Charles Darwin - Great Scientist or Charlatan and Swindler?

Charles Darwin is famous for proposing the accepted theory of evolution. It is often referred to as 'Darwinism' in his honour. Along with Newton and Einstein, he is one of the three most famous scientists ever to have lived. Many believe him to be Britain's greatest scientist. He was well ahead of Newton and Maxwell in the BBC's 2002 poll of '100 Greatest Britons'. Indeed, he came fourth overall, behind only Churchill, Brunel and (misplaced because she had just died) Princess Diana. He is universally admired, except by religious extremists. His peers venerated him so much that they hijacked his body and, against his wishes, had it buried in Westminster Abbey.

For any evolution novices, we should explain some terms used below. Evolution here means 'biological evolution' : the change in living things over time. It is driven by a process known as 'descent with modification', which means that living things pass on traits, some of which vary within a species population, to their offspring. Over many generations small variations can accumulate to make major changes within a species population.

In some circumstances a species population may physically divide, resulting in different changes within the separate groups. In some such cases, individuals from one group no longer reproduce with individuals from the other, which means that a new species has been created. The process of creating new species is usually referred to as 'speciation'. Every species of plant and animal on earth was created by this process. Their lineage can be traced back through common ancestors to a single reproducing organism that lived some 3.5 billion years ago.

Speciation operates through three main mechanisms: 'gene mutation', 'genetic drift' and 'natural selection'. These can work independently or in any combination. Darwin lived before genes or genetics had been discovered. He realised that some mechanism must do what we now know to be the result of gene mutation and/or genetic drift, but he did not know what. He proposed the theory of 'pangenesis'. It proved wildly inaccurate. Here we will only refer to natural selection, which is the most significant of three and which he got nearly right.

Natural selection is the process by which beneficial traits in a population tend to be preserved while adverse traits tend to be lost. Over time, the individuals that have beneficial traits will grow as a proportion of the population, possibly because those with the adverse traits shrink as a proportion of the population, until those with the adverse traits are wiped out. If the species had more than one population, sometimes the newly adapted population no longer breeds with the others, which means that a new species has been born.

Natural selection has five dependencies: 1) That there is variation within individuals in a species population; 2) That individuals with certain traits are better able to survive and/or reproduce than others; 3) That some or all of the traits that aid survival and/or reproduction are inheritable; 4) That more individuals are born than can survive to reproduce - what Darwin famously referred to as the "continual struggle for existence in which only the fittest survive"; and 5) That there is enough time for the process to work. Sexual selection is a specific case of natural selection in which the trait that aids the ability to reproduce is greater access to potential mates or greater attraction to potential mates.

For anyone that is not familiar with the history, Charles Darwin, aged just 22, left Devonport aboard HMS Beagle (above) in December 1831 on a five-year mission to study the coast of South America. He thought of himself as a geologist and, judging by his notes, he spent most of his shore time studying rocks and fossils.

Darwin says that the theory of evolution came to him aboard Beagle. In 1837, a year after his return, he knew enough to sketch a fairly accurate evolutionary tree of life (above). He says that the theory of natural selection came to him in 1838 while reading Malthus' 'Principles of Population'. He worked on both theories over the next 20 years.

In June 1858 Darwin received a draft paper from Alfred Russel Wallace entitled 'On The Tendency Of Varieties To Depart Indefinitely From The Original Type'. It was sent from Ternate in what is now Indonesia, so it is often referred to as the 'Ternate essay'. It proposed a theory of what we now know as evolution by natural selection. Darwin was occupied caring for a dying son. He immediately wrote to his influential friends Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker saying that Wallace's theory was equivalent to his own and asking for their advice on what to do.

Lyell and Hooker decided that credit for the discovery should be shared between Darwin and Wallace. They presented the joint theory to the Linnean Society in July 1858. Darwin then wrote 'On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life' (usually referred to as the 'Origin of Species') which was published in November 1859.

The Origin of Species is a major milestone in human history. It does a thorough, though horribly ponderous, job of describing biological evolution (henceforth just 'evolution') and natural selection, each with compelling evidence.

Accusations of swindling

Darwin has been plagued by accusations of swindling and plagiarism, almost from the day he published the Origin of Species. The most serious of these concern Alfred Russel Wallace (above). He was a field naturalist who collected animal and plant specimens from remote places on behalf of deskbound naturalists in England. Darwin was one of his customers.

In the mid-1850s Wallace was working in the Spice Islands, now part of Indonesia. It was from here in 1855 - three years before the Ternate essay - that he wrote 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species'. It describes common descent and the appearence of new species. "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species". It was spot on, as far as it went. The big omission was a theory about how adaptation and speciation came about. In other words, Wallace had a credible theory of evolution in 1855, but had not yet developed a theory equivalent to natural selection.

Wallace's paper was published in September, 1855. Edward Blythe, an eminent zoologist with whom Darwin corresponded, was impressed. He wrote to Darwin saying that he thought Wallace was right. Lyell was impressed too. He showed the paper to Darwin at the start of 1856. Darwin dismissed Wallace's theory, presumably through misreading, as passé. He gave Lyell a verbal synopsis of his own theory. Lyell, rather more objective and perspicacious we think, realised that Wallace was not far behind. He persuaded Darwin of the urgency to publish an academic paper to secure 'priority' - i.e. scientific recognition for the discovery.

Darwin had nothing ready to publish. He started recording the mature parts of his theories into his 'Big Species Book', while explaining to Lyell that he needed to refine these theories before he could publish. The obvious implication is that he knew there were major flaws and/or shortfalls in his theories at the start of 1856.

On the 8th June, 1858, Darwin writes to Hooker saying that he has found the "missing keystone" that will allow him to complete his theory of evolution. He later says that he added a section to Big Species Book over the following week.

On the 18th June, 1858, Darwin writes to Lyell saying that he received Wallace's Ternate essay earlier that day and that its theories are equivalent to his own. He tells Lyell that Wallace's paper should be published and asks for Lyell's advice on what to do about priority.

Two more implications here, neither of which we have seen elsewhere. The first is that Darwin's theories were still missing a key component - the 'missing keystone' - before 8th June, 1858. The second is that the Ternate essay contained the missing keystone. This must be so because Darwin says in his letter to Lyell that Wallace's theories are equivalent to his own; i.e. they were equivalent to his own on 18th June, after he had just updated his theories with the missing keystone. The Ternate essay must therefore have contained the missing keystone.

