0

Down House maintains the spirit of Darwin

Features column

Loran Smith 

Loran Smith 

It took an effort, but the conclusion was that it was worth it to find my way to both Charles Darwin's home and his birthplace, which are approximately 150 miles apart.

On the front end of a fortnight in England and France, there was a visit to Down House where Darwin lived out his life-and at the end of the trip, a stop here where he was born and grew up.

To get to his country home, near Downe, is not much of a challenge. Simply take a train from London's Victoria Station to Bromley South. Then you take bus 146 out to Downe and you can walk to Down House — unless you visit on Sunday when bus 146 doesn't run.

After negotiating with a pleasant taxi driver named Larry, I was soon at Down House where a nice young lady, Magdalena Marsden, acknowledged that press cards are honored, which was good for the budget in this weak dollar era. There was a question which Magdalena answered immediately. If the naturalist's home is named Down House and the name of the town is Downe, why did Darwin drop the "e"? "He didn't," she explained. "The town, to keep it from being confused with Ireland's County Down," added the "e."

As I became engrossed in the story of Darwin's life, I wondered if I might be the only Southern Baptist on the premises. Nonetheless, I was happy to have an opportunity to learn about this fascinating scientist. I found his story interesting and illuminating, and I've always felt that it behooves us to listen to what the man had to say. A tour of Down House causes you to ponder and speculate.

First of all, I have never had any problem with wealth if it has been accumulated honestly. My first conclusion was that the world today is the beneficiary of Darwin's genius because his father, a doctor and financier, was substantially well off on his own, wealth that was added to by his having married into the Wedgwood family.

Charles Darwin never had to work, but he was not spoiled, shiftless, or lazy. He, like so many others, had to find direction in his life. He found school work boring and enjoyed the outdoors. Once he took up the study of science, he had time to think and study all his life. He never had to worry about paying the rent. His family's financial status, no doubt, enabled him to take the five-year voyage on the Beagle to conduct research-from Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Cape Horn, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia, the west coast of South America, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. The trip, Darwin said, was "the most extraordinary trip of his life" and the one which "determined my whole career."

On the trip, a brochure discloses, he endeared himself to his traveling companions by utilizing his hunting skills in providing meat for the crew. He was nearly ordered off the boat in Brazil when he passionately argued against slavery with the captain. Some believe that on the voyage he contracted something that was to contribute to ill health in the last years of his life. My guess is that he would have said, if asked, it was worth it.

This was a man who asked questions, but he obviously let his research speak for him. He was a doting father of 10 children and was devastated by the death of his eldest daughter, Annie, who died at age eight, probably from tuberculosis. Some of his children were weak at birth and were sickly children, which caused Darwin to fear that their ill health resulted from his marriage to a first cousin.

His book on evolution, "On the Origin of Species," was in its sixth printing when he died in 1882. A tour of Down House was edifying, not so much for the artifacts Darwin left behind but because of the spirit of the man whose enquiring mind stimulated a lot of thought and research. He wasn't a kook-rather, a man with deep inquisitiveness about life and the nature of things.

Upon leaving there was the recall of humorous doggerel I learned years ago — one theory of evolution: "First he was a tadpole beginning to begin; next he was a froggie with his tail tucked in; then he was a monkey swinging from a coconut tree; now he is a professor with his PhD."

Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at loransmithathens@bellsouth.net.