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A Darwinian Gentleman at Marx's Funeral.(E. Ray Lankester)
Author/s: Stephen Jay Gould
The odd friendship of an evolutionist and a revolutionist
What could possibly be deemed incongruous on a shelf of Victorian bric-a-brac, the ultimate anglophone symbol for miscellany? What, to illustrate the same principle on a larger scale, could possibly seem out of place in London's Highgate Cemetery--the world's most fantastic funerary park of overgrown vegetation and overblown statuary, once described as a "Victorian Valhalla ... a maze of rising terraces, winding paths, tombs and catacombs ... a monument to the Victorian age and to the Victorian attitude to death ... containing some of the most celebrated --and often most eccentric--funerary architecture to be found anywhere" (from Highgate Cemetery, by Felix Barker and John Gay, published in 1984 by John Murray in London, the same firm that printed Darwin's major books --score one for British continuity!)?
Highgate holds an unparalleled variety of mortal remains from Victoria's era--from eminent scientists like Michael Faraday to literary figures like George Eliot, premier pundits like Herbert Spencer, and idols of popular culture like Tom Sayers (one of the last champions of bare-knuckle boxing), to the poignancy of ordinary folks who died too young, like the Hampstead gift "who was burned to death when her dress caught fire" or "Little Jack," described as "a boy missionary," who died at age seven on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1899.
But one monument in Highgate Cemetery might seem conspicuously out of place, at least to people who have forgotten an odd fact from their high school course in European history. The grave of Karl Marx stands almost adjacent to the tomb of his rival and an arch opponent of all state intervention (even for streetlights and sewers), Herbert Spencer. The apparent anomaly only becomes exacerbated by the maximal height of Marx's monument, capped by an outsize bust. (Marx had originally been buried in an inconspicuous spot adorned by a humble marker, but visitors complained that they could not find the site, so in 1954, with funds raised by the British Communist Party, Marx's bones reached higher and more conspicuous ground.) To highlight the peculiarity of his presence, this monument, until the past few years at least, attracted a constant stream of dour, identically suited groups of Russian or Chinese pilgrims, all snapping their cameras or laying their "fraternal" wreaths.
Marx's monument may be out of scale, but his presence could not be more appropriate. Marx lived most of his life in London, following exile from Belgium, Germany, and France for his activity in the Revolutions of 1848 (and for general political troublemaking: he and Friedrich Engels had just published the Communist Manifesto). He arrived in London in August 1848, at age thirty-one, and lived there until his death in 1883. Marx wrote all his mature works as an expatriate in England, where the great (and free) library of the British Museum served as his research base for Das Kapital.
Let me now introduce another anomaly, not so easily resolved this time, about the death of Karl Marx in London. This item, in fact, ranks as my all-time favorite, niggling little incongruity from the history of my profession of evolutionary biology. I have been living with this bothersome fact for twenty-five years, and I pledged long ago to offer some resolution before ending this series of essays at the millennium. I think that I now have the basic answer, and not a moment too soon. Let us, then, return to Highgate Cemetery and to Karl Marx's burial on March 17, 1883.
Engels, Marx's lifelong friend and collaborator (also his financial "angel," thanks to a textile business in Manchester), described the short and modest proceedings (see Philip S. Foner, editor, Karl Marx Remembered: Comments at the Time of His Death, San Francisco: Synthesis Publications, 1983). Engels himself gave a brief speech in English that included the following widely quoted comment: "Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history." Contemporary reports vary somewhat, but the most generous count places only nine mourners at the graveside--a disconnect between immediate notice and later influence exceeded only, perhaps, by Mozart's burial in a pauper's grave (I exclude, of course, famous men like Giordano Bruno and Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, executed by state power and therefore officially denied any funerary rites).
