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 almost 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. We will investigate whether his reputation is deserved then go on a tour of the places he lived and worked.
About evolution and Natural Selection
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 some traits vary within a species population and pass down 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 or socially divide with 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 creation of new species is sometimes referred to as 'speciation'. The process of one species evolving into another was known as 'transmutation'. 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. This is sometimes referred to as 'common descent'.
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 without the beneficial trait are wiped out. In divided populations, as explained above, this can lead to the creation of a new species. Natural selection is the greatest cause of species change and therefore the main driver of speciation.
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.
Genesis of the Origin of Species
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.
During one land survey, Darwin experienced an earthquake. He noticed that the shore had been raised, elevating shallow water molluscs above high tide. He studied remnants of old sea levels in estuaries which showed that the Andes was rising by roughly one inch every hundred years. Aconcagua is nearly 23,000 feet high. Darwin therefore realised that the Andes must be at least 25 million years old. It was a major advance at a time when most people believed Bible stories showing that the earth was only a few thousand years old.
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 refined both theories in copious notes over the next 20 years.
During this entire period, Darwin only collated his current thinking on evolution into three abstracts. The earliest was a 35 page 'sketch' written in 1842, then found unread in a cupboard after his death. The next was a 189-page 'essay' written in 1844, which was shared with Joseph Hooker. The last was a bullet-point 'abstract' written in 1857 that he sent to Asa Gray. We will refer to them as his 1842 Sketch, 1844 Essay and 1857 Abstract.
In June 1858, Darwin received a 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. Wallace asked Darwin to forward the paper to Charles Lyell for comment, which he did. He accompanied it with a covering letter explaining that Wallace's theory was almost identical to his own.
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, albeit ponderous, job of describing biological evolution (henceforth just 'evolution') and natural selection, each with compelling evidence.
Lack of originality
The events leading up to Darwin penning Origin of Species are contentious. A N Wilson and others believe that he pilfered all his theories about evolution and natural selection from predecessors and contemporaries. Darwin's harshest critics accuse him of being a ruthless egotistic plagiarising charlatan that barely devised an original idea in his life.
It cannot be denied that Darwin's 1842 Sketch and 1844 Essay do not contain any concepts that had not been proposed previously by Cuvier, Wells, Matthew, Blyth, Lamarck, Buffon, Paley, Chambers or his grandfather Erasmus Darwin (see John and Mary Gribben's book: "On the Origin of Evolution"). None of these earlier theories was entirely right and most of them only addressed a small subset of the subject. If the more accurate nuggets within these theories were extracted and assembled in the right way, they would form the building blocks for an understanding of evolution and natural selection.
It is plausible, as he claimed in his autobiography, that Darwin independently rediscovered the building blocks of evolution and natural selection from first principles. But his story is hard to believe. Books by Cuvier and Lamarck were in the Beagle's library (and Darwin spoke better French than he did English). He had been tutored as an 18-year-old on his grandfather's theories in Zoonomia (1794). He claimed to have forgotten about them four years later when he boarded the Beagle but it sounds improbable. There is no mention of anything evolutionary in the 1839 first edition of "Voyage of the Beagle" and he still thought of himself mainly as a geologist when he got back.
Moreover, Sulloway reckons that Darwin cannot possibly have devised the theory of evolution or natural selection as he claims because he did not record the places or dates that he collected his own specimens. This is why the famous Galapagos finches - or anything else related to evolution, for that matter - was not mentioned in the first edition of the 'Voyage of the Beagle'. 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.
In our opinion, consciously or not, Darwin's 1842 Sketch and most of his 1844 Essay were based on cherry picked parts of earlier theories. To be fair to Darwin, it would not have been trivial. He had to extract the wheat from a lot of chaff and did so pretty well. He added relevant examples to support his theory. He had previously found the evidence to prove geological time, without which evolution and natural selection could not operate. This is perfectly valid research but Darwin originally claimed that the ideas were his own whereas the weight of evidence is that they were not.
The major difference between the 1842 Sketch and the 1844 Essay is Darwin's acceptance of universal species mutability. Again, others were there long before him, not least his grandfather. But these theories had been around for decades. What prompted to Darwin change his mind in 1844?
