RECORD: Fiske, John. 1917. [Recollections and letters of Darwin, 1871-1880]. In John Spencer Clark ed., The life and letters of John Fiske. 2 vols. New York: Houghton Mifflin, vol. 1, pp. 477, 481-82; vol. 2, pp. 133-34.

REVISION HISTORY: Text prepared by Kees Rookmaaker and John van Wyhe 11-12.2010. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here. Part of this recollection is reprinted in Thomas Glick, What about Darwin? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

[vol. 1, pp. 389-392]

Fiske also sent copies of the lectures to Darwin, and the following correspondence ensued. As we have here two self-revealing letters: the one from a young man with rare mental endowments, seeking with the utmost sincerity of purpose the highest truths in science and philosophy; the other from one of the world's greatest scientists, wherein we see a mind serenely poised after a contribution to human knowledge of the very highest import, and ready generously to welcome fresh thought from whatever source, I give the letters entire:—

Fiske to Darwin


CAMBRIDGE, MASS., October 23, 1871.

Mr. Charles Darwin:—

My dear Sir, — Since it came in my way, in discharge of my duties as lecturer at the university, to notice your discoveries in so far as they bear upon the organization of scientific truths into a coherent body of philosophy, it has been my intention to write and seek the honour of your acquaintance, forwarding to you, as a sort of letter of introduction the reports of my lectures.

A few days ago I met your two sons at dinner (who afterwards kindly called at my house) and I gave to Mr. F. Darwin the reports of a few of my lectures to transmit to you. I cannot however resist the temptation to write to you, and tell you directly how dear to me is your name for the magnificent discovery with which you have enriched human knowledge, winning for yourself a permanent place beside Galileo and Newton.

When your "Origin of Species" was first published, I was a boy of seventeen; but I had just read Agassiz's "Essay on Classification" with deep dissatisfaction at its pseudo-Platonic attempt to make metaphysical abstractions do the work of physical forces; and I hailed your book with exultation, reading and re-reading it till I almost knew it by heart. Since then "Darwinism" has formed one of the pivots about which my thought has turned. And though I am no naturalist, and cannot claim any ability to support your discovery by original observations of my own, yet I have striven, to the best of my ability, to point out the strong points of your theory of natural selection, and to help win for it acceptance on philosophic grounds.

There is one place in which it seems to me that I have thrown out an original suggestion, which may prove to be of some value in connection with the general theory of man's descent from an ape-like ancestor. In the lecture on "Moral Progress" (which along with others your son will hand you) I have endeavoured to show that the transition from Animality (or bestiality, stripping the word from its bad connotations), to humanity, must have been mainly determined by the prolongation of infancy or immaturity, which is consequent upon a high development of intelligence, and which must have necessitated the gradual grouping together of pithecoid men into more or less defined families.

I will not try to state the hypothesis here, as you will get a clearer statement of it in the lecture. I should esteem it a great favour if you would, after looking at the lecture, tell me what you think of the hypothesis. It seems to me quite full of significance.

I am on the point of giving a few popular lectures in illustration and defence of your views. You will see from the papers, which I have sent you, that I am an earnest admirer of Mr. Herbert Spencer a thinker to whom I am more indebted than I can possibly tell; and who has been so kind as to give me some of his personal advice and assistance by way of letters during the past seven years. I hope before next summer to visit England, and I count much upon seeing you, as well as Mr. Spencer and Mr. Huxley. Meanwhile and always, believe me, dear sir,

Yours with deep respect,


Charles Darwin to Fiske


November 9, 1871.

My dear Sir:—

I am greatly obliged to you for having sent me, through my son, your lectures; and for the very honourable manner in which you allude to my works. The lectures seem to me to be written with much force, clearness, and originality. You show also an extraordinary amount of knowledge of all that has been published on the subject. The type in many parts is so small that, except to young eyes, it is very difficult to read. Therefore I wish you would reflect on their separate publication; though so much has been published on the subject that the public may possibly have had enough.

I hope this may be your intention; for I do not think I have ever seen the general argument more forcibly put so as to convert unbelievers.

It has surprised and pleased me to see that you and others have detected the falseness of much of Mr. Mivart's reasoning. I wish I had read your lectures a month or two ago, as I have been preparing a new edition of the "Origin," in which I answer some special points; and I believe I should have found your lectures useful; but my manuscript is now in the printer's hands, and I have not strength or time to make any more additions.

With my thanks and good wishes,

I remain, my dear sir,

Yours sincerely,


P.S. By an odd coincidence since the above was written I have received your very obliging letter of October 23d. I did notice the point to which you refer, and will hereafter reflect more over it. I was indeed on the point of putting in a sentence to somewhat the same effect, in the new edition of the "Origin" in relation to the query why have not apes advanced in intellect as well as man? but I omitted it on account of the asserted prolonged infancy of orang. I am also a little doubtful about the distinction between gregariousness and heredity. Memo, case of baboons.