The list, not even a minyan in extent, makes sense (with one exception): Engels himself; Marx's daughter Eleanor (his wife and another daughter had died recently, thus increasing Marx's depression and probably hastening his death); his two French socialist sons-in-law, Charles Longuet and Paul Lafargue; and four nonrelatives with longstanding ties to Marx and impeccable socialist and activist credentials--Wilhelm Liebknecht, a founder and leader of the German Social-Democratic Party (who gave a rousing speech in German, which, together with Engels's English oration, a short statement in French by Longuet, and the reading of two telegrams from workers' parties in France and Spain, built the entire program of the burial); Friedrich Lessner, sentenced to three years in prison at the Cologne communist trial of 1852; G. Lochner, described by Engels as "an old member of the Communist League"; and Carl Schorlemmer, a professor of chemistry in Manchester but also an old communist associate of Marx's and Engels's and a fighter at Baden in the last uprising of the 1848 Revolutions.
But the ninth and last mourner seems to fit about as well as that proverbial snowball in hell or that square peg trying to squeeze into a round hole: E. Ray Lankester (1847-1929), at that time already a prominent young British evolutionary biologist and a leading disciple of Darwin, but later to become--as Professor Sir E. Ray Lankester, K.C.B. (Knight Commander, Order of the Bath), M.A. (the "earned" degree of Oxford or Cambridge), D. Sc. (a later honorary degree as doctor of science), E R. S. (Fellow of the Royal Society, the leading honorary academy of British science)--just about the most celebrated, and the stuffiest, of conventional and socially prominent British scientists. Lankester moved up the academic ladder from exemplary beginnings to a finale of unmatched prominence, serving as professor of zoology at University College London, then as Fullerian professor of physiology at the Royal Institution, and finally as Linacre professor of comparative anatomy at Oxford University. Lankester then capped his career by serving as director (from 1898 to 1907) of the British Museum (Natural History), the most powerful and prestigious post in his field. Why, in heaven's name, was this exemplar of British respectability, this basically conservative scientist's scientist, hanging out with a group of old (and mostly German) communists at the funeral of a person described by Engels, in his graveside oration, as "the best hated and most calumniated man of his times"?
Even Engels seemed to sense the anomaly, for he ended his official report of the funeral, published in Der Sozialdemokrat of Zurich on March 22, 1883, by writing: "The natural sciences were represented by two celebrities of the first rank, the zoology Professor Ray Lankester and the chemistry Professor Schorlemmer, both members of the Royal Society of London." Yes, but Schorlemmer was a countryman, a lifelong associate, and a political ally. Lankester did not meet Marx until 1880 and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a political supporter or even a sympathizer (beyond a very general shared belief in human improvement through education and social progress). As I shall discuss in detail later in this essay, Marx first sought Lankester's advice in recommending a doctor for his ailing wife and daughter, and later for himself. This professional connection evidently developed into a firm friendship. But what could have drawn these maximally disparate people together?
We certainly cannot seek the primary cause for warm sympathy in any radical cast to Lankester's biological work that might have matched the tenor of Marx's efforts in political science. Lankester may rank as the best evolutionary morphologist in the first generation following Darwin's epochal discovery. T.H. Huxley became Lankester's guide and mentor, while Darwin certainly thought well of his research, writing to Lankester (then a young man of twenty-five) on April 15, 1872: "What grand work you did at Naples [at the marine research station]! I can clearly see that you will some day become our first star in Natural History." But Lankester's studies now read as little more than an exemplification and application of Darwin's insights to several specific groups of organisms--a "filling in" that often follows a great theoretical advance and that seems, in retrospect, not overly blessed with originality.
As his most enduring contribution, Lankester proved that the ecologically diverse spiders, scorpions, and horseshoe crabs form a coherent evolutionary group, now called the Chelicerata, within the arthropod phylum. Lankester's research ranged widely from protozoans to mammals. He systematized the terminology and evolutionary understanding of embryology, and he wrote an important paper on degeneration, showing that Darwin's mechanism of natural selection led only to local adaptation, not to general progress, and that such immediate improvement will often be gained (in many parasites, for example) by morphological simplification and loss of organs.