First we should clear up some misunderstandings. The conclusion to Darwin's 1842 Sketch starts: "Such are my reasons for believing that specific forms are not immutable". Darwin's son wrote that his father had accepted species mutability by 1837, based on his 'Tree of Life' diagram (above) and his 'B' notebook which was labelled to be for notes on species transmutation. All these references are taken out of context. The Tree of Life showed the relationship between species, not necessarily that they evolved from common ancestors. The 'B' Notebook was about transmutation of species insofar as Darwin was recording evidence for various existing theories of speciation, including Lamarck's and 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 competent scientists, he had an open mind. The 1842 Sketch conclusion is saying that he had reasons to believe that some species are mutable under some circumstances, rather than that all species are mutable.
Contrary to popular opinion, it is absolutely clear to us that Darwin's epiphany came 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 he is only "almost convinced". By the time he finished his 1844 Essay, dated July 1844, he was absolutely convinced.
Darwin never said what prompted his conversion to accept universal species mutability, but it roughly coincided with the publication of a wildly popular book named 'Vestiges of the natural history of creation' which proposed this theory. Vestiges was published in October 1844. It seems impossible then that it could have influenced Darwin's conversion in January 1844. And Vestiges did not contain any significant new ideas anyway. Rather, it cherry picked parts from earlier theories of common descent and species mutability. Darwin could have independently done the same analysis or he could have worked it out from first principles but his explanation of species mutability is suspiciously close to that described in Vestiges.
Vestiges' publication was complicated. Its author, Robert Chambers, wanted to remain anonymous. He wrote the book long before it was published, then got his wife to copy the manuscripts, so that no one would recognise his handwriting. He used trusted intermediaries to get the book published by Churchills in London instead of using his own publishing house in Edinburgh. Draft manuscripts had been sent down to London for proofing and typesetting in 1843. Given Darwin's track record, even though there is no proof, it is difficult not to suspect that someone at Churchills leaked the contents to Darwin from which he developed his theory of universal species mutability.
One major advance between Darwin's 1844 Essay and Origin of Species was the 'principle of divergence' which can be paraphrased: "The more varied the inhabitants of an area, the less they compete for resources, so natural selection will tend to adapt those inhabitants to diverge into vacant niches". Darwin first mentioned it in an August 1857 letter to Hooker. In September, he outlined the principle in a letter to Asa Gray. Darwin, as usual, gave the impression that he had devised this theory himself. But it was a core feature of Wallace's 'Sarawak Law' paper published two years previously. Darwin had dismissed this paper as passé when shown it by Lyell in early 1856, but a heavily annotated copy was recently found among his papers. It seems almost certain to us that Darwin developed the principle of divergence from Wallace's Sarawak Law paper.
Soon after publication of Origin of Species, Patrick Matthew accused Darwin of adapting his 'principle of selection in nature' into natural selection without an appropriate citation. Dr Mike Sutton has written a book about this, suggesting that Darwin and Wallace both based their evolutionary theories on Matthew's work. Matthew's principle was published in the Appendix of a relatively obscure book about naval timber that neither Darwin or Wallace are likely to have read. But Sutton has found links between its publisher and both Darwin and Wallace. Darwin did acknowledge Matthew as the first person to write about something like natural selection in later editions of Origin of Species. It would come as no surprise if Darwin and Wallace had both seen Matthew's principle before publishing their developing their theories. And Sutton might be right that Darwin derived the term natural selection from Matthew's 'principle of selection in nature'.
We are less convinced by Dr Sutton's argument that Matthew should be given priority for the discovery of natural selection. Matthew described how nature tends to improve beneficial traits within species - strength, speed, intelligence, etc. Exactly as he says, his principle applies to selection in nature. He was not writing in an evolutionary context and did not try to apply his principle to speciation, transmutation, adaptation, divergence or extinction. It is difficult then to argue that he deserves priority for what Darwin meant by the term natural selection. And, it seems to us, Matthew's principle was based on Erasmus Darwin's theories Zoonomia anyway. On this basis, if anyone apart from Charles Darwin or Wallace deserves priority for discovering natural selection, it is Erasmus Darwin.