Brackman and Brooks investigated the timing of the correspondence, as later reported by Roy Davies in his book 'The Darwin Conspiracy'. They explain that Wallace sent a letter to Frederick Bates in London on the same day that he says that he sent the Ternate essay to Darwin. If so, both letters should have been carried on the same mailboats and both should have arrived on the same day. Bate's letter arrived on the 3rd June. They reach the logical conclusion that Darwin actually received the Ternate essay on the 3rd June, 15 days earlier than he claimed. They speculate that Darwin used the missing time to correct and update Big Species Book with Wallace's advances to bring his theories in line.

Darwin's supporters counter that the Ternate essay could have become separated from the Bates letter because the mail was sorted several times en route. If it arrived on the next mailboat, it would have arrived at Darwin's home in Orpington the 18th June; the date that Darwin says he received it. Alternatively, as van Wyhe points out, it would have arrived on that same next mailboat if Wallace was mistaken that he posted the Ternate essay in March but had instead posted it in April.

There is no tangible evidence to support Darwin's accusers or defenders. The best evidence would be the Wallace's covering letter and envelope, but Darwin claimed they were lost.

In our opinion, even though both the mailboat theories are plausible, they are not a useful defence. Darwin was receiving dozens of letters a day from all over the world. He was not an idiot. If he were perpetrating a fraud along the lines that Brackman and Brooks suggest, he would update Big Species Book, wait for a letter to arrive from South East Asia - i.e. which would have been carried on the next mailboat from the Spice Islands - then claim that the Ternate essay arrived on that day. Not only would this be difficult to disprove, but the postman might remember delivering a letter from the South East Asia to corroborate his story.

Darwin's story is suspicious. The loss of Wallace's covering letter and envelope is bizarre considering its crucial importance and that Darwin kept more than 10,000 letters of trivial unimportance. Just as odd, 20% of Big Species Book Part 2 - Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 about Natural Selection - went missing soon after Darwin received the Ternate essay. Also, it would be uncharacteristic of Darwin to devise his missing keystone without first discussing it with Lyell and Hooker. It is unlikely that he would devise a brilliant new theory while one of his children was dying. It is even more unlikely that he would choose this time to update his notes. It seems barely plausible that he devised his missing keystone 10 days before receiving a document that described the same missing keystone sent by the only other person in the world that could have come up with it.

Motivation for Darwin to fib is not hard to find. The 'priority rule' dictates that recognition for scientific discoveries is given to the person or group that first publishes details of it. Just being the first person to make a scientific discovery, which might have been Darwin's position, gets no recognition. Darwin claimed that he did not care who got priority for the theories of evolution and natural selection, as long as they were accurate. In reality, he cared deeply about it. He said so in his letter to Lyell after receiving Wallace's Ternate essay.

In our opinion, Darwin's letter to Lyell has the sound of a man who has had defeat snatched from the jaws of victory; as if he knew Wallace should get priority based on the priority rule but thought that he deserved it more. He knew it would be one of the most important advances in the history of mankind. He had been working on it for 20 years. He had developed a reasonable, if incomplete, theory. He seems to be pleading with Lyell to rescue priority for him.

In order for Darwin to claim legitimate priority, he needed a paper that had been published, or shared with peers, before Wallace published his Ternate essay. Darwin had only written three papers on evolution or natural selection before 1858. The earliest was a 35 page 'sketch' written in 1842, but it was never shared. The next was a 189-page 'essay' written in 1844 which was shared with Joseph Hooker. The third was a bullet-point 'abstract' written in 1857 that he had sent to Asa Gray. The essay was incomplete and inaccurate. The abstract was accurate as far as it went, but very short (six paragraphs), equivocal and far from complete. No astute scientific assessor would have given Darwin priority based on them alone when set side-by-side with Wallace's brilliant, concise and accurate alternative.

Brackman and Brooks suspect that Darwin's initial plan was to update Big Species Book with Wallace's advances, publish it immediately, then deny that he had ever received the Ternate essay. This could explain why the opening chapters of Big Species Book Part 2 went missing, because perhaps Wallace proved them to be wildly wrong. It could explain why Wallace's covering letter and envelope went missing, to hide the evidence that the ternate essay had arrived. If this was Darwin's plan, he must have had a change of heart, because he abandoned Big Species Book half way through Chapter 10 with at least two major chapters to go. Like Brackman and Brooks, we cannot imagine any other plausible explanation for why he shouted to Lyell about discovering the missing keystone, and about how he used it to update his theories in Big Species Book, yet never told anyone what it was.

One possible reason Darwin might have had a change of heart is that he realised Wallace might have sent someone else a copy of the Ternate essay at the same time he posted it to Darwin. If so, that copy would take priority over Big Species Book shared in June 1858. Just as likely, he feared that the priority evaluators might decide that the Ternate essay took priority anyway, because it had been shared when it was posted in March 1858 rather than when it arrived in Orpington in June. If so, Darwin's 8th June letter to Lyell about finding his missing keystone would backfire. It would prove that his theories were incomplete on 7th June 1858, whereas Wallace's theories were complete in March 1858.

What Darwin actually did was horribly self-incriminating. He suggested to Lyell and Hooker that they present both Wallace's Ternate essay and his 1857 abstract to the Linnean Society, explaining to the audience that the abstract was a synopsis of his 1844 essay. He went on to instruct them not to read out anything from the essay.

As Derek Partridge says, it looks suspiciously as if his plan was to give the impression that his 1857 abstract and Wallace's Ternate essay were describing the same theories; then for Lyell and Hooker to vouch that the abstract was a synopsis of his 1844 essay, so that he could claim 14 years priority on the discoveries. He would not want his theories read out from the 1844 essay because it would be obvious to any educated listener that they were different from Wallace's, that they were inaccurate and incomplete, and that the abstract was not a synopsis of them.

Lyell and Hooker were left to organise the presentation. Even though Darwin was their best friend, they would not want to jeopardise their reputations in a swindle for which they might get caught. They could not vouch that the 1857 abstract was a synopsys of the 1844 essay, because they knew it was not. The errors and omissions in the 1844 essay would have been obvious to them. They would also have known that the abstract was too short and equivocal to get priority on its own.

They came up with the idea - without consulting Darwin, as far as anyone knows - of a joint presentation to share priority between Darwin and Wallace. They presented Wallace's essay having first presented parts of Darwin's essay and abstract that agreed with it, thereby giving the impression that the theories were equivalent. The order of the papers made it seem that Darwin was the major contributor. In effect, without lying, Lyell and Hooker used their reputations to swindle Wallace out of sole, or even main, priority.

