» Biography Home
» Biographies A-F
» Biographies G-M
» Biographies N-S
» Biographies T-Z
By the universal consent of mankind, the name of Charles Darwin was, even during his lifetime, among those of the few great leaders who stand forth for all time as the creative spirits who have founded and legislated for the realm of science. It is too soon to estimate with precision the full value and effect of his work. The din of controversy that rose around him has hardly yet died down, and the influence of the doctrines he propounded is extending into so many remote departments of human inquiry, that a generation or two may require to pass away before his true place in the history of thought can be definitely fixed. But the judgment of his contemporaries as to his proud pre-eminence is not likely ever to be called in question. He is enrolled among Dii majorum gentium, and there he will remain to the end of the ages. When he was laid beside the illustrious dead in Westminster Abbey, there arose far and wide a lamentation as of personal bereavement. Thousands of mourners who had never seen him, who knew only his writings, and judged of the gentleness and courtesy of his nature from these, and from such hearsay reports as passed outward from the privacy of his country home, grieved as for the loss of a friend. It is remarkable that probably no scientific man of his day was personally less familiar to the mass of his fellow-countrymen. He seemed to shun all the usual modes of contact with them. His weak health, domestic habits, and absorbing work kept him in the seclusion of his own quiet home. His face was seldom to be seen at the meetings of scientific societies, or at those gatherings where the discoveries of science are expounded to more popular audiences. He shrank from public controversy, although no man was ever more vigorously attacked and more completely misrepresented. Nevertheless, when he died the affectionate regret that followed him to the grave, came not alone from his own personal friends, but from thousands of sympathetic mourners in all parts of the world, who had never seen or known him. Men had ample material for judging of his work, and in the end had given judgment with general acclaim. Of the man himself, however, they could know but little, yet enough of his character shone forth in his work to indicate its tenderness and goodness. Men instinctively felt him to be in every way one of the great ones of the earth, whose removal from the living world leaves mankind poorer in moral worth as well as in intellect.
Charles Darwin came of a family which from the beginning of the sixteenth century had been settled on the northern borders of Lincolnshire. Several of his ancestors had been men of literary taste and scientific culture, the most noted of them being his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, the poet and philosopher. His father was a medical man in large practice at Shrewsbury, and his mother a daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, of Etruria. Some interesting reminiscences are given of the father, who must have been a man of uncommon strength of character. He left a large fortune, and thus provided for the career his son was destined to fulfil. Of his own early life and later years, Darwin has left a slight but most interesting sketch in an autobiographical fragment, written late in life for his children, and without any idea of its ever being published. Shortly before his mother's death, in 1817, he was sent, when eight years old, to a day-school in his native town. But even in the period of childhood he had chosen the favorite occupation of his life: "My taste for natural history," he says, "and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things--shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters and brothers ever had this taste."
Some of the incidents of his Cambridge life which he records are full of interest in their bearing on his future career. Foremost among them stands the friendship which he formed with Professor Henslow, whose lectures on botany he attended. He joined in the class excursions and found them delightful. But still more profitable to him were the long and almost daily walks which he enjoyed with his teacher, during the latter half of his time at Cambridge. Henslow's wide range of acquirement, modesty, unselfishness, courtesy, gentleness, and piety, fascinated him and exerted on him an influence which, more than anything else, tended to shape his whole future life. The love of travel which had been kindled by his boyish reading, now took a deeper hold of him as he read Humboldt's "Personal Narrative" and Herschel's "Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy." He determined to visit Teneriffe, and even went so far as to inquire about ships. But his desire was soon to be gratified in a far other and more comprehensive voyage. At the close of his college life he was fortunate enough, through Henslow's good offices, to accompany Sedgwick in a geological excursion in North Wales. There can be little doubt that this short trip sufficed to efface the dislike of geology which he had conceived at Edinburgh, and to show him how much it was in his own power to increase the sum of geological knowledge. To use his own phrase, he began to "work like a tiger" at geology.
But he now had reached the main turning-point of his career. On returning home from his ramble with Sedgwick he found a letter from Henslow, telling him that Captain Fitz-Roy, who was about to start on the memorable voyage of the Beagle, was willing to give up part of his own cabin to any competent young man who would volunteer to go with him, without pay, as a naturalist. The post was offered to Darwin and, after some natural objections on the part of his father, accepted.
The Beagle weighed anchor from Plymouth on December 27, 1831, and returned on October 2, 1836.
On his return to England, Darwin at once took his place among the acknowledged men of science of his country. For a time his health continued to be such as to allow him to get through a large amount of work. The next two years, which in his own opinion were the most active of his life, were spent, partly at Cambridge, and partly in London, in the preparation of his "Journal of Researches," of the zooelogical and geological results of the voyage, and of various papers for the Geological and Zooelogical Societies. So keen was his geological zeal that, almost against his better judgment, he was prevailed upon to undertake the duties of honorary secretary of the Geological Society, an office which he continued to hold for three years. And at each period of enforced holiday, for his health had already begun to give way, he occupied himself with geological work in the field. In the Midlands he watched the operations of earthworms, and began those inquiries which formed the subject of his last research, and of the volume on "Vegetable Mould" which he published not long before his death. In the Highlands he studied the famous Parallel Roads of Glen Roy; and his work there, though in after-years he acknowledged it to be "a great failure," he felt at the time to have been "one of the most difficult and instructive tasks" he had ever undertaken.
