Address to the Royal Society 1893

The Times (November 1893)

[1] But the most difficult task that remains is that which concerns myself. It is 43 years ago this day since the Royal Society did me the honour to award me a Royal medal, and thereby determined my career. But, having long retired into the position of a veteran, I confess that I was extremely astonished– I honestly also say that I was extremely pleased to receive the announcement that you had been good enough to award to me the Darwin Medal. But you know the Royal Society, like all things in this world, is subject to criticism. I confess that with the ingrained instincts of an old official that which arose in my mind after the reception of the information that I had been thus distinguished was to start an inquiry which I suppose suggests itself to every old official–How can my Government be justified? In reflecting upon what had been my own share in what are now very largely ancient transactions, it was perfectly obvious to me that I had no such claims as those of Mr. Wallace. It was perfectly clear to me that I had no such claims as those of my life-long friend Sir Joseph Hooker, who for 25 years placed all his great sources of knowledge, his sagacity, his industry, at the disposition of his friend Darwin. And really, I begin to despair of what possible answer could be given to the critics whom the Royal Society, meeting as it does on November 30, has lately been very apt to hear about on December I. Naturally there occurred to my mind that famous and comfortable line, which I suppose has helped so many people under like circumstances, "They also serve who only stand and wait." I am bound to confess that the standing and waiting, so far as I am concerned, to which I refer, has been of a somewhat peculiar character. I can only explain it, if you will permit me to narrate a story which came to me in my old nautical days, and which, I believe, has just as much foundation as a good deal of other information which I derived at the same period from the same source. There was a merchant ship in which a member of the Society of Friends had taken passage, and that ship was attacked by a pirate, and the captain thereupon put into the hands of the member of the Society of Friends a pike, and desired him to take part in the subsequent action, to which, as you may imagine, the reply was that he would do nothing of the kind; but he said that he had no objection to stand and wait at the gangway. He did stand and wait with the pike in his hands, and when the pirates mounted and showed themselves coming on board he thrust his pike with the sharp end forward into the persons who were mounting, and he said, "Friend, keep on board thine own ship." It is in that sense that I venture to interpret the principle of standing and waiting to which I have referred. I was convinced as firmly as I have ever been convinced of anything in my life, that the Origin of Species was a ship laden with a cargo of rich value, and which, if she were permitted to pursue her course, would reach a veritable scientific Golconda, and I thought it my duty, however naturally averse I might be to fighting, to bid those who would disturb her beneficent operations to keep on board their own ship. If it has pleased the Royal Society to recognise such poor services as I may have rendered in that capacity, I am very glad, because I am as much convinced now as I was 34 years ago that the theory propounded by Mr. Darwin–I mean that which he propounded, not that which has been reported to be his by too many ill-instructed, both friends and foes–has never yet been shown to be inconsistent with any positive observations, and if I may use a phrase which I know has been objected to, and which I use in a totally different sense from that in which it was first proposed by its first propounder, I do believe that on all grounds of pure science it "holds the field," as the only hypothesis at present before us which has a sound scientific foundation. It is quite possible that you will apply to me the remark that has often been applied to persons in such a position as mine, that we are apt to exaggerate the importance of that to which our lives have been more or less devoted. But I am sincerely of opinion that the views which were propounded by Mr. Darwin 34 years ago may be understood hereafter as constituting an epoch in the intellectual history of the human race. They will modify the whole system of our thought and opinion, our most intimate convictions. But I do not know, I do not think anybody knows, whether the particular views which he held will be hereafter fortified by the experience of the ages which come after us; but of this thing I am perfectly certain, that the present course of things has resulted from the feeling of the smaller men who have followed him that they are incompetent to bend the bow of Ulysses, and in consequence many of them are seeking their salvation in mere speculation. Those who wish to attain to some clear and definite solution of the great problems which Mr. Darwin was the first person to set before us in later times must base themselves upon the facts which are stated in his great work, and, still more, must pursue their inquiries by the methods of which he was so brilliant an exemplar throughout the whole of his life. You must have his sagacity, his untiring search after the knowledge of fact, his readiness always to give up a preconceived opinion to that which was demonstrably true, before you can hope to carry his doctrines to their ultimate issue; and whether the particular form in which he has put them before us may be such as is finally destined to survive or not is more, I venture to think, than anybody is capable at this present moment of saying. But this one thing is perfectly certain–that it is only by pursuing his methods, by that wonderful single-mindedness, devotion to truth, readiness to sacrifice all things for the advance of definite knowledge, that we can hope to come any nearer than we are at present to the truths which he struggled to attain.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University