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Chapter 4


Scarcely had Darwin taken his pass degree at Cambridge when the great event of his life occurred which, more than anything else perhaps, gave the final direction to his categorical genius in the line it was thenceforth so successfully to follow. In the autumn of 1831, when Darwin was just twenty-two, it was decided by Government to send a ten-gun brig, the 'Beagle,' under command of Captain Fitzroy, to complete the unfinished survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, to map out the shores of Chili and Peru, to visit several of the Pacific archipelagoes, and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the whole world. This was an essentially scientific expedition, and Captain Fitzroy, afterwards so famous as the meteorological admiral, was a scientific officer of the highest type. He was anxious to be accompanied on his cruise by a competent naturalist who would undertake the collection and preservation of the animals and plants discovered on the voyage, for which purpose he generously offered to give up a share of his own cabin accommodation. Professor Henslow seized upon the opportunity to recommend for the post his promising pupil, young Darwin, 'grandson of the poet.' Darwin gladly volunteered his services without salary, and partly paid his own expenses on condition of being permitted to retain in his own possession the animals and plants he collected on the journey. The 'Beagle' set sail from Devonport on December the 27th, 1831; she returned to Falmouth on October the 2nd, 1836.

That long five years' cruise around the world, the journal of which Darwin has left us in the 'Voyage of the "Beagle,"' proved a marvellous epoch in the great naturalist's quiet career. It left its abiding mark deeply imprinted on all his subsequent life and thinking. Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin were cabinet biologists, who had never beheld with their own eyes the great round world and all that therein is; Charles Darwin had the inestimable privilege of seeing for himself, at first hand, a large part of the entire globe and of the creatures that inhabit it. Even to have caught one passing glimpse of the teeming life of the tropics is in itself an education; to the naturalist it is more, it is a revelation. Our starved little northern fauna and flora, the mere leavings of the vast ice sheets that spread across our zone in the glacial epoch, show us a world depopulated of all its largest, strangest, and fiercest creatures; a world dwarfed in all its component elements, and immensely differing in ten thousand ways from that rich, luxuriant, over-stocked hot-house in which the first great problems of evolution were practically worked out by survival of the fittest. But the tropics preserve for us still in all their jungles something of the tangled, thickly-peopled aspect which our planet must have presented for countless ages in all latitudes before the advent of primæval man. We now know that throughout the greater part of geological time, essentially tropical conditions existed unbroken over the whole surface of the entire earth, from the Antarctic continent to the shores of Greenland; so that some immediate acquaintance at least with the equatorial world is of immense value to the philosophical naturalist for the sake of the analogies it inevitably suggests; and it is a significant fact that almost all those great and fruitful thinkers who in our own time have done good work in the wider combination of biological facts have themselves passed a considerable number of years in investigating the conditions of tropical nature. Europe and England are at the ends of the earth; the tropics are biological head-quarters. The equatorial zone is therefore the true school for the historian of life in its more universal and lasting aspects.

Nor was that all. The particular countries visited by the 'Beagle' during the course of her long and varied cruise happened to be exactly such as were naturally best adapted for bringing out the latent potentialities of Darwin's mind, and suggesting to his active and receptive brain those deep problems of life and its environment which he afterwards wrought out with such subtle skill and such consummate patience in the 'Origin of Species' and the 'Descent of Man.' The Cape de Verdes, and the other Atlantic islands, with their scanty population of plants and animals, composed for the most part of waifs and strays drifted to their barren rocks by ocean currents, or blown out helplessly to sea by heavy winds; Brazil, with its marvellous contrasting wealth of tropical luxuriance and self-strangling fertility, a new province of interminable delights to the soul of the enthusiastic young collector; the South American pampas, with their colossal remains of extinct animals, huge geological precursors of the stunted modern sloths and armadillos that still inhabit the self-same plains; Tierra del Fuego, with its almost Arctic climate, and its glimpses into the secrets of the most degraded savage types; the vast range of the Andes and the Cordilleras, with their volcanic energy and their closely crowded horizontal belts of climatic life; the South Sea Islands, those paradises of the Pacific, Hesperian fables true, alike for the lover of the picturesque and the biological student; Australia, that surviving fragment of an extinct world, with an antiquated fauna whose archaic character still closely recalls the European life of ten million years back in the secondary epoch: all these and many others equally novel and equally instructive passed in long alternating panorama before Darwin's eyes, and left their images deeply photographed for ever after on the lasting tablets of his retentive memory. That was the real great university in which he studied nature and read for his degree. Our evolutionist was now being educated.