In a fair and generous spirit, one might say that Lankester experienced the misfortune of residing in an "in between" generation that had imbibed Darwin's insights for reformulating biology but did not yet possess the primary tool--an understanding of the mechanism of inheritance--so vitally needed for the next great theoretical step. But people make their own opportunities, and Lankester, by then in his grumpily conservative maturity, professed little use for Mendel's insights upon their rediscovery in the early twentieth century.
In the first biography of Lankester ever published (the document that finally provided me with enough information to write this essay after a gestation period of twenty-five years!), Joseph Lester, with editing and additional material by Peter Bowler, assessed his career in a fair and judicious way (E. Ray Lankester and the Making of British Biology, British Society for the History of Science, 1995):
Evolutionary morphology was one of the great scientific enterprises of the late nineteenth century. By transmuting the experiences gained by their predecessors in the light of the theory of evolution, morphologists such as Lankester threw new light on the nature of organic structures and created an overview of the evolutionary relationships that might exist between different forms.... Lankester gained an international reputation as a biologist, but his name is largely forgotten today. He came onto the scene just too late to be involved in the great Darwinian debate, and his creative period was over before the great revolutions of the early twentieth century associated with the advent of Mendelian genetics. He belonged to a generation whose work has been largely dismissed as derivative, a mere filling in of the basic details of how life evolved.
Lankester's conservative stance deepened with the passing years, thus increasing the anomaly of his early friendship with Karl Marx. His imposing figure only enhanced his aura of staid respectability (Lankester stood well over six feet tall, and he became quite stout, in the manner then favored by men of high station). He spent his years of retirement writing popular articles on natural history for newspapers and collecting them into several successful volumes. But few of these pieces hold up well today, for his writing lacked both the spark and the depth of the great British essayists in natural history: T.H. Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane, J.S. Huxley, and P.B. Medawar.
As the years wore on, Lankester became ever more stuffy and isolated in his elitist attitudes and fealty to a romanticized vision of a more gracious past. He opposed the vote for women and became increasingly wary of democracy and mass action, writing in 1900: "Germany did not acquire its admirable educational system by popular demand.... The crowd cannot guide itself, cannot help itself in its blind impotence." He excoriated all "modern" trends in the arts, especially cubism in painting and self-expression (rather than old-fashioned storytelling) in literature. Writing to H.G. Wells in 1919, he stated: "The rubbish and self-satisfied bosh which pours out now in magazines and novels is astonishing. The authors are so set upon being `clever,' `analytical,' and `up-to-date,' and are really mere prattling infants."
As a senior statesman of science, Lankester kept his earlier relationship with Marx safely hidden. He confessed to his dearest friend and near contemporary, H.G. Wells, that he had known Karl Marx, but he never told the young communist J.B.S. Haldane, whom he befriended late in life and admired greatly. When, upon the fiftieth anniversary of the Highgate burial, the Marx-Engels Institute of Moscow tried to obtain reminiscences from all those who had known Karl Marx, Lankester, by then the only living witness of Marx's funeral, replied curtly that he had no letters and would offer no personal comments.
Needless to say, neither the fate of the world nor the continued progress of evolutionary biology depend to the slightest perceptible degree upon a resolution of this strange affinity between two such different people. But little puzzles gnaw at the soul of any scholar, and answers to small problems sometimes lead to larger insights rooted in the principles utilized for explanation. I believe that I have developed a solution, satisfactory (at least) for the dissolution of my own former puzzlement. But, surprisingly to me, no decisive fact emerged from the literature in which I finally found enough information to write this essay--the recent Lankester biography mentioned above and two excellent articles on the relationship of Marx and Lankester: "The friendship of Edwin Ray Lankester and Karl Marx," by Lewis S. Feuer (Journal of the History of Ideas 40, 1979) and "Marx's Darwinism: a historical note," by Diane B. Paul (Socialist Review 13, 1983). Rather, my proposed solution invokes a principle that may seem disappointing and entirely uninteresting at first but that may embody a generality worth discussing, particularly for the analysis of historical sequences--a common form of inquiry in both human biography and evolutionary biology. In short, I finally realized I had been asking the wrong question all along.
