RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1898. [Letters to Max Müller and recollections of Darwin]. In Friedrich Max Müller, Auld lang syne. London, pp. 201-2, 204.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by Christine Chua and edited by John van Wyhe 4.2022. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here.

Emma Darwin's diary recorded Müller's visit on 5 March 1882. The interview (p. 202) took place on 9 October 1874. (Müller, Georgina Max, Life and letters of Friedrich Max Müller. 2 vols. London, vol. 1, pp. 494-5).

"Müller, Friedrich Max, 1823-1900. Better known as Max M. German philologist and orientalist living in England. Curator of Bodley's Library. Friendly correspondent with CD. 1850-68 Deputy Taylorian Prof. modern European languages Oxford. 1868- Corpus Christi Prof. Comparative Philology Oxford. 1870 onwards M criticised CD's theories of the origin of language. 1882 Visited Down House." (Paul van Helvert & John van Wyhe, Darwin, A Companion, 2021)


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[…]

I gave Darwin full credit for having discovered and popularised this new "category of thought," but the constant hallelujahs that were raised over the discovery of Evolution showed surely an extraordinary ignorance of the history of philosophical thought in Europe. Darwin himself was the very last person to claim evolution as a discovery of his own; but is there a single paper that has not called him the discoverer of Evolution? He knew too well how, particularly in his own special field of study, the controversy whether each so-

* "Lectures on the Science of Language", vol ii., p. 343.

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called genus or species had required a separate act of creation, had been raging for centuries. He remembered the famous controversy in 1830 at the French Institute, between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and Goethe's equally famous remarks on the subject. It would seem as if Darwin himself had originally been under the spell of the old idea that every species, if not every individual, required a special act of creation, and he describes, if I remember rightly, the shock it gave him when he saw for the first time that this idea had to be surrendered. […]

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[…] You would never say that Lamarck had been the discoverer of growth in nature, neither has it definite meaning to me when you say that Darwin was the discoverer evolution. I can understand enough of Darwin's Origin of Species' to enable me to admire his power of observation and his true genius of combination. I can see how he has reduced the number of unnecessary species, and unnecessary acts of so-called special creation; and that possibly he has traced back the whole of the animal and vegetable kingdoms to four begin

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nings , and in the end to one Creator. Darwin did not go beyond this, he required four beginnings and one Creator. It was left to his followers to carry out his principles, as they thought, by eliminating the Creator, and reducing the four beginnings to one. If you think that all this rests on well ascertained facts, I have nothing to say except to express my surprise that some men of great learning and undoubted honesty are not so positive as to these facts as you are.[…]Only when Darwin maintains the transition from some highly developed animal into a human being I say, Stop! […]

Soon after, when I had been asked to give a new course of lectures at the Royal Institution, I had selected this very point, the barrier which language forms between man and brute, for my subject, and as Darwin's "Descent of Man" was then occupying the thoughts of philosophers, I promised to give a course of lectures: on "Darwin's Philosophy of Language." Entertaining as

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I did, a sincere admiration for Darwin, I felt that it would have been even discourteous to attempt to be courteous to such a man by passing over in silence what he had said on language. This kind of courtesy is most offensive to a true man of science. […]

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[…] The fact that no animal had ever evolved such words could not be denied, but it could be ignored, or explained away by evidence clearly showing that animals communicated with each other; as if to communicate were the same as to speak. My object in my lectures (published at the time in Longman's Magazine) was to show that no such transition from pooh - pooh to I despise is possible; nay, that even the first step, the formation of roots, that is, of general concepts out of single sounds, that is, single percepts, is beyond the power of any animal, except the human animal. Even now it is only the human baby or puppy that can learn to imitate human language, and what is the mere learning of a language, compared with the creation of language, which was the real task of those human animals that became men? In all the arguments which I used in support of my theory — a theory no longer controverted, I believe, by any competent and independent scholar and thinker - I never used a single disrespectful word about Mr. Darwin. But for all that I was supposed to have blasphemed, again not by Mr. Darwin himself, but by those who called themselves his bulldogs. I was actually suspected of having written that notorious article in The Quarterly Review which gave such just offence to Darwin. Darwin himself was

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above all this, and I have his letter in which he writes, 5th January, 1875:

I have just read the few first pages of your article in The Contemporary Review, and I hope that you will permit me to say that neither I, nor my son, ever supposed that you were the author of the review in the Quarterly. You are about the last man in England to whom I should have attributed such a review. I know it was written by Mr. M., and the utterly false and base statements contained in it are worthy of the man.

But what was better still, Mr. Darwin gave me an opportunity of discussing the facts and arguments which stood between him and me in a personal interview. Sir John Lubbock took me to see the old philosopher at his place, Down, Beckenham, Kent, and there are few episodes in my life which I value more. I need not describe the simplicity of his house, and the grandeur of the man who had lived and worked in it for so many years. Darwin gave me a hearty welcome, showed me his garden and his flowers, and then took me into his study, and standing leaning against his desk began to examine me. He said at once that personally he was quite ignorant of the science of language, and had taken his facts and opinions chiefly from his friend, Mr. Wedgwood. I had been warned that Darwin could not carry on a

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serious discussion for more than about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, as it always brought on his life-long complaint of sickness. I therefore put before him in the shortest way possible the difficulties which prevented me from accepting the theory of animals forming a language out of interjections and sounds of nature. I laid stress on the fact that no animal, except the human animal, had ever made a step towards generalisation of percepts, and towards roots, the real elements of all languages, as signs of such generalised percepts, and I gave him a few illustrations of how our words for one to ten, for father, mother, sun and moon had really and historically been evolved. That man thus formed a real anomaly in the growth of the animal kingdom, as conceived by him, I fully admitted ; but it was impossible for me to ignore facts, and language in its true meaning has always been to my mind a fact that could not be wiped away by argument, as little as the Himalayas could be wiped away with a silk hand kerchief even in millions of years. He listened most attentively without making any objections, but before he shook hands and left me, he said in the kindest way, "You are a dangerous man." I ventured to reply, "There can be no danger in our search for truth," and he left the room., He was exactly the man I had imagined, mas

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sive in his forehead, kind in his smile, and hardly bent under the burden of his knowledge or the burden of his years. I must give one more of his letters, because my late friend Romanes, who saw it in my album, seems to have entirely misapprehended its meaning. He saw in it a proof of Mr. Darwin's extraordinary humility. I do not deny his humility, it was extraordinary, and, what is more, it was genuine. All great men know how little they know in comparison with what they do not know. They are humble, they do not only wish to appear so. But I see in Darwin's letter far more of humour than of humility. I see him chuckling while he wrote it, and though I value it as a treasure, I never looked upon it as a trophy.

 

DOWN, BECKENHAM, KENT,

15th Oct., 1875.

MY DEAR SIR,

I am greatly obliged to you for so kindly sending me your essay, which I am sure will interest me much. With respect to our differences, though some of your remarks have been rather stinging, they have all been made so gracefully, I declare that I am like the man in the story who boasted that he had been soundly horsewhipped by a Duke.

Pray believe me, Yours very sincerely,

CHARLES DARWIN.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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