Reminiscences of Herbert Spencer.

Francis Galton, 1908.
From Pearson, Life III B: 626-8.

Rough first draft of what I afterwards sent to Mr. Duncan.

Mr. H. Spencer's magnificent intellect was associated with no small degree of oddity, obstinacy and even perversity, difficult to rate in their due proportions. My knowledge of him was chiefly due to a habit of spending an hour or two of the afternoon, during many years, in the then smoking room of the Athenaeum Club, when quiet conversation was easy. He was always interested in my various hobbies and though I did not always accept his criticisms, I received great benefit from them. Let me say parenthetically that to me one of the chief disadvantages of age lies in the diminishing number of friends who care for one's work and fearlessly speak their views. In those long bygone times I could go into the Club and talk with one man an this subject in which he was expert, and with another man on that now it is all changed. Moreover, the relatively young are too diffident in freely pulling to pieces the arguments of a much more elderly friend, so that much wholesome correction is lost to him. Herbert Spencer had assuredly no diffidence in criticising others, though he was very thin-skinned under the converse process. He hated fair argument, and wicked friends asserted, not without grounds, that whenever he felt worsted be fingered his pulse and said abruptly, "I must talk no more." The fact was that excitement really harmed him. He was far too opinionated for candid argument. The following story is characteristic. Some years ago, when I was actively engaged in meteorology, he said to me that we were all wrong in forecasting weather through not taking preceding temperatures into sufficient account; that the earth became chilled by a long frost and its store of cold ought to be recognised, and conversely after a spell of hot weather. He said he would write me a letter on the subject, which he did and at length. My reply was to the effect that the influence in question was not wholly neglected, that it was a vera causa, but far less important than that of change of wind, as shown by the suddenness with which frosts and thaws often set in, and especially by the well-known effects of the south or "fhn" wind on melting Alpine snows. He was clearly imperfectly acquainted with the subject, but for all that he stuck obstinately to his conclusions and afterwards published the contents of his letter (at this moment I forget where) without any recognition of the facts that told against him. Another meteorological view to which he clung with some persistency, which in a narrow sense is right but in a broader sense is wrong, was that the fact of the weather having been, say, dry beyond the average for some months in some particular place, was no justification for the popular belief that the deficiency in rain would be made up later. He insisted on treating the past and future weather as independent variables, which they are not. Local deficiencies in one place testify to local excesses in others, and as the whole atmosphere travels on there is a tendency for the one to replace the other and for averages to be maintained.

He was a most impracticable administrator when put to the test. Thus, there were great complaints at the Athenaeum Club of the way in which the dining-room was managed. He, I and one of the chief of the malcontents happened to be members of its Committee at the time. Spencer argued that experience in dealing with such matters was of comparatively little importance, adducing examples in confirmation, and he finally carried his proposition that a sub-Committee of three should be appointed with large powers, and that it should consist of himself and the malcontent and myself as the third, being professionally unfettered and presumably having leisure. I did not much like the task, but accepted. We met, and a most comically inefficient group we proved to be. There was a continual perversity in Spencer's views, and yet it was always a defensible perversity. He gave what seemed to me a disproportionate weight to small questions, treating them as matters of deep principle to be set forth in ponderous words, with the result that we hardly got on at all. I recollect one amusing scene; our butcher was summoned to be admonished as to the quality of his beef. I forget the precise words used by Spencer, which the butcher rebutted in terms satisfactory to himself, to which Spencer replied with severity: "You seem not to appreciate the nature of our complaint; your beef has too large a proportion of cellular tissue." The butcher fairly collapsed under the weight of this accusation. He could not comprehend it but evidently believed that it might in some obscure way be justified.

As regards heredity-one day he spoke with surprised concern to me upon his learning that the weight of scientific belief was opposed to the inheritance of acquired faculties; for, if they were not inherited, much of his scheme of evolution would be invalidated. I spoke of many observations and arguments by which it seemed to be disproved, but he never I believe consented to go thoroughly and with open mind into this question. I am inclined to think that he unconsciously gave almost as much logical weight to one of his own deductions as he would to a well-observed fact. His over-tendency to a priori reasoning has been fully recognised. He came to me one day to have impressions taken of his fingers, I being at that time much occupied with finger-prints. I spoke of our ignorance of the object of the papillary ridges which form the peculiar patterns on the bulbs of the fingers and which are closely connected with the ducts of the sudorific glands, and said that more careful dissection was still wanted of the human embryo. He said: "You are studying the question in the wrong way, you ought to begin by considering the conditions that have to be fulfilled; the mouths of the ducts being delicate require the protection of the ridges"; and he then enlarged with ingenuity and elaboration on the consequences of this necessity. I wickedly allowed him to finish and then replied: "Your argument ought to be most convincing, but it unfortunately happens that the mouths do not open out in the valleys where they might be protected, but along the crests of the ridges in the most exposed position possible." He burst into a good-humoured fit of laughter and then repeated to me the now well-known story about himself, which curiously enough I have also heard from the other two persons present at the time. My version of it is more dramatic than that in the Autobiography. They formed a party of three, Huxley, Spencer and another, dining together at the Club. In course of conversational banter Spencer said: "You would little think when I was young I wrote a tragedy." Huxley instantly flashed out with "I know its plot." Spencer indignantly denied the possibility of his knowing it, he having never shown the tragedy nor even spoken of its existence to any one, before then. Huxley persisted, and being challenged to tell, said that the plot lay in a beautiful deduction being killed by an ugly little fact.

Spencer had never seen a race, so I succeeded in persuading him to go with me to see the Derby, and I got a clerical but large-hearted Don of a College to join us. Spencer proved rather a kill-joy. He summed up his impressions at the end, after careful thought, under three heads. First, that the general show was just what he had expected; secondly, that a crowd of men was a nasty object, like flies on a plate ; thirdly, that he would never go again. However I was assured that he did, and that in the very next year.

I thought him a man of naturally a very strong constitution, ruined by over-work. When about to utter remarks he was apt to clear his throat by a deep "hem," that testified to a powerful chest. His natural strength is shown by the account in his autobiography of his extraordinary walk, when a boy of 13, while he was half-starved, of more than 40 miles the first day, 40 the second and 20 the third, to his destination.

The mental process I most admired in him was that by which he generalised. It is too common for persons to arrive at general conclusions through unconscious and unchecked steps, so that when asked for evidence they cannot give it.  Spencer had always a store of facts at hand whenever he wished to justify himself. His wealth of ready illustration was marvellous. Notwithstanding my admiration of his intellect and my sense of incompetence to treat subjects in the wide manner that he did so easily, I cannot say that I have profited much by his writings or taken pleasure in them.  I rarely felt "forwarder" for reading them, least so in subjects with which I was familiar and where I felt somewhat entitled to criticise his results.  I am far from being singular in saying this, as few of those with whom I have talked seem to admire his work whole-heartedly, and I have often expressed a wonder how far their nonappreciation would be justified by the judgment of posterity.