A conventional solution would try to dissolve the anomaly by arguing that Marx and Lankester shared far more similarity in belief or personality than appearances would indicate, or at least that each man hoped to gain something direct and practical from the relationship. But I do not think that this ordinary form of argument can possibly prevail in this case.
To be sure, Lankester maintained a highly complex and, in some important ways, almost secretive personality beneath his aura of establishment respectability. But he displayed no tendencies at all to radicalism in politics, and he surely experienced no Marxist phase in what he might later have regarded as the folly of youth. But Lankester did manifest a fierce independence of spirit, a kind of dumb courage in the great individualistic British tradition of "I'll do as I see fit, and bugger you or the consequences"--an attitude that inevitably attracted all manner of personal trouble but that also might have led Lankester to seek interesting friendships that more timid or opportunistic colleagues would have shunned.
Despite his basically conservative views in matters of biological theory, Lankester was a scrappy fighter by nature, an indomitable contrarian who relished professional debate and never shunned acrimonious controversy. In a remarkable letter, his mentor T.H. Huxley, perhaps the most famous contrarian in the history of British biology, warned his protege about the dangers of sapping time and strength in unnecessary conflict, particularly in the calmer times that had descended after the triumph of Darwin's revolution. Huxley wrote to Lankester on December 6, 1888:
Seriously, I wish you would let an old man, who has had his share of fighting, remind you that battles, like hypotheses, are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.... You have a fair expectation of ripe vigor for twenty years; just think what may be done with that capital. No use to tu quoque ["thou also"--that is, you did it yourself] me. Under the circumstances of the time, warfare has been my business and duty.
To cite the two most public examples of Lankester's dogged defense of science and skepticism, Lankester unmasked the American medium Henry Slade in September 1876. Slade specialized in seances (at high fees), featuring spirits that wrote messages on a slate. Lankester, recognizing Slade's modus operandi, grabbed the slate from the medium's hands just before the spirits should have begun their ghostly composition. The slate already contained the messages supposedly set for later transmission from a higher realm of being. Lankester then charged Slade with defrauding his clients, and a judge sentenced him to three months at hard labor. Slade appealed and won on a technicality. Lankester then filed a new summons, but Slade decided to pack up and return to a more gullible America. (As an interesting footnote in the history of evolutionary theory, the spiritualistically inclined Alfred Russet Wallace testified on Slade's behalf, while Darwin, on the opposite side of rational skepticism, quietly contributed funds for Lankester's efforts in prosecution [see Richard Milner, "Charles Darwin and Associates, Ghostbusters," Scientific American, October 1996].)
Three years later, in the summer of 1879, Lankester visited the laboratory of the great French physician and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. To test his theories on the role of electricity and magnetism in anesthesia, Charcot induced insensitivity by telling a patient to hold an electromagnet, energized by a bichromate battery, in her hand. Charcot then thrust large carpet needles into the patient's affected arm and hand, apparently without causing any pain.
The skeptical Lankester--no doubt remembering the similar and fallacious procedures of Franz Mesmer a century before--suspected psychological suggestion, rather than any physical effect of magnetism, as the cause of anesthesia. When Charcot left the room, Lankester surreptitiously emptied the chemicals from the battery and replaced the fluid with ordinary water, thus disabling the device. He then urged Charcot to repeat the experiment--with the same result of full anesthesia! Lankester promptly confessed what he had done and fully expected to be booted out of Charcot's lab tout de suite. But the great French scientist grabbed his hand and exclaimed, "Well done, monsieur," and a close friendship then developed between the two men.