Darwin did not attend the Linnean Society meeting. He behaved like a guilty man the next day, immediately asking Lyell and Hooker for confirmation that nothing had been read out from the essay. When he found that some of it had been read out, he fired off panicky letters to find out exactly what. He was only placated when he discovered that the parts read out did not include details of the essay's theories. He did, however, immediately ask Lyell to return the essay. Sceptics think he wanted to 'lose' it or edit out its inaccuracies before anyone else got a chance to read it.

There were also accusations that Darwin retrospectively constructed a web of fabricated evidence that his theories were established earlier than they actually were. For instance, Sulloway reckons that Darwin cannot have devised a theory of evolution while still on the Beagle nor his theory of natural selection in 1838, as he claims, because he did not record the place or date that he collected his own specimens. Some of the Beagle's crew did faithfully label their specimens. These were eventually catalogued and classified by species but it took years. If Darwin's theories were based on evidence from the Galapagos Islands, as he claims, he cannot have come up with them before 1840.

Moreover, the weight of evidence, albeit entirely circumstantial, persuades us that Darwin did receive the Ternate essay some time before the 8th June, that he was behind the Wallace swindle, although it was perpetrated by Lyell and Hooker, and that he did lie to cover his tracks.

It seems that Wallace and Darwin both knew he had been swindled. In later years, Darwin once said to Wallace: "You are the only man I ever heard of who persistently does himself an injustice & never demands justice". Wallace did not reply. He was a humble man. Perhaps he did not want to make a fuss. Perhaps he did not want to embarrass Darwin, to whom he was grateful for having successfully lobbied the Government to give him a generous pension. Or, being out in Indonesia at the time of the pitch to the Linnean Society, perhaps he was grateful that he got even a share of credit for the theories.

Whatever date Darwin received the Ternate essay and whatever he did when it arrived, there is no doubt that Wallace deserved priority for natural selection. He shared the Ternate essay in March 1858. Darwin's theory was still incomplete on 7th June, 1858, because he had not yet found his missing keystone. There is no justification in denying Wallace priority just because his paper took three months to arrive in London. It should retrospectively be awarded to him for natural selection at least, and perhaps for evolution too.

Accusations of plagiarism

Darwin's harshest critics - notably A N Wilson - accuse him of being a ruthless egotistic plagiarising charlatan that barely devised an original idea in his life. Not only do they reckon that his post-Beagle advances were pinched from Wallace, Chambers and others, but that his 1842 sketch and 1844 essay were cobbled together from his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's theories which were recorded in his 1794 book Zoonomia, plus bits from Wells, Matthew, Blyth, Lamarck and Paley.

Darwin's critics, by and large, are right about his lack of originality. Theories of common descent had been proposed in at least six published papers before Darwin left England. Admittedly five of them were in French, but Darwin spoke better French than he spoke English (he had no stutter in French) and the sixth was in Zoonomia. Similarly, at least five mechanisms for speciation had been proposed before Darwin left England. Two of them were a little obscure and Lamarck's was ridiculed as nonsense, but something like natural selection had been proposed by James Hutton in 1794 and another was his grandfather's fairly plausible 'generation' theory, also described in Zoonomia.

Darwin claimed ignorance of most of these theories. Yet he is known to have studied and admired and been tutored on his grandfather's evolution theories as an 18-year-old. He claimed that he had forgotten about them four years later when he boarded the Beagle, but it does not seem likely. He made notes about Lamarck and Paley's theories while he was on the Beagle, so he must have read them before he left. He would not be much of a scientist if he had not read most of the others before writing his 1842 sketch.

Soon after the Origin of Species was published, Patrick Matthew accused Darwin of plagiarising his theory, first published in 1832, which was similar to natural selection. Matthew's theory was itself an adaptation of Charles William Wells's 1813 theory, which was also similar to natural selection, albeit in relation to human races rather than new species. Wells was developing Hutton's theory which was described in Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge. None of them were cited in the original edition of Origin of Species. Even Darwin's much later - 1868 - evolutionary theory of pengenesis was proposed in Zoonomia, with roots dating back to Hyppocrates, neither of which were cited.

There may also be something in the accusations that Darwin plagiarised the theory of universal mutability of species from Robert Chambers's book 'Vestiges of the natural history of creation'. There is a lot of confusion about Darwin's acceptance of universal mutability. It is often said that he had accepted it from 1842 at the latest, because the conclusion to his 1842 sketch starts: "Such are my reasons for believing that specific forms are not immutable". Some say that he accepted it even when he was on the Beagle because his 'B' notebook was labelled to be for notes on the transmutation of species. Both references are taken out of context.

The 'B' Notebook was indeed about transmutation of species, but only insofar as Darwin was recording evidence for various existing theories of speciation, including Lamarck's and Paley's and, probably, his grandfather's. It does not mean he believed any of them or that he had an alternative theory of his own. As far as we can see, like all competant scientists, he had an open mind. Nor is the 1842 essay conclusion a declaration that he believed in universal mutability. It is saying that he had reasons to believe that some species are mutable under some circumstances.

On the contrary, it is absolutely clear to us that Darwin only came to accept universal mutabilty of species in January 1844, when he wrote to Hooker. "At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to the opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable." Even here he says that he is only "almost convinced".

Darwin's supporters point out that Vestiges was published in August 1844, eight months after he wrote to Hooker. But the publication was circuitous because Chambers wanted to remain anonymous. Instead of using his own publishing house in Edinburgh, he used trusted intermediaries to get the book published by Churchills in London. Draft manuscripts had been sent down to London for proofing and typesetting in 1843. Darwin could have seen those proofs, from which he adopted Chambers's theory of mutability. Darwin wrote to Hooker in 1845 saying that he thought Chambers was the author. It might have been an inspired guess. Or, more likely we think, Darwin had recognised Chambers's hand-writing or narrative style on the manuscripts.

What could Darwin hope to gain from plagiarising these other ideas? We fear that he was trying to pre-empt accusations that he had swindled Wallace; that if he declared most of his theory was based on the ideas of others, sceptics would suspect that the rest of it was based on Wallace's theories. He presumably thought that he would not get caught. Most of the other authors were dead. Some of them did not propose formal theories. A lot of them were French, so they might not see his papers. Darwin was the custodian of his grandfather's legacy, so he could do with it as he pleased. Wallace was taking a share of the credit for the discovery. If anyone complained, he he could always - and did - claim ignorance and add citations to later editions of the Origin of Species.