Darwin always denied he was influenced by his predecessors' theories but this is difficult to tally with his use of words from their works. Samuel Butler noticed that passages in the Origin of Species had been copied almost word-for-word from Zoonomia 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". There are tracts taken from each of them in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Darwin hints in later editions of the Origin of Species that he misappropriated other people's words subconsciously, although this can only mean that he had read them and was probably influenced by their original ideas.
The only obvious reason Darwin might have to plagiarise his predecessors' words was to expedite publication. He was not short of reasons. Darwin was chronically ill, with an enormous list of serious health problems. He was regularly incapacitated for weeks at a time and he lived in constant fear of imminent death. The sooner he published, the less likely he would die before finishing it. Also, he wanted to prove himself, having been dismissed as a wastrel by his father and having lived under a weight of expectation as a child of two of Britain's most prominent families. He had published well-received niche academic 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. An extra year working on the Origin of Species 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.
The most obvious reason for Darwin to take such professional risks to hasten publication is a fear of what Wallace might say if he had been in England when it was published. If Darwin could get Origin of Species published while Wallace was still in the Spice Islands, it would take three months for him to hear about it and another three month for his responce to arrive in London. Any complaints would sound like sour grapes by then.
We hate to conclude that Darwin's critics are right that he stole most of his pre-Origin of Species ideas and that he seldom, if ever, devised original ideas. He denied doing anything wrong, and we get the impression from the earnestness of his letters that he believed it. We think he was suffering with some sort of delusion, but it is also true that was not really doing anything wrong before the publication of Origin of Species. His 1844 Essay and 1857 Abstract were not published. They were shared with friends, but passing off other people's ideas as his own in private letters to friends was sneaky rather than dishonourable. After the publication of Origin of Species, Darwin became more willing to acknowledge his external influences. Of course, his fame and legacy were assured by then.
Accusations that Darwin swindled Alfred Russel Wallace
For anyone unfamiliar with the allegations, it is worth explaining the background to the publication of Origin of Species.
Darwin worked on his "species theory" - i.e. evolution and natural selection - over a period of 22 years, starting upon the Beagle's return to England in 1836. He made copious notes during that time, twice corralling his then current thinking into the 1842 Sketch and the 1844 Essay.
Wallace 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 the Spice Islands in 1855 - three years before the Ternate essay - that Wallace wrote 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species', often known as the 'Sarawak Law', which describes common descent and the appearance of new species. "Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species". It is an elegant, concise and accurate description of evolution which made no attempt to describe how adaptation and speciation came about. In other words, Wallace had an accurate theory of evolution in 1855, but had not yet developed a theory equivalent to natural selection.
The Sarawak Law paper was published in September, 1855. Edward Blythe, an eminent zoologist, was impressed. He wrote to Darwin saying that he thought Wallace was right. Lyell was impressed too. It persuaded him - plodding at the speed of a locomotive (still slow in 1855), according to Darwin - to accept the theory of species mutation. Lyell showed the paper to Darwin at the start of 1856. Having dismissed Wallace's paper as passé, Darwin gave Lyell a verbal synopsis of his own theory.
Lyell, more objective and perspicacious than Darwin 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 reems of notes but nothing since 1844 that integrated them into a coherent theory. Indeed, he explained to Lyell that his theories needed to be refined before he could publish. Never the less, he started recording the mature parts of his theories into his 'Big Book' at the start of 1856. His plan was for this to be a three volume reference book about evolution and natural selection, along the lines of Lyell's "Principles of Geology".
On the 8th June, 1858, Darwin writes to Hooker thanking him for his comments on Darwin's paper about "Large and Small Genera". He says that this will be part of his Principle of Divergence which will be a "key-stone" of Big Book along with natural selection. According to his journal, Darwin had just added a major section to Big Book about the principles of Divergence and Large and Small Genera.
On the 18th June, 1858, Darwin writes to Lyell, enclosing Wallace's Ternate essay, with a note saying that he had received it earlier that day and that its theories are equivalent to his own. He asks Lyell to comment on the essay and return it to him so that he can arrange for it to be published. As we note above, Lyell and Hooker decide to make a joint presentation to the Linnean Society, thereby sharing priority between Darwin and Wallace.