One additional, and more conjectural, matter must be aired as we try to grasp the extent of Lankester's personal unconventionalities (despite his conservative stance in questions of biological theory) for potential insight into his willingness to ignore the social norms of his time. The existing literature maintains a wall of total silence on this issue, but the pattern seems unmistakable. Lankester remained a bachelor, although he often wrote about his loneliness and his desire for family life. He was twice slated for marriage, but both fiancees broke their engagements for mysterious and unstated reasons. He took long European vacations nearly every year, nearly always to Paris, where he maintained a clear distance from his professional colleagues. Late in life, Lankester became an intimate platonic friend and admirer of the great ballerina Anna Pavlova. I can offer no proof, but if these events don't point toward the love that may now be freely discussed but then dared not speak its name (to paraphrase the one great line written by Oscar Wilde's paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas), well then, Professor Lankester was more mysterious and secretive than even I can imagine.
Still, none of these factors, while they may underscore Lankester's general willingness to engage in contentious and unconventional behavior, can explain any special propensity for friendship with a man like Karl Marx. (In particular, orthodox Marxists have always taken a dim view of personal, particularly sexual, idiosyncrasy as a self-centered diversion from the social goal of revolution.) Lankester did rail against the social conservatives of his day, particularly against hidebound preachers who opposed evolution and university professors who demanded the standard curriculum of Latin and Greek in preference to any newfangled study of natural science.
But his reforming spirit centered only upon the advance of science--and his social attitudes, insofar as he discussed such issues at all, never transcended the vague argument that increasing scientific knowledge must liberate the human spirit, thus leading to political reform and equality of opportunity. Again, this familiar stance of rational scientific skepticism evoked only the disdain of orthodox Marxists, who viewed this position as a bourgeois escape for decent-minded people who lacked the courage to grapple with the true depth of social problems and the consequent need for political revolution. As Feuer states in his article on Marx and Lankester: "Philosophically, moreover, Lankester stood firmly among the agnostics, the followers of Thomas Henry Huxley, whose standpoint Engels derided as a `shamefaced materialism.'"
If Lankester showed so little affinity for Marx's worldview, perhaps we should try the opposite route and ask if Marx had any intellectual or philosophical reason to seek Lankester's company. Again, after debunking some persistent mythology, we can find no evident basis for their friendship.
The mythology centers upon a notorious, if understandable, scholarly error that once suggested far more affinity between Marx and Darwin (or at least a one-way hero worshiping of Darwin by Marx) than corrected evidence can validate. Marx did admire Darwin, and he did send an autographed copy of Das Kapital to the great naturalist; Darwin, in the only recorded contact between the two men, sent a short, polite, and basically contentless letter of thanks. We do know that Darwin (who read German poorly and professed little interest in political science) never spent much time with Marx's magnum opus. All but the first 105 pages in Darwin's copy of Marx's 822-page book remain uncut (as does the table of contents), and Darwin, contrary to his custom when reading books carefully, made no marginal annotations. In fact, we have no evidence that Darwin ever read a word of Das Kapital.
The legend of greater contact began with one of the few errors ever made by one of the finest scholars of this, or any other, century--Isaiah Berlin, in his 1939 biography of Marx. Based on a dubious inference from Darwin's short letter of thanks to Marx, Berlin concluded that Marx had offered to dedicate volume 2 of Kapital to Darwin and that Darwin had politely refused.
This tale of Marx's proffered dedication then gained credence when a second letter, ostensibly from Darwin to Marx but addressed only to "Dear Sir," turned up among Marx's papers in the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. This letter, written on October 13, 1880, does politely decline a suggested dedication: "I Shd. prefer the Part or Volume not be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honor) as it implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing." This second find seemed to seal Isaiah Berlin's case, and the story achieved general currency. (To my embarrassment, and as a reminder of how long these essays have been running in Natural History, I repeated the tale in one of my first columns ["Darwin's Delay," December 1974]--subsequently corrected in the reprinted version of my book Ever Since Darwin.)
