Today, another visit with Arabella Buckley. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
In 1879, Arabella Buckley wrote to Charles Darwin, begging him
to find a pension for Alfred Wallace. The naturalist Wallace had written his own work
on evolution by natural selection while Darwin was hesitating to publish
Origin of Species. When Wallace learned of Darwin's book, he stood aside
and let Darwin publish first.
Now Wallace was penniless. And, on Buckley's prodding, Darwin went all the way to
the prime minister. He managed to secure something called a Civil List Pension
for Wallace. I find the whole Darwin-Wallace saga very moving, but today our interest
lies not with them. Rather it lies with the remarkable Arabella Buckley.
Buckley was the daughter of a vicar in Brighton, England, born in 1840, and she lived
to the age of 88. When she was 24, the great naturalist Charles Lyell, who had helped
to get Darwin's and Wallace's ideas published, hired her as his secretary.
It was a learning opportunity, and learn she did. In her thirties, she was editing major
scientific treatises. She also began lecturing and writing about biology, for young people.
In 1880 and '83, Buckley finished her two best-known books: Life and her Children,
and Winners in Life's Race.
Those titles trumpet her early understanding of the deeper meaning of evolution. For
she was more than a popularizer. She knew something was missing in the message she was
hearing from Darwin's early followers. Natural selection clearly went beyond simple
dog-eat-dog. She realized that the real "Winners in Life's Race" had to show the
quality of mutual support.
She finishes her book, Life and Her Children, with a powerful paragraph on the
role of self-sacrifice in evolution. She correctly suggests that future biologists will:
learn that the "Struggle for Existence," which has taught [insects] the
lesson of self-sacrifice to the community, [also teaches that the]
devotion of mother to child, and friend to friend ... recognizes that
mutual help and sympathy are among the most powerful weapons [of survival].
Twenty years later, Petr Kropotkin would say exactly the same thing in his profoundly important
book, Mutual Aid. And that was also after Buckley had finished
her last book, Moral Teachings of Science.
In an odd way, Buckley's medium was a part of her message. Nature is hard, but ultimately beautiful.
Throughout her books, are lovely illustrations, and none are as compelling as the initial letters
that begin each chapter. Like an illuminated manuscript, she wreathes the letter I
in ferns; sea creatures lap about the letter W.
Buckley's evolution is subtle, complex, humane, and then (as now) it offered not a whisper of conflict
with her strong religious convictions. In Life and Her Children, she says of evolution,
There has been no halting in this work from the day when first into our planet
from the bosom of the great creator was breathed the breath of life, -- the
invisible mother ever taking shape in her children.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A. B. Buckley (Mrs. Fisher), Life and Her Children. (London: Edward
Stanford, 1892/1880). (See the book cover below.)
Several of Buckley's books may be read on line at:
R. Colp, Jr., "I Will Gladly Do My Best" How Charles Darwin Obtained a Civil List Pension
for Alfred Russel Wallace. Isis, Vol. 83, No. 1, 1983, pp. 2-26.
See also an earlier episode on Arabella Buckley, No. 943.
To view all of the Chapter Initial letters from Life and Her Children, CLICK HERE.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.