Nature and the Philosopher
Darwin once advised a novice writer, “with a book, as with a fine day, one likes to end with a glorious sunset”116. This thought may have prompted the final paragraph of the Origin “It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to
[Footnote] 116 More Letters, 1: 238.
reflect that these elaborately constructed forms. have all been produced by laws acting around us…. There is a grandeur in this view of Life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”117
This frank, but somewhat self-conscious philosophy was penned for the critical Victorian reader who was soon to read it.
I have preferred to end with two quotations that may help to show more adequately than I could hope to express in my own words the role that a belief in organic unity and organic change has played in the thoughts and feelings of naturalist philosophers like Darwin, Wallace, and G. V. Hudson, whose memories we honour tonight, since long before Darwin's time.
The first extracts, by the poet-philosopher Goethe (who died while Darwin was on the Beagle), were translated by T. H. Huxley in the first number (1869) of the periodical “Nature”, but were written about 1778.
“Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her.
“She is ever shaping new forms what is, has never yet been: what has been, comes not again. Everything is new, and yet nought but the old.
“The one thing she seems to aim at is Individuality; yet she cares nothing for individuals. She is always building up and destroying.
“She is the only artist; working up the most uniform material into utter opposites.
“Each of her works has an essence of its own; and yet their diversity is in unity.
“She changes for ever and ever, and rests not a moment. Her steps are measured, her exceptions rare, her laws unchangeable.
“She has divided herself that she may be her own delight. She causes an endless succession of new capacities for enjoyment to spring up, that her insatiable sympathy may be assuaged.
“The spectacle of Nature is always new, for she is always renewing the spectators Life is her most exquisite invention; and death is her expert contrivance to get plenty of life.
“She separates all existences, and all tend to intermingle. She has isolated all things in order that all may approach one another.
“Everyone sees her in his own fashion. She has brought me here and will also lead me away. I trust her.”
Thus the pre-Darwinian philosopher. Huxley predicted that the vision of the poet would remain as a truthful and efficient symbol of the wonder and mystery of Nature long after the theories of the philosophers were obsolete. Now poetry expresses the reality of feelings, whereas the philosophy of science endeavours to establish the reality of verifiable general laws. Darwin was too good a scientist to let his feelings obtrude much into his publications, but he did so in his personal notebook of 1837 (22 years before the “Origin”) when he began to feel the meaning of his early conclusions on the relationship of animals and man, and scribbled for his own use a note118 that will be my final quotation because it expresses simply, almost naively, a naturalist's love and sympathy for the life he studies.
“If we choose to let conjecture run wild,” he wrote, “then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, disease, death, suffering, and famine—our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements—they may partake our origin on one common ancestor—we may be all melted together.”
[Footnote] 117 Origin 414–5
[Footnote] 118 Life and Letters, II 6.