To shorten a long story, two scholars, working independently and simultaneously in the mid-1970s, discovered the almost comical basis of the error (see Margaret A. Fay, "Did Marx offer to dedicate Capital to Darwin?" Journal of the History of Ideas 39, 1978, and Lewis S. Feuer, "Is the `Darwin-Marx correspondence' authentic?" Annals of Science 32, 1975). Marx's daughter Eleanor became the common-law wife of the British socialist Edward Aveling. The couple safeguarded Marx's papers for several years, and the 1880 letter, evidently sent by Darwin to Aveling himself, must have strayed into the Marxian collection.
Aveling belonged to a group of radical atheists. He sought Darwin's official approval, and status as dedicatee, for a volume he had edited on Darwin's work and his (that is, Aveling's, not necessarily Darwin's) view of its broader social meaning (published in 1881 as The Student's Darwin, volume 2 in the International Library of Science and Free-thought). Darwin, who understood Aveling's opportunism and cared little for his antireligious militancy, refused with his customary politeness but with no lack of firmness. Darwin ended his letter to Aveling (and not to Marx, who did not treat religion as a primary subject in Das Kapital) by writing:
It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, and I have confined myself to science.
Nonetheless, despite this correction, Marx might still have regarded himself as a disciple of Darwin and might have sought the company of a key Darwinian in the younger generation--a position rendered more plausible by Engels's famous comparison (quoted earlier) in his funerary oration. But this interpretation must also be rejected. Engels maintained far more interest in the natural sciences than Marx ever did (as best expressed in two books, Anti-Duhring and Dialectics of Nature). Marx, as stated above, certainly admired Darwin as a liberator of knowledge from social prejudice and as a useful ally, at least by analogy. In a famous letter of 1869, Marx wrote to Engels about Darwin's Origin of Species: "Although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our view."
But Marx also criticized the social biases in Darwin's formulation, again writing to Engels, and with keen insight:
It is remarkable how Darwin recognizes among beasts and plants his English society with its division of labor, competition, opening up of new markets, `invention,' and the Malthusian `struggle for existence.' It is Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all].
Marx remained a committed evolutionist, of course, but his interest in Darwin clearly diminished through the years. An extensive scholarly literature treats this subject, and I think that Margaret Fay speaks for a consensus when she writes (in her previously cited article):
Marx ... though he was initially excited by the publication of Darwin's Origin ... developed a much more critical stance toward Darwinism, and in his private correspondence of the 1860s poked gentle fun at Darwin's ideological biases. Marx's Ethnological Notebooks, compiled circa 1879-81, in which Darwin is cited only once, provide no evidence that he reverted to his earlier enthusiasm.
To cite one final anecdote, the scholarly literature frequently cites Marx's great enthusiasm (until the more scientifically savvy Engels set him straight) for a curious book, published in 1865 by the now (and deservedly) unknown French explorer and ethnologist Pierre Tremaux, Origine et transformations de l'homme et des autres etres (Origin and transformation of man and other beings). Marx professed ardent admiration for this work, proclaiming it "einen Fortschritt uber Darwin" (an advance over Darwin). The more sober Engels bought the book at Marx's urging, but then dampened his friend's ardor by writing: "I have arrived at the conclusion that there is nothing to his theory if for no other reason than because he neither understands geology nor is capable of the most ordinary literary historical criticism."
I had long been curious about Tremaux and sought a copy of his book for many years. I finally purchased one a few years ago--and I must say that I have never read a more absurd or more poorly documented thesis. Basically, Tremaux argues that the nature of the soil determines national characteristics and that higher civilizations tend to arise on more complex soils formed in later geological periods. If Marx really believed that such unsupported nonsense could exceed the Origin of Species in importance, then he could not have properly understood or appreciated the power of Darwin's facts and ideas.
We must therefore conclude that Lankester harbored no secret sympathy for Marxism and that Marx sought no Darwinian inspiration in courting Lankester's friendship. Our confusion only deepens: What brought these disparate men together? What kind of bond could have nurtured their friendship? The first question, at least, can be answered, and may even suggest a route toward resolving the second puzzle--the central conundrum of this essay.
