I recently visited the Galapagos (more posts and pictures coming soon). During that trip I brushed up on some of my Darwin knowledge- in a lecture on board, with some books in the ship’s library, and reading The Voyage of the Beagle on my Kindle. I just got back from a very different trip (visiting family in the UK), but again I managed to brush up on some Darwin, this time by visiting the place where he lived, worked, and died- Down House.
Down House, the home of Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) for the last 40 years of his life, is in the village of Downe in Kent. Here Darwin conducted many experiments, and wrote most of his scientific work (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) being the most well known). I am certainly a Darwin enthusiast (some might say a Darwin stalker…), but I expect that even those who have only a mild interest in Darwin, history, evolution, or science would enjoy a tour around this historic site.
Down House is located in the village of Downe (the Darwin’s kept the traditional spelling after an “e” was added to the village to distinguish it from the county Down in Ireland), and it has had a number of renovations since it’s initial construction in the early 1700s. The Darwin’s acquired Down House in 1842, when Darwin and his wife (and first cousin) Emma (nee Wedgewood) wished to escape the hustle and bustle of London with their growing family (at the time they had two children and were expecting a third). Darwin, in his characteristically frank style wrote, “It is a good, very ugly house, with 18 acres.”, though I think many today would disagree with this assessment!
Over the course of his 40 years at the house Darwin enlarged it not only for his growing family (he and Emma had ten children, though only 7 survived to adulthood), but also for the comfort of his servants. Writing to family he said “It seemed so selfish to make the house so luxurious for ourselves and not comfortable for our servants “. One of Darwin’s many interesting (and noteworthy) traits was his humanism. He was an avid abolitionist (a disagreement with Captain Fitzroy on this subject almost got him kicked off the Beagle), a kind “master” to his house staff, a loving and involved father (an anomaly in Victoria times), and supporter of the humane treatment of animals.
Today the name Charles Darwin calls up images of a great scientist, a deep thinker, and a major contributor to human knowledge. However, this certainly wasn’t the future his family imagined when Charles was a youth. As a boy he received a classical education at Shrewsbury School. This was not an education that paired well with young Charles’ interests of beetle collecting (then a national craze), chemistry, and shooting. His father, a respected physician, is reported to have said “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”.
After his mediocre performance at Shrewsbury School, Darwin was sent to Edinburgh to follow in his father’s footprints and become a physician. Alas (or fortunately, for the future of science), Charles could not stomach the brutality of surgery in the era before anesthesia, and he returned home after less than two years. He was next sent to Cambridge to earn a degree so that he could enter the clergy (entering the clergy was a common career path for men from good families with a penchant for natural history).
While Darwin did complete his degree at Cambridge, he never went on to study for the clergy, as he was recommended by a mentor to accompany Captain Robert Fitzroy on the Beagle. Darwin wasn’t the first young naturalist recommended for the job (he actually wasn’t on the boat as the naturalist, though he did later rise to this position, his “job” on the ship was to act as Fitzroy’s companion- a gentleman that a captain could talk to amongst a ship-full of burly sailors). While his father did not support this decision he did eventually let young Darwin (he was 22 at the time) depart on this adventure at the recommendation of Charles’ uncle Josiah Wedgewood.
The expedition aboard the Beagle was meant to last two years, but it stretched into a five-year endeavor. Darwin’s observations during this travel were instrumental in shaping his thinking and his future. It is rather fascinating to realize that Darwin’s 5-year, around-the-world journey aboard the Beagle was the only travel he ever undertook. He returned to England in October of 1836, married in January of 1838, and in September of 1842 took his growing family from the strictures of London to Down House where he would spend the rest of his life.
Once at Down House, Darwin preferred to correspond with friends rather than travel back and forth to London. He was a prolific letter writer- spending the equivalent of thousands of pounds per year on stationary and postage. While it does seem that Darwin was a bit of an introvert, this insular life was largely a result of ill health. Once an active and lively young man with a penchant for exploring and shooting, he was plagued with illness after his return from the journey aboard the Beagle. His symptoms, which were present in varying degrees for the rest of his life, included a number of GI problems, palpitations, and extreme fatigue. There have been many theories about this illness, ranging from Chagas disease to Chronic Fatigue, including lactose intolerance, Crohn’s disease, and psychosomatic disorders. Whatever the cause, this illness debilitated Darwin, and at Down House he developed a schedule around his symptoms- working when he could and resting when he must.
Down house wasn’t only Darwin’s home, but also the place where he conducted many experiments – on pigeons, barnacles, orchids, and weeds- work that was instrumental in supporting his theory of natural selection. Of course Darwin was not the first person to suggest that species were mutable, but he was the first to convincingly propose a cogent mechanistic theory and support it with various lines of evidence. Both he and Alfred Russel Wallace appreciated the implication of Thomas Malthus’ commentary on populations- that sooner or later populations were checked by famine and disease- and both men independently came to the same theory of natural selection based upon the pressures exerted by nature. However, it was Darwin who first wrote about the theory (though he did not publish it) and who collected extensive evidence to support the theory.
The remnants of some of Darwin’s experiments can still be seen at Down House. His hot houses (heated by composting manure!), where he maintained large numbers of orchids and carnivorous plants, are still maintained, as are the large kitchen gardens where he studied primulas. A reconstruction of “The Worm Stone” that Darwin and his son Horace used to study the action of worms is in the garden, and English Heritage, who maintains the house, continues to dig experimental weed plots similar to those that Darwin constructed to study the succession of plants.
Throughout my visit to Down House I was overcome with a feeling of awe. I grew up with a deep respect and affection for Darwin- my father is a huge fan, to the point where my brother’s middle name is Darwin. Being the second born I received an equally nerdy though significantly less well known middle name- Lyell.
Charles Lyell was a geologist (I actually wrote about him briefly in my first blog post!) and a well-respected scientist. He was a mentor for Darwin, though it took him a while to come around to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. He eventually did, and it was Charles Lyell and Joseph Hooker who presented Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers On the Tendencies of Species to form Varieties and On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection to the Linnean Society in 1858. It was a thrill to see Darwin’s portrait of Lyell in his study, as well as various volumes of Lyell’s books in locations throughout the house.
Visiting Down House certainly increased my understanding of this great man, and also increased my respect for him. He was a humble man, a hard-working man, a loving father, and a great mind. He was also a troubled man- plagued with illness, profoundly concerned by the implications of his theory, and deeply scarred by the loss of children he loved.
Darwin’s work on natural selection is a classical example of the scientific method. As a naturalist, especially during his time aboard the Beagle, he made a number of observations. These observations led him to a hypothesis (natural selection) that he then researched extensively. He was not purely a “great thinker”, who came up with a theory, but also a patient and meticulous experimentalist who painstakingly showed that species were mutable through pressures of nature.
Sometimes in science, medicine, and certainly in the paleosphere we get stuck on an idea or a theory. We latch on to something that just “makes sense” or fits in nicely with our current way of thinking, and we start to accept it as fact. Seeing how hard Darwin worked to build evidence to support a theory, which on an intellectual basis was so obvious, reminds me how important it is to not stand on theory alone, but to work diligently towards better understanding through rigorous science.