From his earliest childhood, Darwin was a collector, though up to the time when, at eight years of age, he went to a preparatory school, seals, franks and similar trifles appear to have been the only objects of his quest. But a stone, which one of his schoolfellows at that time gave to him, seems to have attracted his attention and set him seeking for pebbles and minerals; as the result of this newly acquired taste, he says (writing in 1838) "I distinctly recollect the desire I had of being able to know something about every pebble in front of the hall door--it was my earliest and only geological aspiration at that time." ("M.L." I. page 3.) He further suspects that while at Mr Case's school "I do not remember any mental pursuits except those of collecting stones," etc..."I was born a naturalist." ("M.L." I. page 4.)
The court-yard in front of the hall door at the Mount House, Darwin's birthplace and the home of his childhood, is surrounded by beds or rockeries on which lie a number of pebbles. Some of these pebbles (in quite recent times as I am informed) have been collected to form a "cobbled" space in front of the gate in the outer wall, which fronts the hall door; and a similar "cobbled area," there is reason to believe, may have existed in Darwin's childhood before the door itself. The pebbles, which were obtained from a neighbouring gravel-pit, being derived from the glacial drift, exhibit very striking differences in colour and form. It was probably this circumstance which awakened in the child his love of observation and speculation. It is certainly remarkable that "aspirations" of the kind should have arisen in the mind of a child of 9 or 10!
When he went to Shrewsbury School, he relates "I continued collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically,--all that I cared about was a new-NAMED mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them." ("L.L." I. page 34.)
There has stood from very early times in Darwin's native town of Shrewsbury, a very notable boulder which has probably marked a boundary and is known as the "Bell-stone"--giving its name to a house and street. Darwin tells us in his "Autobiography" that while he was at Shrewsbury School at the age of 13 or 14 "an old Mr Cotton in Shropshire, who knew a good deal about rocks" pointed out to me "...the 'bell-stone'; he told me that there was no rock of the same kind nearer than Cumberland or Scotland, and he solemnly assured me that the world would come to an end before anyone would be able to explain how this stone came where it now lay"! Darwin adds "This produced a deep impression on me, and I meditated over this wonderful stone." ("L.L." I. page 41.)
The "bell-stone" has now, owing to the necessities of building, been removed a short distance from its original site, and is carefully preserved within the walls of a bank. It is a block of irregular shape 3 feet long and 2 feet wide, and about 1 foot thick, weighing probably not less than one-third of a ton. By the courtesy of the directors of the National Provincial Bank of England, I have been able to make a minute examination of it, and Professors Bonney and Watts, with Mr Harker and Mr Fearnsides have given me their valuable assistance. The rock is a much altered andesite and was probably derived from the Arenig district in North Wales, or possibly from a point nearer the Welsh Border. (I am greatly indebted to the Managers of the Bank at Shrewsbury for kind assistance in the examination of this interesting memorial: and Mr H.T. Beddoes, the Curator of the Shrewsbury Museum, has given me some archaeological information concerning the stone. Mr Richard Cotton was a good local naturalist, a Fellow both of the Geological and Linnean Societies; and to the officers of these societies I am indebted for information concerning him. He died in 1839, and although he does not appear to have published any scientific papers, he did far more for science by influencing the career of the school boy!" It was of course brought to where Shrewsbury now stands by the agency of a glacier--as Darwin afterwards learnt.
We can well believe from the perusal of these reminiscences that, at this time, Darwin's mind was, as he himself says, "prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject" of Geology. ("L.L." I. page 41.) When at the age of 16, however, he was entered as a medical student at Edinburgh University, he not only did not get any encouragement of his scientific tastes, but was positively repelled by the ordinary instruction given there. Dr Hope's lectures on Chemistry, it is true, interested the boy, who with his brother Erasmus had made a laboratory in the toolhouse, and was nicknamed "Gas" by his schoolfellows, while undergoing solemn and public reprimand from Dr Butler at Shrewsbury School for thus wasting his time. ("L.L." I. page 35.) But most of the other Edinburgh lectures were "intolerably dull," "as dull as the professors" themselves, "something fearful to remember." In after life the memory of these lectures was like a nightmare to him. He speaks in 1840 of Jameson's lectures as something "I...for my sins experienced!" ("L.L." I. page 340.) Darwin especially signalises these lectures on Geology and Zoology, which he attended in his second year, as being worst of all "incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never so long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science!" ("L.L." I. page 41.)
The misfortune was that Edinburgh at that time had become the cockpit in which the barren conflict between "Neptunism" and Plutonism" was being waged with blind fury and theological bitterness. Jameson and his pupils, on the one hand, and the friends and disciples of Hutton, on the other, went to the wildest extremes in opposing each other's peculiar tenets. Darwin tells us that he actually heard Jameson "in a field lecture at Salisbury Craigs, discoursing on a trap-dyke, with amygdaloidal margins and the strata indurated on each side, with volcanic rocks all around us, say that it was a fissure filled with sediment from above, adding with a sneer that there were men who maintained that it had been injected from beneath in a molten condition." ("L.L." I. pages 41-42.) "When I think of this lecture," added Darwin, "I do not wonder that I determined never to attend to Geology." (This was written in 1876 and Darwin had in the summer of 1839 revisited and carefully studied the locality ("L.L." I. page 290.) It is probable that most of Jameson's teaching was of the same controversial and unilluminating character as this field-lecture at Salisbury Craigs.
There can be no doubt that, while at Edinburgh, Darwin must have become acquainted with the doctrines of the Huttonian School. Though so young, he mixed freely with the scientific society of the city, Macgillivray, Grant, Leonard Horner, Coldstream, Ainsworth and others being among his acquaintances, while he attended and even read papers at the local scientific societies. It is to be feared, however, that what Darwin would hear most of, as characteristic of the Huttonian teaching, would be assertions that chalk-flints were intrusions of molten silica, that fossil wood and other petrifactions had been impregnated with fused materials, that heat--but never water--was always the agent by which the induration and crystallisation of rock-materials (even siliceous conglomerate, limestone and rock-salt) had been effected! These extravagant "anti- Wernerian" views the young student might well regard as not one whit less absurd and repellant than the doctrine of the "aqueous precipitation" of basalt. There is no evidence that Darwin, even if he ever heard of them, was in any way impressed, in his early career, by the suggestive passages in Hutton and Playfair, to which Lyell afterwards called attention, and which foreshadowed the main principles of Uniformitarianism.
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