Four short letters from Lankester remain among Marx's papers. (Marx probably wrote to Lankester as well, but no evidence of such reciprocity has surfaced.) These letters clearly indicate that Marx first approached Lankester for medical advice in the treatment of his wife, who was dying, slowly and painfully, of breast cancer. Lankester suggested that Marx consult his dear friend (and co-conspirator in both the Slade and the Charcot incidents), the physician H.B. Donkin. Marx took Lankester's advice and proclaimed himself well satisfied with the result, as Donkin, whom Marx described as "a bright and intelligent man," cared, with great sensitivity, both for Marx's wife and then for Marx himself in their final illnesses.
We do not know for sure how Marx and Lankester first met, but Lewis Feuer develops an eminently plausible hypothesis in his previously cited article--one, moreover, that may finally lead us to understand the basis of this maximally incongruous pairing. The intermediary may well have been Charles Waldstein, born in New York in 1856, the son of a German Jewish immigrant. Waldstein, who later served as professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge, knew Lankester well when they both lived in London during the late 1870s. Waldstein became an intimate friend of Karl Marx, an experience he remembered warmly in an autobiographical work written in 1917 (when he had attained eminence and respectability under the slightly but portentously altered name of Sir Charles Walston):
In my young days, when I was little more than a boy, about 1877, the eminent Russian legal and political writer ... Professor Kovalevsky, whom I had met at one of G.H. Lewes and George Eliot's Sunday afternoon parties in London, had introduced me to Karl Marx, then living in Hampstead. I had seen very much of this founder of modern theoretic socialism, as well as of his most refined wife; and, though he had never succeeded in persuading me to adopt socialist views, we often discussed the most varied topics of politics, science, literature, and art. Besides learning much from this great man, who was a mine of deep and accurate knowledge in every sphere, I learnt to hold him in high respect and to love the purity, gentleness, and refinement of his big heart. He seemed to find so much pleasure in the mere freshness of my youthful enthusiasm and took so great an interest in my own life and welfare, that one day he proposed that we should become Dutz-freunde.
The last comment is particularly revealing. Modern English has lost its previous distinction between intimate and formal identification ("thou" versus "you"), a difference that remains crucially important--a matter not to be taken lightly--in most European languages. In German, Dutz-freunde address each other with the intimate Du, rather than the formal Sie (just as the verb tutoyer, in French, means literally to use the intimate tu rather than the formal vous). In both nations, especially in the far more conservative social modes of nineteenth-century life, permission to switch from formal to intimate address marked a rare and precious privilege, reserved only for one's family, one's God, one's pets, and one's absolutely dearest friends. If an older and established intellectual like Marx suggested such a change of address to a young man in his early twenties, he must have felt especially close to Charles Waldstein.
Lankester's first letter to Marx, written on September 19, 1880, mentions Waldstein, thus supporting Feuer's conjecture: "I shall be very glad to see you.... I had been intending to return to you the book you kindly lent to me--but had mislaid your address and could not hear from Waldstein who is away from England." Lankester and Waldstein remained close friends throughout their lives. Waldstein's son responded to Feuer's inquiry about his father's relationship with Lankester by writing, in 1978, that he retained a clear childhood memory of "Ray Lankester ... coming to dinner from time to time at my home--a very fat man with a face like a frog."
Waldstein's memories of Marx as a kind man and a brilliant intellectual mentor suggest an evident solution to the enigma of Marx and Lankester--once we recognize that we had been asking the wrong question all along. No error of historical inquiry can match the anachronistic fallacy of using a known outcome to misread a past circumstance that could not possibly have been defined or influenced by events yet to occur. When we ask how a basically conservative biologist like Lankester could have respected and valued the company of an aging agitator like Karl Marx, we can hardly help viewing Marx through the lens of later human catastrophes perpetrated in his name by leaders from Stalin to Pol Pot. Even if we choose to blame Marx, in part, for not foreseeing these possible consequences of his own doctrines, we must still allow that when he died in 1883, these tragedies resided only in an unknowable future. Karl Marx the man who met Lankester in 1880 must not be confused with Karl Marx the posthumous standard-bearer for some of the worst crimes in human history. We err when we pose E. Ray Lankester, the stout and imposing relic of Victorian and Edwardian biology, with Karl Marx, viewed as the supposed rationale for Stalin's murderous career--and then wonder how two such different men could inhabit the same room, much less feel warm ties of friendship.
