Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Charles Darwin, the gentleman scientist

Yesterday, we went to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, with a friend from the US. I've been meaning to go for a while and, as an evolutionary biologist, I guess it is something of a Pilgrimage. (Somehow fitting, therefore, that my Tom Tom Sat Nav decided to direct via all the country backroads, including Pilgrim's Way.) The house is now looked after by English Heritage and features some great exhibits and insights into the great man's life.

As I am reading the blog of Darwin's Beagle diaries, I was initially most interested in the material from that time of his life, including the reconstruction of his cabin on the Beagle. Perhaps what struck me most, though, was Darwin the man, not Darwin the scientist.

Darwin was a gentleman in every sense. It is true that he was independently wealthy and never had to work for his money, being the son of a very successful doctor and financier. Although he did not eschew this inheritance (honestly, who would?!) it is clear that he did not take his fortune for granted. I have already seen glimpses of his opposition to slavery in his journal comments but it was clear from Darwin House that he was also a kind employer to those paid to serve on his staff. His butler, Joseph Parslow, for example was described on his headstone as "Faithful servant and friend of Charles Darwin" and used to play billiards with Darwin. One of Charles Darwin's sons, Frances, wrote (quote taken from TwoJays):
"“As a master of servants he was much loved and respected; he always spoke to them with politeness, using the expression "would you be so good" in asking for anything. And he was considerate in giving them trouble, one little thing I remember, how he used to reprove one for using a useless number of spoons because it gave so much more trouble in cleaning."
On the subject of Darwin's children, the other thing that really came across from the house and the quotes taken from letters etc. was how much he cared for his family. Not only was Darwin a keen lover of nature, he was a loving husband and a doting father. It is not hard to imagine Down House and its gardens as the site of happiness and fun as well as some of the most influential science of the modern age.

Critics of Darwin often try to make him out as some kind of monster, as if discrediting the man can discredit the science. Of course, this is nonsense on many levels. Newton, it seems, was a pretty nasty piece of work but his scientific genius remains. In Darwin's case, not only has the science stood the test of time but the character of the man himself deserves respect, whether you accept the scientific truth of evolution by Natural Selection or not.

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