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Down home with Darwin, at 200

Bicentennial events include opening the quiet English retreat where

February 12, 2009|Henry Chu

DOWNE, ENGLAND — The house that helped rock the world is spacious but not grand. It sits on a country lane in the south of England, at the edge of a tranquil meadow recently whitewashed by an unusual snowfall.

Here, the great scientist worked with inexhaustible patience in his Victorian study, staring for hours at specimens through a microscope or pondering the riddle of life. In a black armchair specially fitted with wheels, Charles Darwin wrote "On the Origin of Species," the book that forever changed the way we look at the world around us -- and at ourselves.

For 40 years, Down House was the perfect place for Darwin to think, write and enjoy family life out of the spotlight.

"The country is extraordinarily rural and quiet, with narrow lanes and high hedges and hardly any ruts," Darwin wrote. "It is really surprising to think London is only 16 miles off."

But so much for retiring from public view. Today, 200 years after his birth on Feb. 12, 1809, Darwin seems to be everywhere in his native land.

His bushy-bearded face graces numerous television programs exploring the impact of his ideas. Prominent Britons dissect his life and times on the radio. The city of Shrewsbury, Darwin's birthplace, is lighting up buildings at night with huge projected images and films relating to its most famous son.

Libraries, zoos, art galleries, choral groups, universities, museums and, a little ironically, churches all own a piece of the extravaganza celebrating Darwin's bicentennial, a yearlong series of 300 events that make up one of the most extensive national commemorations of a single person ever to be held in this country.

That may only be fitting for someone whose revolutionary theory of how life evolved leaped over the boundaries of pure science and into so many other spheres -- politics, religion, economics, the arts.

"It's difficult to overstate how pervasive Darwin's work is," said Robert M. Bloomfield, coordinator of the umbrella organization Darwin200 and head of special projects at London's Natural History Museum. "He undoubtedly produced the biggest idea in science in the 19th century and, some people say, of all time. Because when you question your relationship to nature, you question everything."

A recent editorial by the Times of London went so far as to argue: "Darwin is not merely a man of his time. The extent of his achievement gives him a plausible claim to be counted the greatest figure in this nation's history."

That a scientist whose ideas still rile conservative religious groups can be so effusively feted is a testament to how secular Britain is, at least in the public square. There have been few hiccups of protest over the attention being lavished on Darwin or the money spent on ballyhooing his legacy.

"It isn't polarized like it is in the U.S.," Bloomfield said. "There are people who rant on the interplay between science and faith, but it's not the same sort of political debate in the U.K."

Still, even the critically acclaimed "Darwin: Big Idea, Big Exhibition" at Bloomfield's museum gives a nod to the controversies spawned by the concept of evolution through natural selection. Under the heading "Sticker Shock," a biology textbook from Georgia bears a warning label mandated by the local education board: "Evolution is a theory, not a fact." A short video also addresses the friction between Darwinism and religion.

But the thrust of the exhibition is the evolution, as it were, of Darwin's own thinking, how the seed of a blockbuster idea was planted and nourished over a long period.

Crucial to that was his five-year voyage around the world on the Beagle, which launched in 1831 and took the budding naturalist to exotic destinations full of creatures he had never heard of, whose variety and subtle gradations set his mind racing.

The captain, Robert FitzRoy, considered Darwin "a very superior young man," and on display are some of the notebooks kept by the wide-eyed Cambridge undergraduate, with pages crossed out after he meticulously transcribed them upon his return to England. (Not available, unfortunately, and perhaps no longer extant is Darwin's copy of "Paradise Lost," which, poignantly enough, was one of only four books he brought on board with him.)

In another case lies the Holy Grail of Darwiniana: the red notebook Darwin kept back in London containing his famous drawing of the "Tree of Life," on which he mapped out the development of different forms of life from a common primordial root. Modestly written at the top of the page are the words: "I think."

As someone who once entertained the ambition of becoming a country parson, Darwin knew the outrage his theory would trigger in a society that largely clung to the biblical view of creation. Voicing his opinions was, he confided to a friend, like "confessing a murder."

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