Throughout the whole of the journal of this long cruise, which Darwin afterwards published in an enlarged form, it is impossible not to be struck at every turn with the way in which his inquisitive mind again and again recurs to the prime elements of those great problems towards whose solution he afterwards so successfully pointed out the path. The Darwinian ideas are all already there in the germ; the embryo form of the 'Origin of Species' plays in and out on every page with the quaintest elusiveness. We are always just on the very point of catching it; and every now and again we do actually all but catch it in essence and spirit, though ever still its bodily shape persistently evades us. Questions of geographical distribution, of geological continuity, of the influence of climate, of the modifiability of instinct, of the effects of surrounding conditions, absorb the young observer's vivid interest at every step, wherever he lands. He is all unconsciously collecting notes and materials in profuse abundance for his great work; he is thinking in rough outline the new thoughts which are hereafter to revolutionise the thought of humanity.

Five years are a great slice out of a man's life: those five years of ceaseless wandering by sea and land were spent by Charles Darwin in accumulating endless observations and hints for the settlement of the profound fundamental problems in which he was even then so deeply interested. The 'Beagle' sailed from England to the Cape de Verdes, and already, even before she had touched her first land, the young naturalist had observed with interest that the impalpably fine dust which fell on deck contained no less than sixty-seven distinct organic forms, two of them belonging to species peculiar to South America. In some of the dust he found particles of stone so very big that they measured 'above the thousandth of an inch square;' and after this fact, says the keen student, 'one need not be surprised at the diffusion of the far lighter and smaller sporules of cryptogamic plants.' Would Erasmus Darwin have noticed these minute points and their implications one wonders? Probably not. May we not see in the observation partly the hereditary tendencies of Josiah Wedgwood towards minute investigation and accuracy of detail, partly the influence of the scientific time-wave, and the careful training under Professor Henslow? Erasmus Darwin comes before us rather as the brilliant and ingenious amateur, his grandson Charles as the instructed and fully equipped final product of the scientific schools.

At St. Paul's Rocks, once more, a mass of new volcanic peaks rising abruptly from the midst of the Atlantic, the naturalist of the 'Beagle' notes with interest that feather and dirt-feeding and parasitic insects or spiders are the first inhabitants to take up their quarters on recently formed oceanic islands. This problem of the peopling of new lands, indeed, so closely connected with the evolution of new species, necessarily obtruded itself upon his attention again and again during his five years' cruise; and in some cases, especially that of the Galapagos Islands, the curious insular faunas and floras which he observed upon this trip, composed as they were of mere casual straylings from adjacent shores, produced upon his mind a very deep and lasting impression, whose traces one may without difficulty discern on every second page of the 'Origin of Species.'