Roy Davies, as reported in his book 'The Darwin Conspiracy', has found some inconsistencies in the section Darwin added to Big Book at the beginning of June. He says they were descriptions of natural selection, Divergence, and Large and Small Genera. But they also included some ideas that are in Wallace's Ternate essay. Davies' conclusion is that Darwin must have received Wallace's Ternate essay some time before June 18th and inserted some of its innovations into the new section of Big Book.
The events in June do look suspicious. At the start of the month, Darwin's youngest son contracted scarlet fever. He died at the end of June. One of Darwin's daughters was also fighting for her life with scarlet fever during June. It is an unlikely time to devise brilliant new additions to his theory. It is an unlikely time to spend a week updating Big Book. It is uncharacteristic for Darwin not to bounce his new ideas off Lyell or Hooker. And two Big Book chapters about natural selection went missing about this time, which hints that he suddenly decided they were irredeemably wrong.
Darwin could perhaps have proved his innocence by producing Wallace's covering letter and envelope but he claimed they were lost. Two other important letters from Wallace are also lost. This is bizarre considering their crucial importance and that Darwin meticulously kept and filed more than 10,000 letters of trivial unimportance.
Brackman and Brooks investigated the timing of the correspondence, as later reported in 'The Darwin Conspiracy'. They explain that Wallace sent a letter to Frederick Bates in Leicester with the same letter heading date as the Ternate essay. If both letters were dispatched on the same mail boat, they should have arrived on the same day. Bate's letter arrived on the 3rd June. Brackman and Brooks conclude that Darwin actually received the Ternate essay on the 3rd June, 15 days earlier than he claimed. They speculate that he used the missing time to correct and update Big Book with Wallace's advances to bring his theories in line. It brings a self-fulfilling truth to the statement in his 18th June letter to Lyell that his theory is equivalent.
Motivation 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 18th June letter to Lyell.
Darwin's supporters counter that the Ternate essay could have become separated from the Bates letter because the mail was sorted several times on route. If it arrived on the next mailboat, it would have been delivered to Darwin's home in Orpington on 8th June; the date that Darwin says he received it. Alternatively, as van Wyhe points out, Wallace's letter heading dates were often inaccurate. If he had misdated the Ternate essay and posted it in April rather than March, it would have arrived on that same next mailboat.
There is no tangible evidence to condemn or vindicate Darwin. The mailboat theories, while plausible, 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 Book with Wallace's theories, 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 claim.
Brackman and Brooks suspect that Darwin's initial plan was to update Big Book with Wallace's advances, publish it immediately, then deny that he had ever received the Ternate essay. This might explain why the natural selection chapters from Big Book and Wallace's covering letter and envelope went missing.
If this was Darwin's plan, he must have had a change of heart, because he abandoned Big Book half way through Chapter 10 with at least two major chapters to go. One possible reason is that Darwin might have realised that Wallace could have sent someone else a copy of the Ternate essay at the same time he posted it to Darwin. If so, that copy would have arrived in England on the same day Darwin received it, so it would take priority over anything Darwin could do thereafter. Indeed, Darwin might also have feared that the evaluators would decide that the Ternate essay pre-empted 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 6th May and 8th June letters to Hooker about Large and Small Genera would backfire. They would prove that his theories were incomplete and private on 5th May 1858, whereas Wallace's theories were self-evidently complete and shared in March 1858.
Darwin's 18th June letter puts on a brave face but it 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 dogmatic rule but thought that he deserved it more. He had been working on it for 20 years, after all, and he knew it would be one of the most important advances in the history of mankind. Then, on 25th June, it seems that Darwin had a new plan. He writes again to Lyell, saying that Wallace's Ternate essay is an abbreviated version of his 1844 Essay and that it contains nothing not covered by his 1857 Abstract. On 26th June, he writes to Lyell again, saying that he thinks it is unfair that he should lose "my priority of many years standing".
While not spelling it out, Darwin seems to be asking Lyell to use the information contained in his 25th June letter to rescue priority for him. As Derek Partridge says, it looks suspiciously as if Darwin's plan was for Lyell to pitch for priority saying that Darwin's 1857 Abstract and Wallace's Ternate essay were describing the same theories, then for Lyell and Hooker to vouch that the 1857 Abstract was a synopsis of the 1844 Essay. Darwin could then 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 1857 Abstract was not a synopsis of them.
