Down House was as much a laboratory as a home when Charles Darwin was in residence – even the resident garden worms became the subject of three decades of study. Today it has been beautifully restored to its late nineteenth century heyday and still provides opportunity for education, albeit for the Londoner seeking a bit of greenery with their Sunday cultural outing.
Darwin lived at Down House, just outside Orpington in the south east extremity of Greater London (or Kent if you are a resident) for his entire adult life after returning from the five year trip on the Beagle that was to change utterly both him and human understanding of our origins.
Set in fourteen acres of grounds it must have been a wonderful place for a naturalist to live and work. Famously, Darwin constructed an oval sandwalk or “thinking path” around his property for the purposes of cogitation and observation.
The twenty-first century visitor can retrace his daily steps, although on this January trip we contented ourselves with a stroll around the inner garden, from from the Mulberry tree that stretches to tap on the dining room window, past the greenhouse (replete with three temperatures and humidity zones, where Darwin’s study of an unusual orchid which hides its nectar 30cm deep in a stem led him to the view that there must exist an insect with a similarly sized tongue, a theory corroborated many decades later), pausing to stare into the experimental funghi field and conclude that mushrooms don’t like winter, and on through an avenue of trees where tens of paraqueets gathered on our previous visit, but today had presumably retreated to warmer parts.
Darwin famously procrastinated for twenty years before publishing ‘On the Origins of the Species’, only for Alfred Wallace’s arrival at a similar theory of evolution to spur him into action – a fact he surprisingly states outright in the book’s foreword. But judging by the number of self-penned titles on the walls of his study he didn’t hold back thereafter.
Tim Flannery, the biologist sacked as the head of Australia’s national climate change department by global warming denier, Tony Abbott (ultra-fit athletes collapsing from heat exhaustion during record temperatures at the Australian tennis open is just coincidence, apparently), argues that you need to read the later works to really understand Darwin. Indeed, he cites the great man’s aforementioned obsessive study of the garden worm as a pivotal work.
I’m not planning on reading it to test this theory, but I was impressed to learn that from these observations Darwin was able to calculate that the soil-turning toil of this humble creature was responsible for burying everything from Roman villas to neolithic monuments. He event treated himself to a visit to the odd archaeological dig to see the evidence.
As you would expect from a lifelong naturalist, there are a lot of preserved bugs in the Darwin collection, but for me the highlight of the cleverly curated exhibits were Darwin’s numerous notebooks from the Beagle voyage. Writing in the understandable scrawl of someone who was never comfortable at sea, the notes are nonetheless legible enough for the modern reader to get a sense of his immediate reaction as he studied the now famous giant tortoises, finches and other species he encountered on his fifty-eight month circumnavigation.
Clearly he was a scientist of the patient, meticulous school rather than a eureka merchant.
There are other little written gems around the museum, not least Darwin’s response to a letter from Karl Marx congratulating him on the theory of evolution, in which the biologist noted that his work was somewhat removed from the political economy of Das Kapital, but recognised nevertheless a shared attempt to advance the sum total of humankind’s knowledge.
Last but not least, Down House helped me understand that part of Darwin’s reticence to publish his theory was a fear of the consequences of unleashing scientific proof of the concept that humanities’ ascent has been about the ‘survival of the fittest’ (actually a term he copied from the libertarian philosopher Herbert Spencer).
Even someone of Darwin’s foresight couldn’t have anticipated Margaret Thatcher’s bastardisation of his theory into a view that there is “no such thing as society”, but Darwin correctly expected European imperialists to use his arguments to bolster their claim of supremacy over the majority of humanity they denigrated as savages. Darwin’s own travels had not cured him of VIctorian notions of British supremacy, but they had shown how little innate difference there was between the different races of the world.
All in all a cracking day out and I wish we could have stayed the evening to view what will no doubt be a fantastic night’s sky, from the house where we started to understand that every living thing is evolved from the same space dust.
Down House is accessible from London by train and bus via Bromley South or Orpington stations.