On the last day of February, 1832, the 'Beagle' came to anchor in the harbour of Bahia, and young Darwin caught sight for the first time of the mutually strangling luxuriance of tropical vegetation. Nowhere on earth are the finest conditions of tropical life more fully realised than in the tangled depths of the great uncleared Brazilian forests, which everywhere gird round like a natural palisade with their impenetrable belt the narrow and laborious clearings of over-mastered man. The rich alluvial silt of mighty river systems, the immemorial manuring of the virgin soil, the fierce energy of an almost equatorial sun, and the universal presence of abundant water, combine to make life in that marvellous region unusually wealthy, varied, and crowded, so that the struggle for existence is there perhaps more directly visible to the seeing eye than in any other known portion of God's universe. 'Delight itself,' says Darwin in his journal, with that naive simplicity which everywhere forms the chief charm of his direct and unaffected literary style—'delight itself is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who for the first time has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration.' In truth, among those huge buttressed trunks, overhung by the unbroken canopy of foliage on the vast spreading and interlacing branches, festooned with lianas and drooping lichens, or beautified by the pendent alien growth of perfumed orchids, Darwin's mind must indeed have found congenial food for apt reflection, and infinite opportunities for inference and induction. Prom the mere picturesque point of view, indeed, the naturalist enjoys such sights as this a thousand times more truly and profoundly than the mere casual unskilled observer: for it is a shallow, self-flattering mistake of vulgar and narrow minds to suppose that fuller knowledge and clearer insight can destroy or impair the beauty of beautiful objects—as who should imagine that a great painter appreciates the sunset less than a silly boy or a sentimental schoolgirl. As a matter of fact, the naturalist knows and admires a thousand exquisite points of detail in every flower and every insect which only he himself and the true artist can equally delight in. And a keen intellectual and æsthetic joy in the glorious fecundity and loveliness of nature was everywhere present to Darwin's mind. But, beyond and above even that, there was also the architectonic delight of the great organiser in the presence of a noble organised product: the peculiar pleasure felt only by the man in whose broader soul all minor details fall at once into their proper place, as component elements in one great consistent and harmonious whole—a sympathetic pleasure akin to that with which an architect views the interior of Ely and of Lincoln, or a musician listens to the linked harmonies of the 'Messiah' and the 'Creation.' The scheme of nature was now unfolding itself visibly and clearly before Charles Darwin's very eyes.

After eighteen memorable days spent with unceasing delight at Bahia, the 'Beagle' sailed again for Rio, where Darwin stopped for three months, to improve his acquaintance with the extraordinary wealth of the South American fauna and flora. Collecting insects was here his chief occupation, and it is interesting to note even at this early period how his attention was attracted by some of those strange alluring devices on the part of the males for charming their partners which afterwards formed the principal basis for his admirable theory of sexual selection, so fully developed in the 'Descent of Man.' 'Several times,' he says, 'when a pair [of butterflies], probably male and female, were chasing each other in an irregular course, they passed within a few yards of me; and I distinctly heard a clicking noise, similar to that produced by a toothed wheel passing under a spring catch.' In like manner he observed here the instincts of tropical ants, the habits of phosphorescent insects, and the horrid practice of that wasp-like creature, the sphex, which stuffs the clay cells of its larvæ full of half-dead spiders and writhing caterpillars, so stung with devilish avoidance of vital parts as to be left quite paralysed yet still alive, as future food for the developing grubs. Cases like these helped naturally to shake the young biologist's primitive faith in the cheap and crude current theories of universal beneficence, and to introduce that wholesome sceptical reaction against received dogma which is the necessary ground-work and due preparation for all great progressive philosophical thinking.

In July they set sail again for Monte Video, where the important question of climate and vegetation began to interest young Darwin's mind. Uruguay is almost entirely treeless; and this curious phenomenon, in a comparatively moist sub-tropical plain-land, struck him as a remarkable anomaly, and set him speculating on its probable cause. Australia, he remembered, was far more arid, and yet its interior was everywhere covered by whole forests of quaint indigenous gum-trees. Could it be that there were no trees adapted to the climate? As yet, the true causes of geographical distribution had not clearly dawned upon Darwin's mind; but that a young man of twenty-three should seriously busy himself about such problems of ultimate causation at all is in itself a sufficiently pointed and remarkable phenomenon. It was here, too, that he first saw that curious animal, the Tucutuco, a true rodent with the habits of a mole, which is almost always found in a blind condition. With reference to this singular creature, there occurs in his journal one of those interesting anticipatory passages which show the rough workings of the distinctive evolutionary Darwinian concept in its earlier stages. 'Considering the strictly subterranean habits of the Tucutuco,' he writes, 'the blindness, though so common, cannot be a very serious evil; yet it appears strange that any animal should possess an organ frequently subject to be injured. Lamarck would have been delighted with this fact, had he known it, when speculating (probably with more truth than usual with him) on the gradually acquired blindness of the Aspalax, a gnawer living under the ground, and of the Proteus, a reptile living in dark caverns filled with water; in both of which animals the eye is in an almost rudimentary state, and is covered by a tendinous membrane and skin. In the common mole the eye is extraordinarily small but perfect, though many anatomists doubt whether it is connected with the true optic nerve; its vision must certainly be imperfect, though probably useful to the animal when it leaves its burrow. In the Tucutuco, which I believe never comes to the surface of the ground, the eye is rather larger, but often rendered blind and useless, though without apparently causing any inconvenience to the animal: no doubt Lamarck would have said that the Tucutuco is now passing into the state of the Aspalax and Proteus.' The passage is instructive both as showing that Darwin was already familiar with Lamarck's writings, and as pointing out the natural course of his own future development.