Not only did Darwin plagiarise other people's ideas without appropriate citations, but it seems that he even borrowed their words. A few years after publication, Samuel Butler noticed that passages in the Origin of Species had been copied almost word-for-word from Zoonomia, Wallace and others without appropriate citation. Rhawn goes so far as to say that the Origin of Species is effectively: "a synthesis of the words of Blyth, Wells, Pritchard, Lawrence, Naudin, and Buffon". Darwin hints in later editions of the Origin of Species that he misappropriated other people's words subconsciously. Deliberate or not, the the only obvious motivation was to expedite publication.

Darwin did not lack reasons to rush publication. Most notably, he was chronically ill, with an enormous list of serious health problems. He never knew when he would next be incapacitated and he lived in constant fear of imminent death. The sooner he published, the less likely he would die before finishing it. He also wanted to prove himself, having lived under a huge weight of expectation as a child of two of Britain's most prominent families. He had published well-received niche works on South American geology and on barnacles, but nothing of public renown. And he knew that Origin of Species would be a seminal event in human history. The sooner it was published, the sooner its revelations could be used.

But there is more to it. Darwin also knew that it would take decades for the theories to be accepted and that they would cause a religious and moral backlash. It would be worth taking extra time to minimise the impact on the church, to avoid treading on scientific toes, and to make the prose accessible to normal people. It is not as if Darwin was incapable of engaging writing. His 'Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.A.', despite its name, is moderately entertaining. An extra year working on the text might have been rewarded by ten years less social upheaval and ten years sooner acceptance of the theories. And he could have mitigated the risk of dying before publication by lodging a summary in escrow. Instead, he ploughed on, doing everything he could to publish as soon as possible.

We suspect that Darwin's real haste to publish was to get the book into circulation before Wallace returned to Britain, in case Wallace kicked up a stink about being swindled. After publication, Wallace's complaints would seem like sour grapes.

Once again, we hate to conclude that Darwin is guilty as charged. We think that he did indeed borrow the core of his theories about evolution, universal mutability and natural selection from other authors without appropriate citations, he did try to pass them off as his own, and he did sometimes use their text without citations in order to expedite publication.

Darwin's contribution to evolution and natural selection

Some of Darwin's harshest critics accuse him of being a charlatan. They reckon that his theory up to June 1858 was no more than a synthesis of other people's ideas and that Origin of Species just added the Ternate essay into the mix. This seems overly harsh to us.

We compared the Origin of Species with the Ternate essay, Darwin's 1844 essay, his 1842 sketch and Big Species Book. The first two chapters of Big Species Book Part 2 are missing and it was abandoned half way through Chapter 10. What remains provided the chapter structure for Origin of Species, and much of the content. The trouble is that we cannot know how much, if any, of Big Species Book's content was updated after Darwin received Wallace's Ternate essay.

The major difference between Darwin's sketch and essay is his acceptance of the principle of universal mutability of species. This came to him in January 1844 and was perhaps the impetus behind writing the essay. There were two big gaps between the 1844 essay and Origin of Species. Darwin filled one of them himself with his theory of 'Divergence'. The other was his flawed theory of speciation, which we will return to. The rest of Origin of Species could have been based on his 1844 essay.

We feel sure that Darwin did have a mature theory of evolution by June 1858. After all, he had a reasonable theory in 1842. The last paragraph of his 1842 sketch ends: "There is a simple grandeur in the view of life with its powers of growth, assimilation and reproduction, being originally breathed into matter under one or a few forms, and that whilst this our planet has gone circling on according to fixed laws, and land and water, in a cycle of change, have gone on replacing each other, that from so simple an origin, through the process of gradual selection of infinitesimal changes, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been evolved."

In other words, Darwin knew in 1842 that living things had evolutionary common ancestors; that those common ancestors could be traced back to a small number - perhaps one - of original organisms; he knew about hereditary variation within species, that species can evolve by tiny changes iterated over many generations, and that one of the mechanisms by which this happened was sexual selection. By 1844, Darwin had also accepted universal mutability of species. By 1858 he had created and shared the theory of Divergence.

This amounts to an accurate and comprehensive theory of evolution and common descent, albeit missing natural selection. We wondered why Darwin did not pitch his 1844 essay for priority. Wallace, after all, published his 1855 essay covering much the same ground. Wallace just omitted any speculation of speciation mechanisms.

Perhaps Darwin could not bring himself to publish an incomplete theory. Certainly, his other major works - on barnacles and worms - were complete, although they were observational rather than theoretical. Perhaps Darwin was concerned that his theories did not have enough original content. As Brawn says, the 1844 essay was a synthesis of other theories with hardly any original content. But those other theories were all flawed, apart from Matthew's which was in the appendix of an obscure reference manual that Darwin (and Wallace) are extremely unlikely to have read. Darwin seems to have cherry picked the parts of these other theories that best fitted his experience and specimens from the Beagle, then assembled them into a coherent arching theory. This is still good research. It might have been worthy of priority for evolution and common descent, if Darwin had published it.

We guess that Darwin was riddled with doubt and did not want to make a fool of himself. He could not be certain that his theories of evolution and common descent were accurate without a plausible mechanism for speciation. He could not be certain that natural selection was this mechanism before he found his missing keystone. Therefore, he delayed publishing.

It is interesting, then, to speculate on the nature of his missing keystone. Darwin's 1844 essay speculates that adaptation, and thereby speciation, might be triggered by external events - climate change, invasive species, glaciation, rising sea levels, etc. These are factors in evolution. Perhaps they are the major factors in the Galapagos. Darwin did not mention a change of heart in any of his letters, so presumably this was still his thinking in May 1858. But these are too sporadic to explain most of nature as we see it. Wallace's Ternate essay proposes an alternative theory of adaptation and speciation in which nature is in a constant state of self-regulating flux, with adaptations going on all the time. This does explain nature as we see it. It is the most obvious change between the 1844 essay and Origin of Species. We think it was Darwin's missing keystone.

In our opinion, Darwin was no charlatan. He independently worked out the process of common descent and evolution. He independently worked out most of the process of natural selection. He brought some aspects that Wallace had not considered, such as his theory of Divergence, his calculation of geological time and his belief that evolution applied equally to plants and animals. He brought good supporting evidence from the Galapgos. Wallace, on the other hand, brought his theory of continuous adaptation, his rejection of Lamarck's theory that adaptations can be inherited, and his rejection of Darwin's theory that the same processes drive natural selection and artificial selection. Perhaps joint priority was morally fair. Whatever the morals, Wallace was swindled out of priority for natural selection.

So much for the science. In our opinion, Darwin's most important contributions to evolution and natural selection were not scientific. Rather, it is that he accelerated the diffusion and acceptance of the discoveries, perhaps by decades (although it has to be said that some of the barriers were due to his plodding prose and his haste to publish). This needs more explanation.

