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Darwin and Modern Science (1909)

Edited by A.C. Seward

"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."

Autobiography (1881); "The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin", Vol. 1. page 107.


t the suggestion of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, the Syndics of the University Press decided in March, 1908, to arrange for the publication of a series of Essays in commemoration of the Centenary of the birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "The Origin of Species". The preliminary arrangements were made by a committee consisting of the following representatives of the Council of the Philosophical Society and of the Press Syndicate: Dr H.K. Anderson, Prof. Bateson, Mr Francis Darwin, Dr Hobson, Dr Marr, Prof. Sedgwick, Mr David Sharp, Mr Shipley, Prof. Sorley, Prof. Seward. In the course of the preparation of the volume, the original scheme and list of authors have been modified: a few of those invited to contribute essays were, for various reasons, unable to do so, and some alterations have been made in the titles of articles. For the selection of authors and for the choice of subjects, the committee are mainly responsible, but for such share of the work in the preparation of the volume as usually falls to the lot of an editor I accept full responsibility.

Authors were asked to address themselves primarily to the educated layman rather than to the expert. It was hoped that the publication of the essays would serve the double purpose of illustrating the far-reaching influence of Darwin's work on the progress of knowledge and the present attitude of original investigators and thinkers towards the views embodied in Darwin's works.

In regard to the interpretation of a passage in "The Origin of Species" quoted by Hugo de Vries, it seemed advisable to add an editorial footnote; but, with this exception, I have not felt it necessary to record any opinion on views stated in the essays.

In reading the essays in proof I have availed myself freely of the willing assistance of several Cambridge friends, among whom I wish more especially to thank Mr Francis Darwin for the active interest he has taken in the preparation of the volume. Mrs J.A. Thomson kindly undertook the translation of the essays by Prof. Weismann and Prof. Schwalbe; Mrs James Ward was good enough to assist me by translating Prof. Bougle's article on Sociology, and to Mr McCabe I am indebted for the translation of the essay by Prof. Haeckel. For the translation of the botanical articles by Prof. Goebel, Prof. Klebs and Prof. Strasburger, I am responsible; in the revision of the translation of Prof. Strasburger's essay Madame Errera of Brussels rendered valuable help. Mr Wright, the Secretary of the Press Syndicate, and Mr Waller, the Assistant Secretary, have cordially cooperated with me in my editorial work; nor can I omit to thank the readers of the University Press for keeping watchful eyes on my shortcomings in the correction of proofs.

The two portraits of Darwin are reproduced by permission of Messrs Maull and Fox and Messrs Elliott and Fry. The photogravure of the study at Down is reproduced from an etching by Mr Axel Haig, lent by Mr Francis Darwin; the coloured plate illustrating Prof. Weismann's essay was originally published by him in his "Vortrage uber Descendenztheorie" which afterwards appeared (1904) in English under the title "The Evolution Theory". Copies of this plate were supplied by Messrs Fischer of Jena.

The Syndics of the University Press have agreed, in the event of this volume being a financial success, to hand over the profits to a University fund for the endowment of biological research.

It is clearly impossible to express adequately in a single volume of Essays the influence of Darwin's contributions to knowledge on the subsequent progress of scientific inquiry. As Huxley said in 1885: "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...But the impulse thus given to scientific thought rapidly spread beyond the ordinarily recognised limits of Biology. Psychology, Ethics, Cosmology were stirred to their foundations, and 'The Origin of Species' proved itself to be the fixed point which the general doctrine needed in order to move the world."

In the contributions to this Memorial Volume, some of the authors have more especially concerned themselves with the results achieved by Darwin's own work, while others pass in review the progress of research on lines which, though unknown or but little followed in his day, are the direct outcome of his work.

The divergence of views among biologists in regard to the origin of species and as to the most promising directions in which to seek for truth is illustrated by the different opinions of contributors. Whether Darwin's views on the modus operandi of evolutionary forces receive further confirmation in the future, or whether they are materially modified, in no way affects the truth of the statement that, by employing his life "in adding a little to Natural Science," he revolutionised the world of thought. Darwin wrote in 1872 to Alfred Russel Wallace: "How grand is the onward rush of science: it is enough to console us for the many errors which we have committed, and for our efforts being overlaid and forgotten in the mass of new facts and new views which are daily turning up." In the onward rush, it is easy for students convinced of the correctness of their own views and equally convinced of the falsity of those of their fellow-workers to forget the lessons of Darwin's life. In his autobiographical sketch, he tells us, "I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it." Writing to Mr J. Scott, he says, "It is a golden rule, which I try to follow, to put every fact which is opposed to one's preconceived opinion in the strongest light. Absolute accuracy is the hardest merit to attain, and the highest merit. Any deviation is ruin."

He acted strictly in accordance with his determination expressed in a letter to Lyell in 1844, "I shall keep out of controversy, and just give my own facts." As was said of another son of Cambridge, Sir George Stokes, "He would no more have thought of disputing about priority, or the authorship of an idea, than of writing a report for a company promoter." Darwin's life affords a striking confirmation of the truth of Hazlitt's aphorism, "Where the pursuit of truth has been the habitual study of any man's life, the love of truth will be his ruling passion." Great as was the intellect of Darwin, his character, as Huxley wrote, was even nobler than his intellect.


Botany School, Cambridge,
March 20, 1909.

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