For the two years from her arrival at Monte Video, the 'Beagle' was employed in surveying the eastern coast of South America; and Darwin enjoyed unusual opportunities for studying the geology, the zoology, and the botany of the surrounding districts during all that period. It was a suggestive field indeed for the young naturalist. The curious relationship of the gigantic fossil armour-plated animals to the existing armadillo, of the huge megatherium to the modern sloths, and of the colossal ant-eaters to their degenerate descendants at the present day, formed one of the direct inciting causes to the special study which produced at last the 'Origin of Species.' In the Introduction to that immortal work Darwin wrote, some twenty-seven years later, 'When on board H.M.S. "Beagle" as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.' And in the body of the work itself he refers over and over again to numberless observations made by himself during this period of rapid psychological development—observations on the absence of recent geological formations along the lately upheaved South American coast; on the strange extinction of the horse in La Plata; on the affinities of the extinct and recent species; on the effect of minute individual peculiarities in preserving life under special circumstances; and on the influence of insects and blood-sucking bats in determining the existence of the larger naturalised mammals in parts of Brazil and the Argentine Republic. It was the epoch of wide collection of facts, to be afterwards employed in brilliant generalisations: the materials for the 'Origin of Species' were being slowly accumulated in the numberless pigeon-holes of the Darwinian memory.

Among the facts thus industriously gathered by Darwin in the two years spent on the South American coast were several curious instincts of the cuckoo-like molothrus, of the owl of the Pampas, and of the American ostrich. A few sentences scattered here and there through this part of the 'Naturalist's Journal' may well be extracted in the present place as showing, better than any mere secondhand description could do, the slow germinating process of the 'Origin of Species.' In speaking of the toxodon, that strange extinct South American mammal, the young author remarks acutely that, though in size it equalled the elephant and the megatherium, the structure of its teeth shows it to be closely allied to the ruminants, while several other details link it to the pachyderms, and its aquatic peculiarities of ear and nostril approximate it rather to the manatee and the dugong. 'How wonderfully,' he says, 'are the different orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the toxodon.' We now know that unspecialised ancestral forms always display this close union of peculiarities afterwards separately developed in distinct species of their later descendants.

Still more pregnant with evolutionism in the bud is the prophetic remark about a certain singular group of South American birds, 'This small family is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organised beings have been created.' Of the agouti, once more, that true friend of the desert, Darwin notes that it does not now range as far south as Port St. Julian, though Wood in 1670 found it abundant there; and he asks suggestively, 'What cause can have altered, in a wide, uninhabited, and rarely visited country, the range of an animal like this?' Again, when speaking of the analogies between the extinct camel-like macrauchenia and the modern guanaco, as well as of those between the fossil and living species of South American rodents, he says, with even more prophetic insight, 'This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts.' He was himself destined in another thirty years to prove the truth of his own vaticination.