Before Origin of Species, at least 13 people had published non-creationist theories about evolution and/or speciation: Montesquieu, de Maillet, Buffon, Maupertuis, Bonnet, Erasmus Darwin, Matthew, Wells, Lamarck, Chambers, Blyth, Prichard and Naudin. None of them got it completely right, but they were all right in part. Scientists remained mainly sceptical. Normal people did not believe any part of any of them. The Origin of Species, on the other hand, was quickly accepted by the scientific community and then slowly by the general public. We think Darwen's arguments had five major advantages over those of his predecessors.

First, the Origin of Species was all-encompassing. Some of Darwin's predecessors had speculated that speciation worked through inherited variation or through adaptation, or  'advancement', migration, catastrophe survival, or sexual advantage. The reality is that something like these and other factors all occur in nature; that any or all of them can contribute to the creation of new species. A part theory can therefore always get picked apart. For example, if someone suggests that speciation is the result of sexual advantage, critics can find countless examples when it isn't ... because it is due to one or more of the other mechanisms. The Origin of Species covered all the speciation mechanisms that could have been known at the time. It could not be picked apart; creationists have been trying for 150 years.

Second, Darwin's predecessors' arguments were mainly theoretical, supported by very little evidence. It was, after all, difficult and expensive to get specimens from pristine nature, unblemished by man. The Beagle had loads of them. Beagle specimens - after they had been re-catalogued - provided significant physical evidence to support Darwin's theory. Wallace provided more. And Darwin augmented this with evidence from his own experiments, evidence from interviews he conducted and, ahem, evidence he pilfered from others. Evolution and natural selection are not absolute laws that could be proved definitively using technologies available to the Victorians. They could only be proved 'beyond reasonable doubt' using a pile of circumstantial evidence. Darwin and Wallace supplied that evidence. Others did not or could not.

Third, following the publication of the Origin of Species, Darwin dispatched four loyal, influential and persuasive disciples - Thomas Huxley, Joseph Hooker, Charles Lyell and Asa Gray - to spread the word. Huxley, who referred to himself as 'Darwin's Bulldog', proved particularly energetic and successful in promoting evolution and natural selection

Fourth, in his later life, Darwin thought deeply and profoundly about the practicalities of natural selection. This played to his strengths. One of the earliest experiments he did at Down House was to calculate the proportion of seeds that germinate but die prematurely. It showed that the survivors were in a small minority. In later life, as Andrew Marr explains on the Down House audio tour, whenever he looked at an individual plant or animal or species, he investigated what adaptations enabled it to survive. We think this approach allowed him to answer difficult questions posed by evolution critics that his predecessors could not.

Fifth, Darwin was more socially suited to promoting the theories. His maternal family, the Wedgewoods, were among the wealthiest in the country. The Darwins were among the most brilliant. In those days, this heritage gave him influence and respectability. He was also sensitive to the likely adverse social consequences of botching the diffusion. And he was a 'gentleman', whereas Wells, Matthew, Blythe - and Wallace, for that matter - all worked for a living. Nearly everyone else with a credible theory was French, at a time when the French were still deeply unpopular. Of all these people, Darwin was the most likely to be trusted and believed.

In summary, lots of other people had speculated about their vision of evolution and speciation before the Origin of Species. Some of them were partly right. Darwin and Wallace amalgamated and expanded these theories into a coherent encompassing theory. Darwin provided the evidence to prove them beyond reasonable doubt. Darwin also provided the marketing power and the answers to difficult questions that made evolution and natural selection believable by the general public.

If Darwin had never lived, Wallace would probably still have published similar theories by 1859, but they would not have been widely accepted until some equivalent of Darwin's Beagle evidence had been presented. It would probably have taken decades. As Wallace wrote in the 1880s: "this vast, this totally unprecedented change in public opinion has been the result of the work of one man, and was brought about in the short space of twenty years!" He was referring to Darwin. As Wallace suggests, Darwin probably brought forward the acceptance of evolution and natural selection by 10 years or more.

Darwin's greatness and momentousness

Momentous Britain is usually pretty scathing about scientific discoveries. Science is governed by absolute laws. By definition, all these laws and all the useful devices that harness them will be discovered by someone eventually. In most cases, if they had not been discovered by their actual discoverer, they would have been discovered by someone else within a year or two. No matter how brilliant the discovery nor how wonderful the science that has been discovered, the discovery itself typically does nothing more than bring forward some relatively minor derivative benefits by no more than those few years.

Evolution by natural selection appears to exhibit this effect as much as any: If Darwin had never lived, Wallace would still have announced his equivalent of evolution and natural selection in 1858. But as Wallace himself said, if Darwin had never lived, it would have taken decades longer for the theories to have been accepted. That means decades of brought forward benefits. 

Unfortunately, the initial brought forward benefits of the early acceptance of evolution and natural selection were minimal. It spawned no useful drugs or machines or processes that improved our quality of life. The best that can be said is that evolution provided a framework around which biology (especially botany and zoology), palaeontology and anthropology were restructured. In later years, evolution played a big part in the secularisation of society. A hundred years on, it would help drive DNA research. Fifty years further on, it would help drive genomics research, from which drugs are transforming healthcare. It is difficult to know how much ten years or so gained in the 1860s and 1870s might have brought forward modern advances in genomics and proteomics, but it is probably tangible.

So, does Charles Darwin deserve his reputation as one of Britain's greatest scientists? Not in our book. He was a plodder with a dismal academic record and a modest intellect. His father was convinced he was going to be a wastrel. We think that he departed Devonport already knowing 40% of his eventual theory of evolution by natural selection, mostly learned from Zoonomia. Another 30% was dropped into his lap on the Galapagos. Robert Chambers gifted him another 10% in Vestiges. He had 14 years to close out the remaining 20%. If he did so himself, he was pedestrian at best. In our opinion, he only did so with Wallace's help.

Inventiveness and reasoning were not Darwin's strength. His only definite original scientific idea that impressed us is that plant sensors use proteins to send growth and defence signals, but he failed to follow it up. A clue to Darwin's character comes from his detailed 'benefits vs drawbacks' marriage analysis, his database of personal maladies (extensive), and his log of backgammon results against his wife. He was an observant, meticulous, methodical, list-making type of a guy, ideally equipped to be a practical naturalist. But these are not rare enough talents to get a good momentousness rating here.