In 1880 Lankester was a young biologist with a broad view of life and intellect, and an independent streak that cared not a fig for conventional notions of political respectability, whatever his own basically conservative convictions. Lankester, showing a rare range of interests among professional scientists, also loved art and literature and had developed fluency in both German and French. Moreover, Lankester particularly admired the German system of university education, then a proud model of innovation, especially in contrast with the hidebound classicism of Oxford and Cambridge, the object of Lankester's greatest scorn and frustration.
Why should Lankester not have enjoyed, even cherished, the attention of such a remarkable intellect (for that he was, whatever you may think of his doctrines and their consequences) as Karl Marx? What could possibly have delighted Lankester more than the friendship of such a brilliant older man, who knew art, philosophy, and the classics so well and who represented the epitome of German intellectual excellence, the object of Lankester's highest admiration? As for the ill, aging, and severely depressed Karl Marx, what could have brought more solace in the shadow of death than the company of bright, enthusiastic, optimistic young men in the flower of their intellectual development?
Waldstein's memories clearly capture, in an evocative and moving way, this aspect of Marx's persona in his final days. Many scholars have emphasized this feature of Marx's later life. Diane Paul, for example, states that "Marx had a number of much younger friends.... The aging Marx became increasingly difficult in his personal relationships, easily offended and irritated by the behavior of old friends, but he was a gracious mentor to younger colleagues who sought his advice and support." Seen in the appropriate light of their own time, and not with the anachronistic distortion of later events that we can't escape but that they couldn't know, Marx and Lankester seem ideally suited, indeed almost destined, for the warm friendship that actually developed.
All historical studies--whether of human biography or of evolutionary lineages in biology--potentially suffer from this "presentist" fallacy. Modern chroniclers know the outcomes that actually unfolded as unpredictable consequences of past events--and historians often, and inappropriately, judge the motives and actions of their subjects in terms of futures unknowable at the time. Thus, and far too frequently, evolutionists view a small and marginal lineage of pond-dwelling Devonian fishes as higher in the scale of being and destined for success because we know, but only in retrospect, that these organisms spawned all modern terrestrial vertebrates, including our exalted selves. And we overly honor a peculiar species of African primate as central to the forward thrust of evolution because our unique brand of consciousness arose, by contingent good fortune, from such a precarious stock. And as we Northerners once reviled Robert E. Lee as a traitor, we now tend to view him, in a more distant and benevolent light, as a man of principle and a great military leader--although neither extreme position can match or explain this fascinating man in his own time.
A little humility toward the luck of our present circumstances might serve us well. A little more fascination for past realities, freed from judgment by outcomes that only we can know, may help us understand our history, the primary source for our present condition. Perhaps we might borrow a famous line from a broken man who died in sorrow--still a stranger in a strange land, in 1883--but who at least enjoyed the solace of young companions like E. Ray Lankester, a loyal friend who did not shun the funeral of such an unpopular and rejected expatriate.
History reveals patterns and regularities that enhance our potential for understanding. But history also expresses the unpredictable foibles of human passion, ignorance, and dreams of transcendence. We can only understand the meaning of past events in their own terms and circumstances, however legitimately we may choose to judge the motives and intentions of our forebears. Karl Marx began his most famous historical treatise, his study of Napoleon III's rise to power, by writing: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please."
Stephen Jay Gould teaches biology, geology, and the history of science at Harvard University. He is also the Frederick P. Rose Honorary Curator in Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History.
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