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The Education of Henry Adams

Darwinism (1867-1868)
POLITICS, diplomacy, law, art, and history had opened no outlet for future energy or
effort, but a man must do something, even in Portland Place, when winter is dark and
winter evenings are exceedingly long. At that moment Darwin was convulsing society.
The geological champion of Darwin was Sir Charles Lyell, and the Lyells were intimate
at the Legation. Sir Charles constantly said of Darwin, what Palgrave said of Tennyson,
that the first time he came to town, Adams should be asked to meet him, but neither of
them ever came to town, or ever cared to meet a young American, and one could not go
to them because they were known to dislike intrusion. The only Americans who were not
allowed to intrude were the half-dozen in the Legation. Adams was content to read
Darwin, especially his "Origin of Species" and his "Voyage of the Beagle." He was a
Darwinist before the letter; a predestined follower of the tide; but he was hardly trained to
follow Darwin's evidences. Fragmentary the British mind might be, but in those days it
was doing a great deal of work in a very un-English way, building up so many and such
vast theories on such narrow foundations as to shock the conservative, and delight the
frivolous. The atomic theory; the correlation and conservation of energy; the mechanical
theory of the universe; the kinetic theory of gases, and Darwin's Law of Natural
Selection, were examples of what a young man had to take on trust. Neither he nor any
one else knew enough to verify them; in his ignorance of mathematics, he was
particularly helpless; but this never stood in his way. The ideas were new and seemed to
lead somewhere -- to some great generalization which would finish one's clamor to be
educated. That a beginner should understand them all, or believe them all, no one could
expect, still less exact. Henry Adams was Darwinist because it was easier than not, for his
ignorance exceeded belief, and one must know something in order to contradict even
such triflers as Tyndall and Huxley.
By rights, he should have been also a Marxist but some narrow trait of the New England
nature seemed to blight socialism, and he tried in vain to make himself a convert. He did
the next best thing; he became a Comteist, within the limits of evolution. He was ready to
become anything but quiet. As though the world had not been enough upset in his time,
he was eager to see it upset more. He had his wish, but he lost his hold on the results by
trying to understand them.
He never tried to understand Darwin; but he still fancied he might get the best part of
Darwinism from the easier study of geology; a science which suited idle minds as well as
though it were history. Every curate in England dabbled in geology and hunted for
vestiges of Creation. Darwin hunted only for vestiges of Natural Selection, and Adams
followed him, although he cared nothing about Selection, unless perhaps for the indirect
amusement of upsetting curates. He felt, like nine men in ten, an instinctive belief in
Evolution, but he felt no more concern in Natural than in unnatural Selection, though he
seized with greediness the new volume on the "Antiquity of Man" which Sir Charles
Lyell published in 1863 in order to support Darwin by wrecking the Garden of Eden. Sir
Charles next brought out, in 1866, a new edition of his "Principles," then the highest text-
book of geology; but here the Darwinian doctrine grew in stature. Natural Selection led
 
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