Darwin's greatness, such as it is, come from his family, his friends and from having the right character traits in the right place at the right time. He still had to be diligent, tenacious, patient, thoughtful and knowledgeable about a broad range of natural sciences, but he was incredibly lucky. Just the sequence of fortuitous events that led to him sailing on the Beagle must have had odds of more than a thousand to one. Then there was the luck involved in visiting the Galapagos, his colleagues collecting the right specimens and labelling them accurately, employing Wallace as a collector and receiving pre-publication drafts of Wallace's letters and essays. In terms of brilliance, insight, foresight or innovation, we think he was average at best; an inferior scientist to Wallace and not in the same league as his grandfather. He would not even make our Top 20 greatest British scientists.

Greatness does not always tally with momentousness. Origin of Species is a milestone in human history. Darwin could easily have botched it, in which case the errors would have been used to defer the acceptance of evolution, perhaps by decades. Even though he probably was a plagiarising hoaxster, we think he was not a charlatan. In our opinion, Charles Darwin should be remembered as one of Britain's most momentous scientists. He is not in the 'Premier League' of Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, J J Thomson and Cavendish, but perhaps he is in the 'Championship' along with Boyle, Crick, Dalton, Davy, Dirac, Fleming, Franklin, Harvey, Hooke, Joule, Kelvin, Lister, Rutherford, Strutt, Wren and, of course, Wallace.

Darwin pilgrimage

Darwin was born and brought up in Shrewsbury. He studied in Edinburgh and Cambridge, then spent five years touring the South American coast on HMS Beagle. Happily for fans, this experience seems to have killed off his wanderlust. Apart from two years in Gower Street, London, he lived the remainder of his life at Down House, Orpington. This is where he wrote Origin of Species and most of his other works.

We structured our visits around the recording locations where Melvyn Bragg's made his 'Darwin: In Our Time' Radio 4 show, only we started in Shrewsbury.


Charles Darwin was born in Mount House (which confusingly refers to itself as 'The Mount') on 12th February, 1809. We know because there is a plaque on the gate that says so.

Mount House is a 15 minute walk from the town centre, on a different loop of the River Severn known as Frankwell. We parked in the Ravens Meadows car park. Frankwell footbridge is right outside. Having crossed the Severn, we walked west along the north river bank to Frankwell (the road), crossed the giant roundabout with a wood in the middle, then walked 200m or so further west along Frankwell (the road). The entrance is on the north side of the road, up a narrow windy track/road.

The building was commission by Charles Darwin's father Robert, a doctor. He used it as his surgery as well as the family home. The District Valuers have been using it as their office since 2004. It was very quiet when we were there. Perhaps they are moving out. Someone in the grounds told us that it might be converted into a tourist attraction. They already encourage tourists to wander around the grounds, although there is not much to see. Apparently appointments can be made to see the inside, including the room where Darwin was born, but we were too late. The only impression we took away is that the Darwins must have been pretty wealthy.

Saving us some work, the Royal Mail commissioned a 'Darwin's Shrewsbury' tour map to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. We walked back to Shrewsbury town centre across Welsh Bridge. We enjoyed the 'COMMIT NO NUISANCE' message engraved into the southern abutment, which apparently is a Victorian euphemism not to urinate in public. The tour starts at Darwin Gate (1 on the map above), 200m south of the bridge along Mardol. It is a modern sculpture that looks like three steak knives stabbed into the ground.

From Darwin's Gate, the tour route is south down Claremont Street then left into Bellstone. 30m along Bellstone on the right is the sign and iron gated entrance to Morris Hall. Through the gates at the end of the courtyard is the glacial boulder (2), shown above, after which the road is named. Darwin is known to have seen and touched it. Perhaps it inspired his interest in geology and therefore natural sciences. An awful lot of people must have touched it since, because it is now mirror smooth on the top. Look out for the beetle way-marker on the ground.

Next stop is 13 Claremont Hill (3), back up Bellstone, then 30m on the left up Claremont Hill. It is where Darwin was educated before he went to school. Look out for the ammonite way-marker outside.

At the top of Claremont Hill, 50m along St Chad's on the left is St Chad's church (4). It is one of only five round churches in England, and the only one dating from Georgian times. Darwin was Christened here and attended services with his mother when he was very young. The 1985 version of 'Christmas Carol' starring George C. Scott was filmed here. The Scrooge headstone from that film is still in the graveyard. Look out for the newt way-marker outside.

Right opposite St Chad's is 'The Quarry Park' (5), Shrewsbury's main recreational area. Half way between the road and the river is 'The Dingle', a former quarry that has been converted into a sunken garden. The pond in the middle is where Darwin fished for newts. MB were dragged here as children, because the park was renovated and maintained by Percy Thrower, the first TV gardener and a hero of our father. Thrower lived in Quarry Lodge, beside The Dingle, for most of his adult life. It has a blue plaque.

Back to St Chad's Terrace and east until it changes to Murivance and then intersects with Belmont. Head north up Belmont for 300m where it merges into Milk Street and turn right into Wyle Cop. The Lion Hotel (6) is 50m along on the right. It is an old coaching inn, from where Darwin left for Plymouth and the Beagle. Look out for the Beagle way-marker.

Shrewsbury, of course, is the fictional home of Brother Cadfael. Wyle Cop is mentioned in several of his books, including 'Monk's Hood', which we are reading as we write. Shrewsbury Abbey, where Cadfael lived, is just over the English bridge, on the other side of the Severn from Lion Hotel. We will record our visit notes in another blog. Shrewsbury was also the home of Thomas Telford, which we write about elsewhere.

Backtrack to Milk Street, then cross to High Street. 30m on the left is the Unitarian Church (8) where Darwin attended services with his mother. A plaque inside gives the details. Outside is a trilobite way-marker.

We wanted to visit Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery, not least to get better value out of our Art Pass. It is at the southern end of 'The Square' (the road, not the square), which is 100m west up High Street from the Unitarian Church, on the left. It is fairly typical of provincial museums. We hoped for lots of Thomas Telford memorabelia but found almost none. The Roman exhibits were interesting. It has very little art for an art gallery. We enjoyed an excellent cooked lunch at the 'stop.' cafe, then returned to the Darwin tour by heading north up The Square to High Street.

Last stop is the library (7). It is at the western end of the High Street and up Pride Hill. When you reach St Mary's Street on the right, check out St Mary's Church. It has been redundant for 30 years, which is a shame because it has the third highest spire of any church in Britain. Pride Hill changes to Castle Street. The library is on the left. This building was previously Shrewsbury School, where Darwin was educated before he went to university. He hated this place, spending most of his time learning Latin and Greek to no purpose. Darwin's school building is still there, at the back of the library. Outside is a statue of Darwin and an iguana way-marker.