Lyell was not so naive. He would have known Darwin's 1844 Essay was neither accurate or complete. The 1857 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 Ternate essay.
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. The shared priority pitch was a brilliant compromise. Contrary to normal procedure, they presented Darwin's 1857 Abstract and parts of his 1844 Essay first, thereby giving the impression 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 1844 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.
Darwin's defenders always note that Wallace never complained that he had been swindled. Quite the opposite. Wallace always said that Darwin had devised the theory of evolution by natural selection before him and that he was honoured that Darwin allowed him to share priority for the discoveries. Indeed, Wallace wrote to his mother saying how privileged he was that people as eminent as Darwin, Lyell and Hooker had even read his paper. We suspect that Wallace was overawed and misled.
Darwin wrote to Wallace after re-reading his 1855 Sarawak Law paper to say that they were thinking on the same lines, but that he (Darwin) was well ahead and preparing a paper for imminent publication. It is difficult to know whether Darwin was just stating facts - because he was still a little ahead of Wallace at the time - or whether he was warning Wallace off. From Wallace's post-Origin of Species behaviour, we think he believed that Darwin had solved all the mysteries of evolution and speciation by 1856, and that he was just slow preparing his paper for publication. Presumably then, he thought that his Ternate essay was just applying what Darwin already knew to biology with which he was unfamiliar. Darwin's letters and journal were not published until after Wallace's death, so he would never have known that Darwin's theories were faulty and incomplete until at least two months after he posted the Ternate essay.
We get the impression that Darwin felt guilty about how Wallace had been treated. He lobbied the government to provide Wallace with a generous pension, for which Wallace was extremely grateful. Darwin often referred to evolution and natural selection as 'our theories' whenever he was with Wallace, although the world had already associated them with Darwin alone. Years later he said to Wallace: "You are the only man I ever heard of who persistently does himself an injustice & never demands justice". Wallace still did not catch on. He was an incredibly humble and trusting person.
Darwin, behaving like a swindler, tried to cover has tracks. We have already mentioned that Origin of Species failed to cite anyone, including Wallace, that had previously suggested any part of his theories, even though he had plagiarised some of their words. He rectified this in the third edition, by which time the theories were indelibly associated with him. We have already mentioned that he implausibly claimed in his autobiography that he had devised the theories before 1840, presumably to deflect accusations that they were not original. In 1845, he dismissed Vestiges as nonsense, even though many of its principles were identical to what he said in his 1844 Essay. In 1845, he revised 'Voyage of the Beagle' to include evidence for evolution and natural selection from the Beagle crew's Galapagos specimens, presumably to cover the obvious flaw that he claimed to have based his theories on Galapagos specimens but failed to mention them in the 1839 edition of Voyage of the Beagle. In 1879, near the end of his life, he wrote a biography of his grandfather Erasmus Darwin, which omitted any mention of his grandfather's theories of evolution or speciation, again presumably to deflect accusations that his theories were not original.
In our opinion, Darwin did act dishonourably. We think it more than likely that Darwin received 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 lied to cover his tracks. This is all speculation. Despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence, there is no proof that Darwin did anything wrong. But that does not mean that nothing can be done.
1. Darwin responds to Lyell's recommendation to urgently publish for priority by saying that he needs to refine his theories before he can publish. The obvious implication is that he knew there were major flaws and/or shortfalls in his theories at the start of 1856.
2. Darwin writes to Hooker on 6th May and 8th June 1858 about new ideas that will be a key-stone of his book. The obvious implication is that there was still at least one major flaw and/or shortfall in his theories on 6th May 1858. If Davies is right that other new ideas were inserted into Big Book at this time, then there were at least two major flaws and/or shortfalls in his theories as of 6th May 1858.
3. Upon receipt of the Ternate essay on 18th June 1858, Darwin writes to Lyell saying: "So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed". Therefore, Wallace's theory must have contained the 'new' ideas that Darwin added to Big Book in early June.