A yet more remarkable passage in the 'Journal of the "Beagle,"' though entered under the account of events observed in the year 1834, must almost certainly have been written somewhat later, and subsequently to Darwin's first reading of Malthus's momentous work, 'The Principle of Population,' which (as we know from his own pen) formed a cardinal point in the great biologist's mental development. It runs as follows in the published journal: [1]—'We do not steadily bear in mind how profoundly ignorant we are of the conditions of existence of every animal; nor do we always remember that some check is constantly preventing the too rapid increase of every organised being left in a state of nature. The supply of food, on an average, remains constant; yet the tendency in every animal to increase by propagation is geometrical, and its surprising effects have nowhere been more astonishingly shown than in the case of the European animals run wild during the last few centuries in America. Every animal in a state of nature regularly breeds; yet in a species long established any great increase in numbers is obviously impossible, and must be checked by some means.' Aut Malthus aut Diabolus. And surely here, if anywhere at all, we tremble on the very verge of natural selection.

It would be impossible to follow young Darwin in detail through his journey to Buenos Ayres, and up the Parana to Santa Fé, which occupied the autumn of 1833. In the succeeding year he visited Patagonia and the Falkland Islands, having previously made his first acquaintance with savage life among the naked Fuegians of the extreme southern point of the continent. Some of these interesting natives, taken to England by Captain Fitzroy on a former visit, had accompanied the 'Beagle' through all her wanderings, and from them Darwin obtained that close insight into the workings of savage human nature which he afterwards utilised with such conspicuous ability in the 'Descent of Man.' Through Magellan's Straits the party made their way up the coasts of Chili, and Darwin had there an opportunity of investigating the geology and biology of the Cordillera. The year 1835 was chiefly spent in that temperate country and in tropical Peru; and as the autumn went on, the 'Beagle' made her way across a belt of the Pacific to the Galapagos archipelago.

Small and unimportant as are those little equatorial islands from the geographical and commercial point of view, they will yet remain for ever classic ground to the biologists of the future from their close connection with the master-problems of the 'Origin of Species.' Here more, perhaps, than anywhere else the naturalist of the 'Beagle' found himself face to face in real earnest with the ultimate questions of creation or evolution. A group of tiny volcanic islets, never joined to any land, nor even united to one another, yet each possessing its own special zoological features—the Galapagos roused to an extraordinary degree the irresistible questionings of Darwin's mind. They contain no frogs, and no mammal save a mouse, brought to them, no doubt, by some passing ship. The only insects are beetles, which possess peculiar facilities for being transported in the egg or grub across salt water upon floating logs. There are two kinds of snake, one tortoise, and four lizards; but, in striking contrast to this extreme poverty of terrestrial forms, there are at least fifty-five distinct species of native birds. A few snails complete the list. Now most of these animals, though closely resembling the fauna of Ecuador, the nearest mainland, are specifically distinct; they have varied (as we now know) from their continental types owing to natural selection under the new circumstances in which they have been placed. But Darwin had not yet evolved that potent key to the great riddle of organic existence. He saw the problem, but not its solution. 'Most of the organic productions,' he says plainly, 'are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands: yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean, between 500 and 600 miles in width.... Considering the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava-streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period geologically recent the unbroken sea was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time we seem to be brought somewhat nearer to that great fact—that mystery of mysteries—the first appearance of new beings on this earth.' Among the most singular of these zoological facts may be mentioned the existence in the Galapagos archipelago of a genus of gigantic and ugly lizard, the amblyrhyncus, unknown elsewhere, but here assuming the forms of two species, the one marine and the other terrestrial. In minuter points, the differences of fauna and flora between the various islands are simply astounding, so as to compel the idea that each form must necessarily have been developed not merely for the group, but for the special island which it actually inhabits. No wonder that Darwin should say in conclusion, 'One is astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands; and still more so at its diverse, yet analogous, action on points so near each other.' Here again, in real earnest, the young observer trembles visibly on the very verge of natural selection. In the 'Origin of Species' he makes full use, more than once, of the remarkable facts he observed with so much interest in these tiny isolated oceanic specks of the American galaxy.

