 22 April (Darwin 1881).


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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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