The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Written May 1st, 1881.

 

‘The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation’ was published in
the autumn of 1876; and the results there arrived at explain, as
I believe, the endless and wonderful contrivances for the
transportal of pollen from one plant to another of the same
species. I now believe, however, chiefly from the observations
of Hermann Muller, that I ought to have insisted more strongly
than I did on the many adaptations for self-fertilisation; though
I was well aware of many such adaptations. A much enlarged
edition of my ‘Fertilisation of Orchids’,
English naturalist Charles Darwin wrote the book ‘Fertilization of Orchid’ in 1862. It took ten years to complete this book, this book explains about the how insects take part in the fertilization of British and foreign orchids and good effects of intercrossing. The observations presented in the book was slowly collected for many years. Click Learn More Here to know about the book. was published in 1877.

In this same year ‘The Different Forms of Flowers, etc.,’
appeared, and in 1880 a second edition. This book consists
chiefly of the several papers on Heterostyled flowers originally
published by the Linnean Society, corrected, with much new matter
added, together with observations on some other cases in which
the same plant bears two kinds of flowers. As before remarked,
no little discovery of mine ever gave me so much pleasure as the
making out the meaning of heterostyled flowers. The results of
crossing such flowers in an illegitimate manner, I believe to be
very important, as bearing on the sterility of hybrids; although
these results have been noticed by only a few persons.

In 1879, I had a translation of Dr. Ernst Krause’s ‘Life of
Erasmus Darwin’ published, and I added a sketch of his character
and habits from material in my possession. Many persons have
been much interested by this little life, and I am surprised that
only 800 or 900 copies were sold.

In 1880 I published, with [my son] Frank’s assistance, our ‘Power
of Movement in Plants.’ This was a tough piece of work. The
book bears somewhat the same relation to my little book on
‘Climbing Plants,’ which ‘Cross-Fertilisation’ did to the
‘Fertilisation of Orchids;’ for in accordance with the principle
of evolution it was impossible to account for climbing plants
having been developed in so many widely different groups unless
all kinds of plants possess some slight power of movement of an
analogous kind. This I proved to be the case; and I was further
led to a rather wide generalisation, viz. that the great and
important classes of movements, excited by light, the attraction
of gravity, etc., are all modified forms of the fundamental
movement of circumnutation. It has always pleased me to exalt
plants in the scale of organised beings; and I therefore felt an
especial pleasure in showing how many and what admirably well
adapted movements the tip of a root possesses.

I have now (May 1, 1881) sent to the printers the MS. of a little
book on ‘The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of
Worms.’ This is a subject of but small importance; and I know
not whether it will interest any readers (Between November 1881
and February 1884, 8500 copies have been sold.), but it has
interested me. It is the completion of a short paper read before
the Geological Society more than forty years ago, and has revived
old geological thoughts.

I have now mentioned all the books which I have published, and
these have been the milestones in my life, so that little remains
to be said. I am not conscious of any change in my mind during
the last thirty years, excepting in one point presently to be
mentioned; nor, indeed, could any change have been expected
unless one of general deterioration. But my father lived to his
eighty-third year with his mind as lively as ever it was, and all
his faculties undimmed; and I hope that I may die before my mind
fails to a sensible extent. I think that I have become a little
more skilful in guessing right explanations and in devising
experimental tests; but this may probably be the result of mere
practice, and of a larger store of knowledge. I have as much
difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely;
and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but
it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long
and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to
see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of
others.

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put
at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form.
Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them
down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to
scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can,
contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately.
Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could
have written deliberately.

Having said thus much about my manner of writing, I will add that
with my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general
arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in
two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few
words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of
facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often
transferred before I begin to write in extenso. As in several of
my books facts observed by others have been very extensively
used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in
hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to
forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into
which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I
have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all
the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own,
write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a
large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all
the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by
taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the
information collected during my life ready for use.

I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the
last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond
it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray,
Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great
pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in
Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also
said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very
great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a
line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and
found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also
almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets
me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on,
instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine
scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it
formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the
imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years
a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all
novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I
like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily–
against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my
taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some
person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all
the better.

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes
is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels
(independently of any scientific facts which they may contain),
and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever
they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for
grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why
this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain
alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A
man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than
mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to
live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry
and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps
the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept
active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of
happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and
more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional
part of our nature.

My books have sold largely in England, have been translated into
many languages, and passed through several editions in foreign
countries. I have heard it said that the success of a work
abroad is the best test of its enduring value. I doubt whether
this is at all trustworthy; but judged by this standard my name
ought to last for a few years. Therefore it may be worth while
to try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on
which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can
do this correctly.