From the Galapagos the 'Beagle' steered a straight course for Tahiti, and Darwin then beheld with his own eyes the exquisite beauty of the Polynesian Islands. Thence they sailed for New Zealand, the most truly insular large mass of land in the whole world, supplied accordingly with a fauna and flora of most surprising meagreness and poverty of species. In the woods, our observer noted very few birds, and he remarks with astonishment that so big an island—as large as Great Britain—should not possess a single living indigenous mammal, save a solitary rat of doubtful origin. Australia and Tasmania, with their antiquated and stranded marsupial inhabitants, almost completed the round trip. Keeling Island next afforded a basis for the future famous observations upon coral reefs; and thence by Mauritius, St. Helena, Ascension, Bahia, Pernambuco, and the beautiful Azores, the 'Beagle' made her way home by slow stages to England, which she reached in safety on October the 2nd, 1836. What an ideal education for the future reconstructor of biological science! He had now all his problems cut and dried, ready to his hand, and he had nothing important left to do—except to sit down quietly in his study, and proceed to solve them. Observation and collection had given him one half the subject-matter of the 'Origin of Species;' reflection and Malthus were to give him the other half. Never had great mind a nobler chance; never, again, had noble chance a great mind better adapted by nature and heredity to make the most of it. The man was not wanting to the opportunity, nor was the opportunity wanting to the man. Organism and environment fell together into perfect harmony; and so, by a lucky combination of circumstances, the secret of the ages was finally wrung from not unwilling nature by the far-seeing and industrious volunteer naturalist of the 'Beagle' expedition.

It would be giving a very false idea of the interests which stirred Charles Darwin's mind during his long five years' voyage, however, if we were to dwell exclusively upon the biological side of his numerous observations on that memorable cruise. Ethnology, geology, oceanic phenomena, the height of the snow-line, the climate of the Antarctic islands, the formation of icebergs, the transport of boulders, the habits and manners engendered by slavery, all almost equally aroused in their own way the young naturalist's vivid interest. Nowhere do we get the faintest trace of narrow specialism; nowhere are we cramped within the restricted horizon of the mere vulgar beetle-hunter and butterfly-catcher. The biologist of the 'Beagle' had taken the whole world of science for his special province. Darwin's mind with all its vastness was not, indeed, profoundly analytical. The task of working out the psychological and metaphysical aspects of evolution fell rather to the great organising and systematising intellect of Herbert Spencer. But within the realm of material fact, and of the widest possible inferences based upon such fact, Darwin's keen and comprehensive spirit ranged freely over the whole illimitable field of nature. 'No one,' says Buckle with unwonted felicity, 'can have a firm grasp of any science if, by confining himself to it, he shuts out the light of analogy. He may, no doubt, work at the details of his subject; he may be useful in adding to its facts; he will never be able to enlarge its philosophy. For the philosophy of every department depends on its connection with other departments, and must therefore be sought at their points of contact. It must be looked for in the place where they touch and coalesce: it lies, not in the centre of each science, but on the confines and margin.' This profound truth Darwin fully and instinctively realised. It was the all-embracing catholicity of his manifold interests that raised him into the greatest pure biologist of all time, and that enabled him to co-ordinate with such splendid results the raw data of so many distinct and separate sciences. And even as early as the days of the cruise in the 'Beagle,' that innate catholicity had already asserted itself in full vigour. Now it is a party of Gauchos throwing the bola that engages for the moment his eager attention; and now again it is a group of shivering Fuegians, standing naked with their long hair streaming in the wind on a snowy promontory of their barren coast. Here he examines the tubular lightning-holes melted in the solid rock of Maldonado by the electric energy; and there he observes the moving boulder-streams that course like torrents down the rugged corries of the Falkland Islands. At one time he works upon the unstudied geology of the South American Pampas; at another, he inspects the now classical lagoon and narrow fringing reef of the Keeling archipelago. Everywhere he sees whatever of most noteworthy in animate or inanimate nature is there to be seen; and everywhere he draws from it innumerable lessons, to be applied hereafter to the special field of study upon which his intense and active energies were finally concentrated. It is not too much to say, indeed, that it was the voyage of the 'Beagle' which gave us in the last resort the 'Origin of Species' and its great fellow the 'Descent of Man.'

[1] The full narrative was first given to the world in 1839, some three years after Darwin's return to England, so that much of it evidently represents the results of his maturer thinking and reading on the facts collected during his journey round the world.

Grant Allen

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