Darwin went up to Cambridge in January 1828 and stayed until the summer 1831. He described this time as: "the most joyful in my happy life; for I was then in excellent health, and almost always in high spirits". Yes, well, he spent most of his time partying. He was supposed to be studying to become a parson, but he did not put much effort into it. When he was not partying, thanks to a friendship he built up with his beetle mad cousin William Darwin Fox, it seems that he spent most of his time collecting beetles.

It was already clear that Darwin had a good mind for observing and collecting. In later life he said that he could still remember the specific trees or posts where he found unusual specimens. Melvyn Bragg's In our Time show had a section at the Mill Pond in Cambridge, which was apparently his favourite place to collect beetles. Bragg moved on to Coe Fen, now on the outskirts of Cambridge, where Darwin's mentor John Stevens Henlsow introduced him to ecology.

Darwin started half way through the Cambridge year, so he needed digs for six months. He took rooms above a tobacconist in Sydney Street. The site is now a Boots, marked with an oval slate plaque. For the next two years he stayed in Christ's College.

Darwin's room has recently been restored and is now open to the public. When we went it was only open two days a week for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. It is best to check first if you plan to go. It provided no clues to Darwin's character that we could see, but Darwin fans should enjoy it. Christ's College itself is also open to the public. It has a famous statue of Darwin as a student resting on a bench in one of the quads. Christ's College's other most famous student was William Paley, who devised the theory of 'natural theology'. It seems that Darwin adhered to this theory, at least in part, until 1844. There is a stained glass window of the two of them in the college hall.

Cambridge houses two important Darwin collections. One is at the Cambridge Museum of Zoology. It includes Darwin's personal beetle collection, marked by his hand, most of which he found around Cambridge. It has a display of Darwin's fish from the Beagle, and his pet octopus, rather revoltingly displayed in jars. More important, it has a display of Galapagos finches collected on the Beagle voyage by a member of Beagle's crew named Fuller. These are the birds that Darwin famously used as an example in the Origin of Species.

Cambridge's other major Darwin collection is of his letters and papers, most of which were donated by the family. They are kept at Cambridge University Library. Some are usually on display. In addition, Darwin's microscope is on display at the Whipple Museum of Science History and 'Darwin the Geologist' is a permanent display at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Down House

Darwin lived in Down House with his family for the last 40 years of his life. It is the only place in the world to see his work environment, his personal items and his family life. The vast majority of visitors are here on what is effectively a Darwin pilgrimage or here to get a better understanding of evolution. Most of them think that Darwin is one of the most wonderful people ever to have lived. We have a lower opinion of him, but we tried to put ourselves in their shoes. We hoped that Down House might shed some light on his character, his motivation, his theories, his illnesses, his work practices and the creation of Origin of Species.

Our actual main interest is to find evidence that incriminates or vindicates Darwin of swindling Wallace out of priority. If there is no vindicating evidence, we assume him guilty and would like to find excuses for his behaviour. In practice, we find that there is no evidence for or against, because English Heritage assiduously avoids controversy. They try to encompass everyone - creationists as much as the well educated - except those (like us) that think Darwin was a swindler, hoaxster and average scientist.

Our secondary interest is in Darwin's health. He had an extraordinary array of chronic illnesses, the most debilitating of which included: vertigo, dizziness, muscle spasms and tremors, vomiting, premature tooth loss, loose bowels, cramps and colics, bloating and intestinal gas, headaches, distorted vision, tiredness, nervous exhaustion, dyspnea, blisters, boils, eczema, crying, loss of consciousness, fainting, tachycardia, insomnia and tinnitus. These were all severe and worse than they might sound. For instance, his uncontrolled vomiting might last for days; the boils on his back were so excruciating that he would be stuck lying on his front for days; etc. According to his letters, he also had a wide range of minor physical ailments and lots of psychological problems, including a constant fear of impending death. We hoped to find evidence of what might have caused these illnesses and how Darwin coped with them. In practice, the only illness artefact is a sick bucket in his office.

We went most recently in December 2018, specifically to see the newly reconstructed bedroom. Each time we go, English Heritage have made improvements, but they have a big job on their hands. Down House was in private hands for 90 years before being acquired for the nation by the Wellcome Trust in 1996. During its time as a school, the property was completely refurbished, leaving virtually nothing original apart from the greenhouse. Even after 20 years of English Heritage restoration work, there are still quite a lot of replicas, period substitutes and omissions.

Down House has three parts: the garden, the downstairs and the upstairs. Upstairs is Darwin's own bedroom and some former bedrooms that have been converted into education rooms. Downstairs is Darwin's study, dining room, billiard room and drawing room, as well as the cafe and shop. The English Heritage receptionist recommended starting upstairs, because the education rooms give a lot of background on Darwin and evolution, for those with holes in their knowledge. They also offer a free audio tour. Andrew Marr does the outside; David Attenborough does museum rooms inside. Both commentaries are superb.

Darwin had ten children, so he needed a lot of bedrooms. The only one there now is Darwin's own bedroom, which is also where he died. It is English Heritage's most recent reconstruction. It is not much more than a room with a bed, but the attached dressing room does have some fun period costumes for anyone that enjoys dressing up. It is also the only place inside the house where photography is allowed.

The remaining bedrooms have been converted for education. There is a discovery suite for youngsters. It was packed with pre-schools playing happily when we visited. Then, for older children and adults, there is one room about Darwin, one about the voyage of the Beagle, one about life aboard the Beagle and one about Origin of Species. English Heritage have a fine line to draw between educating novices and titillating fans on their Darwin pilgrimage. Rightly, we guess, they favour the novices. We asked some 12-year-old fellow visitors what they made of it. They found it informative and interesting, so it sounds like it is pitched at about the right level.

For the more mature visitors, there are a few interesting anecdotes, mostly to do with Captain FitzRoy, Commander of the Beagle. He famously disagreed with evolution and in later years became ashamed of his involvement. We did not know, however, that he was a physiogamist who nearly turfed Darwin off the Beagle because of the shape of his nose or that he became Governor of New Zealand or that he founded the forerunner of the Met Office. There are a few Beagle related artefacts on display - Darwin's compass, for instance - but very little, if anything, that was collected during the voyage. The exhibit we found most interesting is the reconstruction of Darwin's cabin on the Beagle (above). Even allowing for it being shared with FitzRoy, it is more spacious and comfortable than we expected.

We have a big gripe about the downstairs museum rooms: the lighting is far too dim. The curtains were closed and each room was only lit by a 20w fluorescent bulb (flickering enough to induce epileptic fits in the case of the study). Perhaps it is our age, but we found it difficult to see anything in detail. We wrote to English Heritage the next day, explaining that modern LED lights emit no harmful rays. Hopefully they will improve the lighting soon.

