Thursday 12 February 2009

An Unwelcome Guest

The present day. A large town-house in Hampstead. In the lounge are seated four persons: Dr and Mrs Ashmarr, he, an academic, she a publisher; Mr Hipkins, a science-writer; and Miss Treadwell, a journalist. They await the arrival of Mr Charles Darwin, who has been brought back from the grave for the evening in celebration of his two hundredth birthday. [The reader is welcome to petition the writer for technical details on how this resurrection was effected, or why Mr Darwin would spend his brief time in such company. The writer regrets, however, that, owing to many pressing matters, he cannot guarantee that he will have the time to supply an answer.] The doorbell rings, and a Polish servant-girl goes to answer it. A few moments later, Mr Darwin enters the lounge at the sound of laughter.

Dr Ashmarr. Ah, my dear Mr Darwin, what a miracle it is that brings you here! Forgive us. You catch us in a nervous state. My wife was just amusing us with her impression of the Mayor of London. Please come in and let me introduce you. [He does so.]
Mr Darwin. You are all most kind. [He takes a seat, and so as to break the ice, begins somewhat nervously to speak.] As bearing on the subject of imitation, the strong tendency in our nearest allies, the monkeys, in microcephalous idiots, and in the barbarous races of mankind, to imitate whatever they hear deserves notice. [1]
Mrs Ashmarr. I beg you pardon?
Mr Darwin. Ah, madam, I beg yours! I did not mean to suggest . . .
Dr Ashmarr. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, we are here to celebrate the two hundredth birthday of our honoured guest, Mr Charles Darwin, a genius, I hope you don’t mind my saying, and a man of whom this country can be justly proud. The whole world owes you a great debt.
Mr Hipkins. Indeed, you have brought great intellectual fulfilment to men such as I.
Miss Treadwell. Hear, hear!
Mrs Ashmarr. Bravo!
Mr Darwin. I thank you all for your kind words. I must say that everything has been most queer for me today. I can see that much has changed.
Mr Hipkins. It has, Mr Darwin, and you are impressed, no doubt, by the progress that has been made.
Mr Darwin. I am shocked, sir, though I dare say I have not seen the half of it. Tell me, how is our noble race faring on the whole?
Mr Hipkins. Our noble race?
Mr Darwin. The English. They are still a noble race, are they not? [2]
Dr Ashmarr. Ah, Mr Darwin, forgive me, but we do not speak of ourselves that way any more.
Mr Darwin. Then it is as I feared. ’Tis all too true that the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. [3] With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. [4]
Miss Treadwell. But that is frightful!
Dr Ashmarr. Mr Darwin, are you seriously suggesting that we remove our aid from those less fortunate from ourselves?
Mr Darwin. Not at all, sir. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. . . . Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. [5]
Mr Hipkins. It is true that many now refrain from marriage.
Mr Darwin. Well, that is splendid! Then there is hope.
Mr Hipkins. Err . . . of course.
Dr Ashmarr. But of progress, Mr Darwin, there is still much to be done. The dreadful inequality that still blights this country is enough to shame us all.
Mr Darwin. But this is far from an unmixed evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending, their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. [6]
Miss Treadwell. Mr Darwin, you forget yourself. This is the twenty-first century. We do not speak of savage and civilised peoples, let alone . . . Such terms are vague and inappropriate.
Mrs Ashmarr. Oh, Mr Darwin, we are shameful — we have not offered you a drink!
Mr Darwin. That is of no consequence, madam. A small sherry should suffice, if you don’t mind.
Mrs Ashmarr (to the servant-girl). Aniela, fetch Mr Darwin a small sherry, would you?
Mr Hipkins. We understand that you have been away a long time, Mr Darwin, but I must say to you that we no longer admit race as a valid concept.
Mr Darwin. There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,—as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of structural difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties. [7]
Mr Hipkins. Not any more.
Mr Darwin. I . . .
Dr Ashmarr. We have progressed beyond all that, Mr Darwin.
Mr Hipkins. Naturally, ha-ha, we do not look to natural selection for the progress of civilisation.
Mr Darwin. I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilisation than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world. [8] I see how the Anglo-Saxon race will have spread and exterminated whole nations; and in consequence how much the human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank. [9]

[Mrs Ashmarr gives out a yelp. Miss Treadwell drops a glass. Mr Hipkins gapes in horror.]

Dr Ashmarr. But that is monstrous! That’s not what we mean by progress at all!
Mr Darwin. Oh dear, have I said something out of turn?
Miss Treadwell. You, Mr Darwin, are a savage.
Mr Darwin. You mean I am not civilised?
Miss Treadwell. I mean precisely that. Besides, you are quite wrong. We are becoming diverse, Mr Darwin, yes, vibrant and diverse! Things are changing, progress is being made. Europe will no longer be hideously white. Your beloved race will disappear. We shall make sure of it.
Dr Ashmarr. I think, Mr Darwin, that I speak for everyone here in declaring that you are no longer welcome.
Mr Darwin. But . . .
Dr Ashmarr. Aniela, show Mr Darwin to the door.

[Aniela leads the bewildered Mr Darwin out of the room.]

Mrs Ashmarr. Oh, what a frightful man! I had no idea! He’s not at all as he appears in the Sunday-supplements.

[1] [“As bearing . . . notice.”] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex, Vol. I. (London: John Murray, 1871), pp.56-7.
[2] [“a noble race.”] C.R. Darwin, Letter to Syms Covington, 23rd November 1850, transcribed and published online for the Darwin Correspondence Project.
[3] [“the reckless . . . members.”] C.R. Darwin, The Descent of Man, p.174.
[4] [“With savages . . . to breed.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., p.168.
[5] [“Nor could . . . from marriage.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., pp.168-9.
[6] [“But this is far from . . . lower races.”] C.R. Darwin, ibid., p.169.
[7] [“There is . . . faculties.”] Charles Darwin, ibid., p.216.
[8] [“I could show . . . the world.”] C.R. Darwin, Letter to William Graham, 3rd July 1881, op.cit.
[9] [“how the Anglo-Saxon race . . . risen in rank.” ] to C.R. Darwin, Letter to Charles Kingsley, 6th February 1862, op.cit.; minor changes made to format.