When I have time and thought, I will send you description.

When you come to England, I shall have much pleasure in making your acquaintance; but my health is habitually so weak, that I have very small power of conversing with my friends as much as I wish.

Let me again thank you for your letter. To believe that I have at all influenced the minds of able men is the greatest satisfaction which I am capable of receiving.


These letters of Spencer and Darwin confirmed in Fiske's mind the wisdom of his purpose to devote himself to the exposition of the philosophy of Evolution, and he now sought engagements for a course of lectures presenting Evolution as a philosophic system, or for single lectures presenting special points in the system, such as "The Meaning of Evolution," "Evolution and Comtism," "The Nebular Hypothesis, " "The Composition of Mind," "Darwinism," "Science and Religion," etc.

[page 476]

[13 November 1873]

Charles Darwin Fiske's veneration for Darwin was hardly less than his veneration for Spencer. While he credited Spencer with being the first thinker of modern times to bring forward the idea of Evolution as the mode of manifestation of an unknown power underlying all the phenomena of the inorganic and organic universe, he recognized Darwin as having furnished the most indubitable proof of Evolution in the organic world by his epoch-making books, "The Origin of Species" and "The Descent of Man." Fiske's desire to meet Darwin, therefore, for converse on some of the points in the philosophy of Evolution he was working out, especially in its relation to sociologic man, was hardly less than his desire to meet Spencer.

He learned, however, that Darwin was in quite feeble health, and hesitated about asking for an interview, fearing it would be an intrusion upon Darwin's necessary seclusion. But as he settled down to his task, the desire to consult Darwin became so strong that he was induced to send the latter a note in which he stated his purpose in London and from which the following extract is taken:

"I have known and revered you so many years, that it would give me great pleasure if I could

[page 477]

meet you and shake hands with you before leaving England. There are some subjects about which I would fain have a word or two of conversation; but as Mr. Spencer tells me that you are (like himself) feeling poorly at present, and as I know what a bore philosophy is under such circumstances, I shall seek for nothing more than to tell you face to face, how much I, in common with all thinking men, owe to you."

This note brought the following prompt reply from Darwin :

DOWN, November 3, 1873.

My dear Sir:—

I am much obliged for your very kind letter. I am very glad of the nature of the work on which you are engaged. I see so few people that I had not heard of your presence in London. At the end of the week I shall be in London at my daughter's house, and I will on the following week propose your coming to luncheon, which is generally my best time, and I trust this may not be inconvenient to you.

I did receive the " Popular Science Monthly " and read your attack (an attack it was with a vengeance though properly admitting his great services) on Agassiz, with great interest. I have not received the " North American " and shall be very glad to see it, but I can order a copy for myself. Until we meet,

Yours very sincerely,


On the evening after the luncheon Fiske writes Mrs. Fiske as follows:

[page 478]

To-day, I lunched with Darwin and Mrs. Darwin, Mrs. Litchfield (Darwin's daughter), Frank Darwin (whom I saw in Boston two years ago) and Miss Bessie Darwin, and Dr. Hooker, the greatest living botanist, and Mrs. Hooker. ... Darwin is the dearest, sweetest, loveliest old Grandpa that ever was. And on the whole he impresses me with his strength more than any man I have yet seen. There is a charming kind of quiet strength about him and about everything he does. He is not burning and eager like Huxley. He has a mild blue eye, and is the gentlest of gentle old fellows. I think he would make a noble picture after the style of mother's picture which I call "Galileo." His long white hair and enormous beard make him very picturesque. And what is so delightful to see, as that perfect frankness and guileless simplicity of manner, which comes from a man having devoted his whole life to some great idea, without a thought of self, and without ever having become a "man of the world"? I had a warm greeting from the dear old man, and I am afraid I shall never see him again, for his health is very bad, and he had to make a special effort to see me to-day. Of all my days in England, I prize to-day the most; and what I pity you most of all for, my dear, is that you haven't seen our dear grand old Darwin! I think we both felt it might be the last time. He came to the door with me and gave me a warm grip of the hand and best wishes, and watched me down the road till I turned the corner, when I took off my hat and bowed good-bye."

On the same day, November 13, Fiske wrote his mother as follows:—

[page 479]

"Of course I have formed opinions of all these men, but it is interesting to see how they seem in the flesh. There is no doubt that Spencer is the profoundest thinker of all. But Darwin impressed me with a sense of strength more than any other man I have ever seen. Instead of Huxley's intense black eye, he has got a mild blue eye, and his manner is full of repose. None of these men seem to know how great they are. But Darwin is one of the most truly modest men I ever saw. The combination of power and quiet modesty in him, is more impressive than I can describe. i regard my lunch with Darwin the climax of everything thus far."


