The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 107 of 188

The Monograph Of The Cirripedia, October 1846 to October 1854.

[Writing to Sir J.D. Hooker in 1845, my father says: “I hope this next summer to finish my South American Geology, then to get out a little Zoology, and hurrah for my species work…” This passage serves to show that he had at this time no intention of making an exhaustive study of the Cirripedes. Indeed it would seem that his original intention was, as I learn from Sir J.D. Hooker, merely to work out one special problem. This is quite in keeping with the following passage in the Autobiography: “When on the coast of Chile, I found a most curious form, which burrowed into the shells of Concholepas, and which differed so much from all other Cirripedes that I had to form a new sub-order for its sole reception…To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group.” In later years he seems to have felt some doubt as to the value of these eight years of work,–for instance when he wrote in his Autobiography–“My work was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in the ‘Origin of Species,’ the principles of a natural classification. Nevertheless I doubt whether the work was worth the consumption of so much time.” Yet I learn from Sir J.D. Hooker that he certainly recognised at the time its value to himself as systematic training. Sir Joseph writes to me: “Your father recognised three stages in his career as a biologist: the mere collector at Cambridge; the collector and observer in the Beagle, and for some years afterwards; and the trained naturalist after, and only after the Cirripede work. That he was a thinker all along is true enough, and there is a vast deal in his writings previous to the Cirripedes that a trained naturalist could but emulate…He often alluded to it as a valued discipline, and added that even the ‘hateful’ work of digging out synonyms, and of describing, not only improved his methods but opened his eyes to the difficulties and merits of the works of the dullest of cataloguers. One result was that he would never allow a depreciatory remark to pass unchallenged on the poorest class of scientific workers, provided that their work was honest, and good of its kind. I have always regarded it as one of the finest traits of his character,–this generous appreciation of the hod-men of science, and of their labours…and it was monographing the Barnacles that brought it about.”

Professor Huxley allows me to quote his opinion as to the value of the eight years given to the Cirripedes:–

“In my opinion your sagacious father never did a wiser thing than when he devoted himself to the years of patient toil which the Cirripede-book cost him.

“Like the rest of us, he had no proper training in biological science, and it has always struck me as a remarkable instance of his scientific insight, that he saw the necessity of giving himself such training, and of his courage, that he did not shirk the labour of obtaining it.

“The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty, is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it, is quite another question.

“Your father was building a vast superstructure upon the foundations furnished by the recognised facts of geological and biological science. In Physical Geography, in Geology proper, in Geographical Distribution, and in Palaeontology, he had acquired an extensive practical training during the voyage of the Beagle. He knew of his own knowledge the way in which the raw materials of these branches of science are acquired, and was therefore a most competent judge of the speculative strain they would bear. That which he needed, after his return to England, was a corresponding acquaintance with Anatomy and Development, and their relation to Taxonomy– and he acquired this by his Cirripede work.

“Thus, in my apprehension, the value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything your father wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

“So far from such work being a loss of time, I believe it would have been well worth his while, had it been practicable, to have supplemented it by a special study of embryology and physiology. His hands would have been greatly strengthened thereby when he came to write out sundry chapters of the ‘Origin of Species.’ But of course in those days it was almost impossible for him to find facilities for such work.”

No one can look a the two volumes on the recent Cirripedes, of 399 and 684 pages respectively (not to speak of the volumes on the fossil species), without being struck by the immense amount of detailed work which they contain. The forty plates, some of them with thirty figures, and the fourteen pages of index in the two volumes together, give some rough idea of the labour spent on the work. (The reader unacquainted with Zoology will find some account of the more interesting results in Mr. Romanes’ article on “Charles Darwin” (‘Nature’ Series, 1882).) The state of knowledge, as regards the Cirripedes, was most unsatisfactory at the time that my father began to work at them. As an illustration of this fact, it may be mentioned that he had even to re-organise the nomenclature of the group, or, as he expressed it, he “unwillingly found it indispensable to give names to several valves, and to some few of the softer parts of Cirripedes.” (Vol. i. page 3.) It is interesting to learn from his diary the amount of time which he gave to different genera. Thus the genus Chthamalus, the description of which occupies twenty-two pages, occupied him for thirty-six days; Coronula took nineteen days, and is described in twenty-seven pages. Writing to Fitz-Roy, he speaks of being “for the last half-month daily hard at work in dissecting a little animal about the size of a pin’s head, from the Chonos archipelago, and I could spend another month, and daily see more beautiful structure.”

Though he became excessively weary of the work before the end of the eight years, he had much keen enjoyment in the course of it. Thus he wrote to Sir J.D. Hooker (1847?):–“As you say, there is an extraordinary pleasure in pure observation; not but what I suspect the pleasure in this case is rather derived from comparisons forming in one’s mind with allied structures. After having been so long employed in writing my old geological observations, it is delightful to use one’s eyes and fingers again.” It was, in fact, a return to the work which occupied so much of his time when at sea during his voyage. His zoological notes of that period give an impression of vigorous work, hampered by ignorance and want of appliances. And his untiring industry in the dissection of marine animals, especially of Crustacea, must have been of value to him as training for his Cirripede work. Most of his work was done with the simple dissecting microscope–but it was the need which he found for higher powers that induced him, in 1846, to buy a compound microscope. He wrote to Hooker:–“When I was drawing with L., I was so delighted with the appearance of the objects, especially with their perspective, as seen through the weak powers of a good compound microscope, that I am going to order one; indeed, I often have structures in which the 1/30 is not power enough.”

During part of the time covered by the present chapter, my father suffered perhaps more from ill-health than at any other time of his life. He felt severely the depressing influence of these long years of illness; thus as early as 1840 he wrote to Fox: “I am grown a dull, old, spiritless dog to what I used to be. One gets stupider as one grows older I think.” It is not wonderful that he should so have written, it is rather to be wondered at that his spirit withstood so great and constant a strain. He wrote to Sir J.D. Hooker in 1845: “You are very kind in your enquiries about my health; I have nothing to say about it, being always much the same, some days better and some worse. I believe I have not had one whole day, or rather night, without my stomach having been greatly disordered, during the last three years, and most days great prostration of strength: thank you for your kindness; many of my friends, I believe, think me a hypochondriac.”

Again, in 1849, he notes in his diary:–“January 1st to March 10th.–Health very bad, with much sickness and failure of power. Worked on all well days.” This was written just before his first visit to Dr. Gully’s Water-Cure Establishment at Malvern. In April of the same year he wrote:–“I believe I am going on very well, but I am rather weary of my present inactive life, and the water-cure has the most extraordinary effect in producing indolence and stagnation of mind: till experiencing it, I could not have believed it possible. I now increase in weight, have escaped sickness for thirty days.” He returned in June, after sixteen weeks’ absence, much improved in health, and, as already described, continued the water-cure at home for some time.]

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