I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so
remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am
therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read,
generally excites my admiration, and it is only after
considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My
power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is
very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with
metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy:
it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have
observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am
drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I
can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So
poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to
remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of
poetry.

Some of my critics have said, “Oh, he is a good observer, but he
has no power of reasoning!” I do not think that this can be
true, for the ‘Origin of Species’ is one long argument from the
beginning to the end, and it has convinced not a few able men.
No one could have written it without having some power of
reasoning. I have a fair share of invention, and of common sense
or judgment, such as every fairly successful lawyer or doctor
must have, but not, I believe, in any higher degree.

On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior
to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape
attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been
nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and
collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of
natural science has been steady and ardent.

This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to
be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have
had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I
observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws.
These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or
ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As
far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of
other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so
as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot
resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown
to be opposed to it. Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in
this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot
remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a
time to be given up or greatly modified. This has naturally led
me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences.
On the other hand, I am not very sceptical,–a frame of mind
which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science. A
good deal of scepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid
much loss of time, but I have met with not a few men, who, I feel
sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or
observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly
serviceable.

In illustration, I will give the oddest case which I have known.
A gentleman (who, as I afterwards heard, is a good local
botanist) wrote to me from the Eastern counties that the seed or
beans of the common field-bean had this year everywhere grown on
the wrong side of the pod. I wrote back, asking for further
information, as I did not understand what was meant; but I did
not receive any answer for a very long time. I then saw in two
newspapers, one published in Kent and the other in Yorkshire,
paragraphs stating that it was a most remarkable fact that “the
beans this year had all grown on the wrong side.” So I thought
there must be some foundation for so general a statement.
Accordingly, I went to my gardener, an old Kentish man, and asked
him whether he had heard anything about it, and he answered, “Oh,
no, sir, it must be a mistake, for the beans grow on the wrong
side only on leap-year, and this is not leap-year.” I then asked
him how they grew in common years and how on leap-years, but soon
found that he knew absolutely nothing of how they grew at any
time, but he stuck to his belief.

After a time I heard from my first informant, who, with many
apologies, said that he should not have written to me had he not
heard the statement from several intelligent farmers; but that he
had since spoken again to every one of them, and not one knew in
the least what he had himself meant. So that here a belief–if
indeed a statement with no definite idea attached to it can be
called a belief–had spread over almost the whole of England
without any vestige of evidence.

I have known in the course of my life only three intentionally
falsified statements, and one of these may have been a hoax (and
there have been several scientific hoaxes) which, however, took
in an American Agricultural Journal. It related to the formation
in Holland of a new breed of oxen by the crossing of distinct
species of Bos (some of which I happen to know are sterile
together), and the author had the impudence to state that he had
corresponded with me, and that I had been deeply impressed with
the importance of his result. The article was sent to me by the
editor of an English Agricultural Journal, asking for my opinion
before republishing it.

A second case was an account of several varieties, raised by the
author from several species of Primula, which had spontaneously
yielded a full complement of seed, although the parent plants had
been carefully protected from the access of insects. This
account was published before I had discovered the meaning of
heterostylism, and the whole statement must have been fraudulent,
or there was neglect in excluding insects so gross as to be
scarcely credible.

The third case was more curious: Mr. Huth published in his book
on ‘Consanguineous Marriage’ some long extracts from a Belgian
author, who stated that he had interbred rabbits in the closest
manner for very many generations, without the least injurious
effects. The account was published in a most respectable
Journal, that of the Royal Society of Belgium; but I could not
avoid feeling doubts–I hardly know why, except that there were
no accidents of any kind, and my experience in breeding animals
made me think this very improbable.

So with much hesitation I wrote to Professor Van Beneden, asking
him whether the author was a trustworthy man. I soon heard in
answer that the Society had been greatly shocked by discovering
that the whole account was a fraud. (The falseness of the
published statements on which Mr. Huth relied has been pointed
out by himself in a slip inserted in all the copies of his book
which then remained unsold.) The writer had been publicly
challenged in the Journal to say where he had resided and kept
his large stock of rabbits while carrying on his experiments,
which must have consumed several years, and no answer could be
extracted from him.

My habits are methodical, and this has been of not a little use
for my particular line of work. Lastly, I have had ample leisure
from not having to earn my own bread. Even ill-health, though it
has annihilated several years of my life, has saved me from the
distractions of society and amusement.

Therefore 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.

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