In other words, Darwin's theories were incomplete and/or inaccurate on the 6th May 1858, whereas Wallace's theories were complete and accurate and shared on the 3rd March 1858 when he posted the Ternate essay. There is no doubt in our mind that Wallace should retrospectively be awarded sole priority for the discovery of natural selection.
Moreover, we think that Wallace should be awarded sole priority for the discovery of evolution and the principle of divergence. Darwin had shared his 1844 Essay which contained a flawed theory of evolution. He wrote to Asa Gray in 1857 to describe his principle of divergence. But Wallace's paper 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species', which has an accurate theory of evolution and divergence, was published two years before Darwin wrote to Gray. To rub salt into the wound, much of it was based on evidence from the Galapagos Islands that Darwin overlooked.
Darwin's contribution to evolution and natural selection
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 what remains of Big Book. 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 believed 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 1857, he had accepted the principle of divergence. This amounts to a reasonable theory of evolution and common descent, albeit missing natural selection.
Darwin could have submitted his 1844 essay for priority. It was faulty, but it was probably good enough to get priority for evolution. Wallace, after all, published his 1855 Sarawak Law essay covering much the same ground. Most experts reckon that Darwin deferred publication for fear he would be accused of sedition and heresy, like the then anonymous author (now known to be Robert Chambers) of Vestiges of the natural history of creation. We suspect that he knew it was not quite right and, riddled with self-doubt, feared ridicule.
One flaw can be seen in his 1837 Tree of Life sketch above and it is inferred in his 1844 essay: that until 1858 Darwin was a 'catastrophist', which is to say that he believed that the major changes in biology and geography were driven by major catastrophes, such as floods, ice ages, volcanoes and earthquakes. The Galapagos is a volcanic archipelago. He saw lots of closely related but subtly different species on the different islands. Therefore, most lines on his Tree of Life split into three or more subspecies. In practice, this is quite rare. Under normal circumstances, most species split into two, then two again, and so on. This is what Wallace observed on the Spice Islands and wrote about in his two monumental papers.
This leads to Darwin's key-stone letter to Hooker on 8th June 1858. He talks about his species theory and says that he has "very great confidence it is sound" . It is odd, because he is usually so tentative and and unsure of himself. We suspect that he had already read Wallace's Ternate essay, which proved some parts of his theory and that he had already adapted other parts to come in line. We guess that the foremost of these was Wallace's theory that nature is in a constant state of self-regulating flux, whereby species adaptation is going on all the time. This explains nature as we see it, whereas Darwin's previous catastrophist theory only explains part of it.
In our opinion, Darwin was no charlatan. He independently devised reasonably accurate theories for common descent, evolution and most of natural selection, albeit mostly by picking the right parts of earlier theories. He added some aspects that Wallace had not considered, such as his calculation of geological time and his belief that evolution applied equally to plants and animals. He added good supporting evidence from the Galapagos. Wallace, on the other hand, brought his theory of continuous adaptation, his evidence from the Spice Islands, 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, although this does not change our opinion that Wallace was swindled out of scientific priority for natural selection.
So much for the science. 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 products 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 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.
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.
Gribbin - Origin of Evolution
Ellen Tan Drake - Restless Genius (Hooke's influence on Hutton)
John Bevis - earthquakes
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.
Charles Darwin wrote the first Erasmus Darwin biography. It goes into a lot of detail about his grandfather's achievements and theories, except evolution and speciation which are notably and completely absent. It is as if Charles is trying to permanently hide the fact that Origin of the Species is based on Zoonomia.
Certainly, Darwin's understanding of mutability had moved on. In 1845, he published a revised edition of "The Voyage of the Beagle" which contained a section not in the original about the Galapagos finches: "Seeing the gradation and diversity of structure in one small and intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archepelego, one species had been taken and modified for different ends."
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. He presumably thought that he would not get caught. Most of the other authors were dead. Some wrote for obscure publications. Some of them did not propose formal theories. A lot of them were French at a time when the French were deeply untrusted in Britain. 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.
If Darwin's theories prior to June 1858 had developed from his predessors' original ideas, it is just as likely, given the chance, that his post June 1858 advances developed from Wallace's theories.