Obviously, the highlight for us was the study. Despite all the misgivings we note above, Origin of Species is a major milestone in human history. We found it moving and quite magical to be in the room where it was written. The decoration and layout have been faithfully reconstructed from photographs. Most of the knick-knacks are original (not that we could see most of them, but David Attenborough told us). The table, chair and footstool are the very ones that Darwin used while writing Origin of Species. The set up reminded us of Roald Dahl, who had a similar work routine and similar bespoke chair to accommodate his long legs.

We found the other downstairs rooms rather dull, lacking inspiration as well as illumination. We would have loved to see a list of the rich and famous guests that Darwin entertained in the dining room. As it is, the most notable feature is that it had no Wedgewood crockery. Indeed, the audio tour says that there was only one piece of Wedgewood in the entire house. Yet Darwin's grandfather and his wife's father each owned and ran Wedgewood potteries at one time. Ashamed of the business perhaps? The drawing room did give a good idea of the Darwin's family life, with its piano and backgammon set. The only interesting feature in the billiard room that we could see (i.e. not much), was the Darwin caricatures on the wall.

The garden has been reconstructed, mostly based on Mrs. Darwin's kitchen garden notes. The only original features are the mulberry tree and the greenhouse. We struggled a bit to find some places on Andrew Marr's garden audio tour, but he gave the impression that most of the garden was used to grow food for the house. Darwin's artificial selection experiments took place in the field beyond the garden. The non-food parts of the garden were used more for earthworm research and tennis than anything to do with evolution.

The greenhouse was the outside highlight for us. As far as we know, it played very little part in Darwin's evolution experiments, but it has some fascinating carnivorous plants, orchids and tropical fruit. It has an interesting Heath Robinson heating system to keep the three segments at different temperatures. And, the day we were there, it had a wonderful volunteer who was full of interesting information about the plants, the bees and Darwin's greenhouse experiments.

Frankly, the greenhouse could do with some tender loving care. The paint was flaking and a door handle fell off when we were there. The volunteer told us that it originally had five differently segments, two of which fell down. It looked to us that there is a danger of the rest going the same way.

The mulberry tree, which Darwin mentions in his memoirs, has a touch of the Heath Robinsons about it too; a jam making machine, perhaps. It looks like every branch has been propped up by some arrangement of poles, sticks or wires. Apparently it still crops well, so whatever they are doing seems to be working.

We think we did get a reasonable picture of Darwin's life at Down House. It was, as we expected, rule bound, meticulous and rigorously routine. Health permitting, he allocated specific times of the day for writing, reading, responding to mail, eating, exercising and relaxing with his family. He played exactly one game of backgammon each day with his wife, pedantically recording the result and running total. We were surprised to discover how much he interacted with the local community, effectively taking on the role of country laird. We were surprised, considering the prominence of both families, that he was not hugely wealthy until late in life. For instance, the audio tour says that he had to sell some family possessions to pay for new extension work. We were disappointed not to find out more about his illnesses and his way of coping with them.

English Heritage have done a good job of the visitor experience. The route to the building is well sign-posted, although amazingly isolated for somewhere so close to London. It has a good car park, clean fresh (outside) toilets, and an adequate cafe. The food is wholesome rather than delicious, but it is probably the best that can be done with so few covers. We had a ham and mustard sandwich with salad, which soft and fresh. The shop staff were helpful and knowledgeable. The guidebook had already been updated with details of the newly opened bedroom. The audio tours are a must.

Apart from the lighting, which could be easily fixed, the biggest issue at Down House is its size. The rooms are too small for the number of visitors, especially in the summer. There is a lack of circulation in the museum rooms that make it difficult to get in or out. The exhibits are too squished in the education rooms and too far distant in the downstairs museum rooms. The cafe is too small. The audiotours are terrific as far as they go, but it is about time English Heritage invested in a modern virtual tour phone app, to provide a closer and better description of what is on display.

MB has been interested in natural sciences and evolution since childhood. We know we are not typical visitors and it does not help that we have a less than positive opinion of Darwin. We checked TripAdvisor to see what others think. Down House gets almost universal approval. Never the less, we think someone should invest more in it. Together with Woolsthorpe Manor it is the only place in the country where children can be inspired to follow in the footsteps of globally famous scientists. They both deserve a dedicated modern external learning space where school children can discover the history surrounding two of Britain's greatest scientific achievements. We understand that the National Trust are building just such a space at Woolsthorpe. Down House could do with something similar.

Around the country

Among their local celebrities, Bromley Council are presumably more proud of Charles Darwin than H G Wells, because they recently replaced the famous Wells mural in Market Square with one dedicated to Darwin. Wells is left to hover half way up one side. It is beside Five Guys and behind the old market pump.

The only clue that Darwin was on the right track with natural selection before 1842 is that he noticed mockingbird specimens that he took from Floreana island were consistently different from those he found on other islands or on the mainland. Unfortunately, he didn't notice until the Beagle was already on the way to Tahiti. He just made a note how typical it was to find something interesting when it was too late to do anything about it. These mockingbirds, which did appear as examples of natural selection in the first edition of Origin of Species, are held by the Natural History Museum in Kensington. They are regularly on display.

There are three other major collections of Darwin's specimens. Darwin's Galapogos finches are at the Natural History Museum in Tring. As far as we know, they have never been on display. The museum has had a £4.1m refurbishment (just as well because it was horribly pokey the last time we were there). We will go back as soon as we can to check if Darwin's finches are on display now. Most of Darwin's Beagle crustaceans are at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The Natural History Museum has the world's largest collection of books by and about Darwin; over 1300 in total, including 477 editions of the Origin of Species. A life size marble sculpture of Darwin sits half way up the stairs, overlooking the main hall.

Darwin spent just over two years in Edinburgh, supposedly as a student doctor although he seldom attended lectures. During this time he had a home at 11 Lothian Street. After returning to England with the Beagle, he had a home in Gower Street, London, for a year. Both buildings have been replaced. There is a plaque outside the UCL Biology Dept and another on 11 Lothian Street explaining that they are sites where he once lived.

There are a couple of plaques mentioning places he is known to have been. One is Devil's Point, Devonport, from where the Beagle departed. Another is on the HSBC bank at the junction of Market Street and Fish Strand Hill in Falmouth, from where he got the mail coach back to London after the Beagle docked nearby.

Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey. His very uninformative tombstone is shown above.