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Charles Robert Darwin (1809–1882). Origin of Species.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

. Introductory Note

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN, born at Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, came of a family of remarkable intellectual distinction which is still sustained in the present generation. His father was a successful physician with remarkable powers of observation, and his grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, the well-known author of “The Botanic Garden.” He went to school at Shrewsbury, were he failed to profit from the strict classical curriculum there in force; nor did the regular professional courses at Edinburgh University, where he spent two years studying medicine, succeed in rousing his interest. In 1827 he was entered at Christ’s College, Cambridge, to study for the B. A. degree, preparatory to entering the Church; but while there his friendship with Henslow, the professor of botany, led to his enlarging his general scientific knowledge and finally to his joining the expedition of the “Beagle” in the capacity of naturalist. From this Darwin returned after a voyage of five years with a vast first-hand knowledge of geology and zoology, a reputation as a successful collector, and, most important of all, with the germinal ideas of his theory of evolution. The next few years were spent in working up the materials he had collected; but his health gave signs of breaking, and for the rest of his life he suffered constantly, but without complaint. With extraordinary courage and endurance he took up a life of seclusion and methodical regularity, and accomplished his colossal results in spite of the most severe physical handicap. He had married in 1839, and three years later he withdrew from London to the little village of Down, about sixteen miles out, where he spent the rest of his life. His custom, which was almost a method, was to work till he was on the verge of complete collapse, and then to take a holiday just sufficient to restore him to working condition.

As early as 1842 Darwin had thrown into rough form the outlines of his theory of evolution, but the enormous extent of the investigations he engaged in for the purpose of testing it led to a constant postponing of publication. Finally in June, 1858, A. R. Wallace sent him a manuscript containing a statement of an identical theory of the origin of species, which had been arrived at entirely independently. On the advice of Lyell, the geologist, and Hooker, the botanist, Wallace’s paper and a letter of Darwin’s of the previous year, in which he had outlined his theory to Asa Gray, were read together on July 1, 1858, and published by the Linnæan Society. In November of the following year “The Origin of Species” was published, and the great battle was begun between the old science and the new. This work was followed in 1868 by his “Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,” that in turn by the “Descent of Man” in 1871, and that again by “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Each of these books was the elaboration or complement of a section of its predecessor. The later years of Darwin’s life were chiefly devoted to botanical research, and resulted in a series of treatises of the highest scientific value. He died at Down on April 19, 1882, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

The idea of the evolution of organisms, so far from originating with Darwin, is a very old one. Glimpses of it appear in the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Empedocles and Aristotle; modern philosophy from Bacon onward shows an increasing definiteness in its grasp of the conception; and in the age preceding Darwin’s, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Lamarck had given it a fairly concrete expression. As we approach the date of the publication of “The Origin of Species” adherence to the doctrine not only by naturalists but by poets, such as Goethe, becomes comparatively frequent; and in the six years before the joint announcement of Darwin and Wallace, Herbert Spencer had been supporting and applying it vigorously in the field of psychology.

To these partial anticipations, however, Darwin owed little. When he became interested in the problem, the doctrine of the fixity of species was still generally held; and his solution occurred to him mainly as the result of his own observation and thinking. Speaking of the voyage of the “Beagle,” he says, “On my return home in the autumn of 1836 I immediately began to prepare my journal for publication, and then saw how many facts indicated the common descent of species.… In July (1837) I opened my first note-book for facts in relation to the Origin of Species, about which I had long reflected, and never ceased working for the next twenty years.… Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter) origin of all my views.” Again, “In October (1838), that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work.”

From these statements by Darwin himself we can see how far it is from being the case that he merely gathered the ripe fruit of the labors of his predecessors. All progress is continuous, and Darwin, like other men, built on the foundations laid by others; but to say this is not to deny him originality in the only vital sense of that word. And the importance of his contribution—in verifying the doctrine of descent, in interpreting and applying it, and in revealing its bearings on all departments of the investigation of nature—is proved by the fact that his work opened a new epoch in science and philosophy. As Huxley said, “Whatever be the ultimate verdict of posterity upon this or that opinion which Mr. Darwin has propounded; whatever adumbrations or anticipations of his doctrines may be found in the writings of his predecessors; the broad fact remains that, since the publication and by reason of the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ the fundamental conceptions and the aims of the students of living Nature have been completely changed.”

The present year (1909) has seen the celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his great work. Among the numerous expressions of honor and gratitude which the world of science has poured upon his memory, none is more significant than the volume on “Darwin and Modern Science” which has been issued by the press of his old University of Cambridge. In this are collected nearly thirty papers by the leaders of modern science dealing with the influence of Darwin upon various fields of thought and research, and with the later developments and modifications of his conclusions. Biology, in many different departments, Anthropology, Geology, Psychology, Philosophy, Sociology, Religion, Language, History, and Astronomy are all represented, and the mere enumeration suggests the colossal nature of his achievement and its results.

Yet the spirit of the man was almost as wonderful as his work. His disinterestedness, his modesty, and his absolute fairness were not only beautiful in themselves, but remain as a proof of the importance of character in intellectual labor. Here is his own frank and candid summing up of his abilities: “My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.”