Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/June 1883/Darwin and Copernicus


By Professor E. DU BOIS-REYMOND.

THE losses by death which natural science has sustained during the past year are unusually heavy. The fertile and ingenious mathematician who for more than a generation held a leading position among French men of science as the publisher of one of the best-known mathematical journals; the chemist who, by the first organic synthesis, helped to dispel the illusion of vital energy; the physiologist who solved one of the oldest problems of humanity—are men whose death leaves a void not easily filled up. But the luster of even such names as Liouville, Wöhler, and Bischoff pales before that of the first on our list, Charles Darwin. Nearly every learned society in existence has publicly deplored his loss. As this Academy has not hitherto found a fitting opportunity for doing so, it is necessary to add a few words to the formal mention of his decease, to show that we also appreciate the greatness of the man and of the loss science has sustained in him.

To say anything fresh concerning him will only be possible when the lapse of time and the progress of science have opened up new points of view; and the speaker, who has often had occasion to discuss Darwin before this Academy, finds it especially difficult not to repeat himself, the more so as opinions of his work are still somewhat apt to be influenced by personal feeling.

Darwin seems to me to be the Copernicus of the organic world. In the sixteenth century Copernicus put an end to the anthropocentric theory by doing away with the Ptolemaic spheres and bringing our earth down to the rank of an insignificant planet. At the same time he proved the non-existence of the so-called empyrean, the supposed abode of the heavenly hosts, beyond the seventh sphere, although Giordano Bruno was the first who actually drew the inference.

Man, however, still stood apart from the rest of animated beings—not at the top of the scale, his proper place, but quite away, as a being absolutely incommensurable with them. One hundred years later Descartes still held that man alone had a soul, and that beasts were mere automata. Notwithstanding all the labor of naturalists since the days of Linnæus, notwithstanding the resurrection of vanished genera and species by Cuvier, the theory of the origin and interdependence of living things, which was almost universal five-and-twenty years ago, was only equaled in arbitrariness, artificiality, and absurdity by the celebrated theory of Epicycles, which caused Alfonso of Castile to exclaim, "If God had asked my advice when he created the world, I should have managed things much better."

"Afflavit Darwinius et dissipata est" would, alluding to the above-mentioned theory, be a fitting inscription for a medal in honor of the "Origin of Species." For now all things were seen to be due to the quiet development of a few simple germs; graduated days of creation gave place to one day on which matter in motion was created; and organic suitability was replaced by a mechanical process, for as such we may look on natural selection, and now for the first time man took his proper place at the head of his brethren.

We may compare Copernicus's student-days at Bologna with Darwin's voyage in the Beagle, and his retired life at Franenburg with Darwin's in his Kentish home, up to the time when the appearance of Mr. Wallace's work caused him to break his long silence. Here, happily for Darwin, the parallel ends. Many circumstances combined in Darwin's case to render his task easier and insure his ultimate triumph. Botany and zoölogy, morphology, the theory of evolution, and the study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals, had advanced far enough to allow of general conclusions being drawn from them; Lyell's sound sense had freed geology from the hypotheses which disfigured it, and introduced the idea of uniformity into science. The doctrine of the conservation of energy had been put on a new basis, and extended so that in combination with astronomical observation it gave rise to entirely new views of the history and duration of the universe. The doctrine of vital energy had been proved to be untenable on closer investigation. An unusually dry season had some years earlier led to the discovery of the so-called lake-dwellings in the bed of one of the Swiss lakes, whereby prehistoric research was quickly extended and developed. Though many links are still missing, we may fairly consider the knowledge of the existence of primeval man as the beginning of the long-looked-for connection between him and the anthropoids on the one hand, and between them both and their common progenitors on the other. In a word, the time had come for the publication of the "Descent of Man"; that is why an opinion on the nature of man, which differs from all former ones fully as much as the system of Copernicus, of which it is the complement, differs from that of Ptolemy, found such ready and general acceptance.

How different was the fate of Copernicus! "Copernicus," says Poggendorff, "is, and will ever remain, a brilliant star in the firmament of science; but he rose at a time when the horizon was almost entirely obscured by the mists of ignorance. . . . The Ptolemaic system was too ancient and too much venerated to be easily displaced." Copernicus's teaching met with but scant appreciation for the first fifty years after its publication; even Tycho Brahe opposed it; it can therefore scarcely cause surprise that Luther rejected it, that Giordano Bruno died at the stake for his advocacy of it, while the less steadfast Galileo was forced to renounce it.

Notwithstanding the pessimism of our speculative philosophers, who deny all progress because they contribute nothing toward it, Darwin's lot was happier than that of the great reformer of astronomy. While Copernicus could only feast his eyes on the first printed copy of his work as he lay on his death-bed, because he had not dared to publish it sooner, although he had completed it some years before, Darwin survived the appearance of his nearly a quarter of a century. He witnessed the fierce struggles its appearance at first gave rise to; its ever-increasing acceptance and its final triumph, to which he, cheerful and active to the last, greatly contributed by a long series of admirable works.

While the Holy Inquisition persecuted the followers of Copernicus with fire and sword, Charles Darwin lies buried in Westminster Abbey among his peers, Newton and Faraday.

  1. Address delivered at the anniversary meeting of the Berlin Academy of Sciences.