Address by the President of the Royal Society, in the name of the Memorial Committee, on handing over the statue of Darwin to H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, as representative of the Trustees of the British Museum.
YOUR ROYAL HIGHNESS — It is now three years since the announcement of the death of our famous countryman, Charles Darwin, gave rise to a manifestation of public feeling, not only in these realms, but throughout the civilised world, which, if I mistake not, is without precedent in the modest annals of scientific biography.
The causes of this deep and wide outburst of emotion are not far to seek. We had lost one of these rare ministers and interpreters of Nature whose names mark epochs in the advance of natural knowledge. For, whatever be the ultimate verdict of posterity upon this or that opinion which Mr. Darwin has propounded; whatever adumbrations or anticipations of his doctrines may be found in the writings of his predecessors; the broad fact remains that, since the publication and by reason of the publication, of “The Origin of Species” the fundamental conceptions and the aims of the students of living Nature have been completely changed. From that work has sprung a great renewal, a true “instauratio magna” of the zoological and botanical sciences.
But the impulse thus given to scientific thought rapidly spread beyond the ordinarily recognised limits of biology. Psychology, Ethics, Cosmology were stirred to their foundations, and the “Origin of Species” proved itself to be the fixed point which the general doctrine of evolution needed in order to move the world. “Darwinism,” in one form or another, sometimes strangely distorted and mutilated, became an everyday topic of men’s speech, the object of an abundance both of vituperation and of praise, more often than of serious study.
It is curious now to remember how largely, at first, the objectors predominated; but considering the usual fate of new views, it is still more curious to consider for how short a time the phase of vehement opposition lasted. Before twenty years had passed, not only had the importance of Mr. Darwin’s work been fully recognised, but the world had discerned the simple, earnest, generous character of the man, that shone through every page of his writings.
I imagine that reflections such as these swept through the minds alike of loving friends and of honourable antagonists when Mr. Darwin died; and that they were at one in the desire to honour the memory of the man who, without fear and without reproach, had successfully fought the hardest intellectual battle of these days.
It was in satisfaction of these just and generous impulses that our great naturalist’s remains were deposited in Westminster Abbey; and that, immediately afterwards, a public meeting, presided over by my lamented predecessor, Mr. Spottiswoode, was held in the rooms of the Royal Society, for the purpose of considering what further step should be taken towards the same end.
It was resolved to invite subscriptions, with the view of erecting a statue of Mr. Darwin in some suitable locality; and to devote any surplus to the advancement of the biological sciences.
Contributions at once flowed in from Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United States, and the British Colonies, no less than from all parts of the three kingdoms; and they came from all classes of the community. To mention one interesting case, Sweden sent in 2296 subscriptions “from all sorts of people,” as the distinguished man of science who transmitted them wrote, “from the bishop to the seamstress, and in sums from five pounds to two pence.”
The Executive Committee has thus been enabled to carry out the objects proposed. A “Darwin Fund” has been created, which is to be held in trust by the Royal Society, and is to be employed in the promotion of biological research.
The execution of the statue was entrusted to Mr. Boehm; and I think that those who had the good fortune to know Mr. Darwin personally will admire the power of artistic divination which has enabled the sculptor to place before us so very characteristic a likeness of one whom he had not seen.
It appeared to the Committee that, whether they regarded Mr. Darwin’s career or the requirements of a work of art, no site could be so appropriate as this great hall, and they applied to the Trustees of the British Museum for permission to erect it in its present position.
That permission was most cordially granted, and I am desired to tender the best thanks of the Committee to the Trustees for their willingness to accede to our wishes.
I also beg leave to offer the expression of our gratitude to your Royal Highness for kindly consenting to represent the Trustees today. It only remains for me, your Royal Highness, my Lords and Gentlemen, Trustees of the British Museum, in the name of the Darwin Memorial Committee, to request you to accept this statue of Charles Darwin.
We do not make this request for the mere sake of perpetuating a memory; for so long as men occupy themselves with the pursuit of truth, the name of Darwin runs no more risk of oblivion than does that of Copernicus, or that of Harvey.
Nor, most assuredly, do we ask you to preserve the statue in its cynosural position in this entrance-hall of our National Museum of Natural History as evidence that Mr. Darwin’s views have received your official sanction; for science does not recognise such sanctions, and commits suicide when it adopts a creed.
No; we beg you to cherish this Memorial as a symbol by which, as generation after generation of students of Nature enter yonder door, they shall be reminded of the ideal according to which they must shape their lives, if they would turn to the best account the opportunities offered by the great institution under your charge.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51