In the beginning of 1839 Darwin married his cousin, daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, and grand-daughter of the founder of the Etruria Works, and took a house in London. But the entries of ill-health in his diary grow more frequent. For a time he and his wife went into society, and took their share of the scientific life and work of the metropolis. But he was compelled gradually to withdraw from this kind of existence, which suited neither of them, and eventually they determined to live in the country. Accordingly, he purchased a house and grounds at Down, in a sequestered part of Kent, some twenty miles from London, and moved thither in the autumn of 1842. In that quiet home he passed the remaining forty years of his life. It was there that his children were born and grew up around him; that he carried on the researches and worked out the generalizations that have changed the whole realm of science; that he received his friends and the strangers who came from every country to see him; and it was there that, after a long and laborious life, full of ardor and work to the last, he died, at the age of seventy-three, on April 19, 1882.
The story of his life at Down is almost wholly coincident with the history of the development of his views on evolution, and the growth and appearance of the successive volumes which he gave to the world. For the first four years his geological tastes continued in the ascendant. During that interval there appeared three remarkable works, his volume on "Coral Islands," that on "Volcanic Islands," and his "Geological Observations on South America."
After working up the geological results of the long voyage in the Beagle, he set himself with great determination to more purely geological details. While on the coast of Chili he had found a curious new cirripede, to understand the structure of which he had to examine and dissect many of the common forms. The memoir, which was originally designed to describe only his new type, gradually expanded into an elaborate monograph on the Cirripedes (barnacles) as a whole group. For eight years he continued this self-imposed task, getting at last so weary of it as to feel at times as if the labor had been in some sense wasted which he had spent over it; and this suspicion seems to have remained with him in maturer years. But when at last the two bulky volumes, of more than one thousand pages of text, with forty detailed plates, made their appearance, they were hailed as an admirable contribution to the knowledge of a comparatively little known department of the animal kingdom. In the interests of science, perhaps, their chief value is to be recognized, not so much in their own high merit, as in the practical training which their preparation gave the author in anatomical detail and classification. He spoke of it himself afterward as a valuable discipline, and Professor Huxley truly affirms that the influence of this discipline was visible in everything which he afterward wrote.
It was after Darwin had got rid of his herculean labors over the "Cirripede" book, that he began to settle down seriously to the great work of his life--the investigation of the origin of the species, of plants and animals. Briefly, it may be stated here that he seems to have been first led to ponder over the question of the transmutation of species, by facts that had come under his notice during the South American part of the voyage in the Beagle--such as the discovery of the fossil remains of huge animals akin to, but yet very distinct from, the living armadillos of the same regions; the manner in which closely allied animals were found to replace one another, as he followed them over the continent; and the remarkable character of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Archipelago. "It was evident," he says, "that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me." His first note-book for the accumulation of facts bearing on the question was opened in July, 1837, and from that date he continued to gather them "on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions, by printed inquiries, by conversation with skilful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive reading."
He now set to work upon that epitome of his observations and deductions which appeared in November, 1859, as the immortal "Origin of Species."
Those who are old enough to remember the publication of this work, cannot but marvel at the change, which, since that day, not yet thirty years ago, has come alike upon the non-scientific and the scientific part of the community in their estimation of it. Professor Huxley has furnished to the biography a graphic chapter on the reception of the book, and in his vigorous and witty style recalls the furious and fatuous objections that were urged against it. A much longer chapter will be required to describe the change which the advent of the "Origin of Species" has wrought in every department of science, and not of science only, but of philosophy. The principle of evolution, so early broached and so long discredited, has now at last been proclaimed and accepted as the guiding idea in the investigation of nature.
One of the most marvellous aspects of Darwin's work was the way in which he seemed always to throw a new light upon every department of inquiry into which the course of his researches led him to look. The specialists who, in their own narrow domains, had been toiling for years, patiently gathering facts and timidly drawing inferences from them, were astonished to find that one who, in their eyes, was a kind of outsider, could point out to them the plain meaning of things which, though entirely familiar to them, they had never adequately understood. The central idea of the "Origin of Species" is an example of this in the biological sciences. The chapter on the imperfection of the geological record is another.
After the publication of the "Origin" Darwin gave to the world, during a succession of years, a series of volumes in which some of his observations and conclusions were worked out in fuller detail. His books on the fertilization of orchids, on the movements and habits of climbing plants, on the variation of animals and plants under domestication, on the effects of cross-and self-fertilization in the vegetable kingdom, on the different forms of flowers on plants of the same species, were mainly based on his own quiet work in the greenhouse and garden at Down. His volumes on the descent of man and on the expression of the emotions in man and animals, completed his contributions to the biological argument. His last volume, published the year before his death, treated of the formation of vegetable mould and the habits of earthworms, and the preparation of it enabled him to revive some of the geological enthusiasm which so marked the earlier years of his life.
Such, in briefest outline, was the work accomplished by Charles Darwin. The admirable biography prepared by his son enables us to follow its progress from the beginning to its close. But higher even than the intellect which achieved the work, was the moral character which shone through it all.