[pages 481-82]

[18 November 1873]

I read [George Henry] Lewes's book (Problems of Life and Mind) in the sheets, and I consider his treatment of Kant one of the most masterly pieces of philosophical criticism I ever read. I told Darwin about it, and found that he has a great admiration for Lewes's straightforward and clean-cut mind. I have made up my mind that Lewes will have a permanent place in history as the critic of Kant, to say nothing of the other things he has done. What a comical old fellow he is! At the dinner the other day [Spencer's dinner in honor of Fiske] I was saying that very soon we should see Evolution taken up by the orthodox. "To be sure," says Lewes, "for don't you see that Evolution requires an Evolver?" Huxley was telling about something I said in my Agassiz article, when Spencer blandly interrupted with "What will Agassiz say to all that?" "O," said Lewes, "he will say what Louis XIV said after the battle of Ramillies— Dieu m'a abandonné; et après tout ce que j'ai fait pour Lui!!!"


[vol. 2, pp. 133-134]

[Wednesday, June 18, 1879]

After lecture went down by cars to Orpington in Kent and found Darwin's carriage awaiting me at the station. Drove four miles through exquisite English lanes (the air heavily scented with blossoms) to Darwin's house. Jolly place with lots of garden. George and Horace were there, and Mrs. Litchfield, and two or three Wedgwoods. Nice dinner and smoke on verandah, and Miss Carrie Wedgwood played considerable Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, and Schubert on the grand piano. Afterwards grandpa and Hezzy got into a very abstruse discussion, and, when the clock said ten, up came Mrs. Darwin and pointed with warning finger to the clock, and so grandpa said he must obey orders and trotted off to bed. I stayed up till eleven and smoked another cigar with the boys. At ten Darwin was to sit for his portrait in his red Doctor-of-Laws gown, for the university of Cambridge. He put the gown on after breakfast, to the great glee of the little grandchildren, and the merriment of all, as he stepped up on a chair to get a full view of himself in the mirror.

At 9.30 George Darwin drove me to the station and went up to London with me, as he was to be made an F.R.S. that evening for some mathematical discoveries. Met Holt and Spencer at the Athenaeum Club at eleven, and we went out by train to Richmond.

[note to the above, p. 133]

In his dally record Fiske appears to have omitted to mention the fact that soon after his arrival in London he sought an interview with Darwin, who responded with the following cordial invitation to visit him at his home at Down.

DOWN, June 10, 1879.

My dear Mr. Fiske: —

Would it suit you best to come here on the 18th either to luncheon, or to dinner, returning after breakfast next morning for we are not likely to be in London for some time? Pray do whichever suits your arrangements best. If you come for luncheon you must leave Charing Cross by the 11.25 train; if for dinner by the 4.12 train. If we can (but our house will be very full on most days for the next month) we will send to Orpington Station to meet you ; but if we cannot send a carriage you must take a bus distance four miles.

I hope what I propose will be convenient to you and that we may have the pleasure of seeing you here.

I remain

Yours faithfully,


I have not been very well of late and am up to but small exertion of any kind. An artist, Mr. Richard, is coming here on the evening of the 18th, as he is making a portrait, but he is a pleasant man and I do not think you will dislike meeting him.


[vol. 2, pp. 177-178]

Then Darwin sent me a lovely letter inviting me to come down to his house in Kent to dine and pass the night, and to bring Abby, so the 2ist of May we went down there and had a delightful visit. Darwin treated Abby so sweetly, giving her beautiful flowers from his garden, which I have carefully pressed; she nearly shed tears when we came away.

[note on p. 178]

Darwin wrote Fiske as follows:

DOWN, May 14, 1880.

My dear Mr. Fiske:—

I suppose that you have reached London. I did not write before because we have had a succession of visitors and I absolutely require a day or two of rest after any one has been here. Some persons now in the house leave to-morrow evening, and others are coming on Tuesday morning.

If you and Mrs. Fiske happen to be disengaged on Friday evening (21st), would you come down to dinner and to sleep? There is a good train which leaves Charing Cross at 4.12 P.M.

On Monday, the 24th, we leave home for a fortnight for me to rest. If it would be more convenient to you to come here after June 8th or thereabouts, it would suit us equally well and we should be very glad to see you and Mrs. Fiske then.

In haste to catch the post,

Yours sincerely,


Very many thanks for all the kind expressions in your note.

John Fiske (1842-1901), American social philosopher.

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