Darwin's house isn't the fittest Natural selection: The home where Charles Darwin once played the piano for earthworms is now a bit wormy itself and the object of a multimillion-dollar rescue effort.

Sun Journal

November 02, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DOWNE, England -- Charles Darwin's house is rotting away.

There is wood worm in the study where he wrote "Origin of Species." His laboratory is a ruined pile of bricks. His beloved sand walk, used for exercise and thought, is muddy and #F overgrown.

Does anyone care?

A race is under way to raise $4.8 million and save the residence Darwin called Down House, his home from 1842 until his death in 1882. Scientists are speaking out to attract public attention to the cause. London's Natural History Museum is seeking to extract millions from the proceeds of Britain's National Lottery. And there are plans to restore the house and create a research center to lure students from around the world.

But for now, the house remains a tarnished, nearly forgotten gem in lush countryside 16 miles southeast of London.

In Britain, literary homes are turned into shrines, and authors with even modest reputations are awarded a bit of immortality with blue plaques marking buildings where the writers lived. Hundreds of thousands of tourists annually follow the paths of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters.

But for Darwin, whose theory of evolution triggered a scientific revolution, there is only this: 5,000 visitors a year and a leaky roof.

"Darwin is surely a candidate for the greatest Englishman ever. Because he was a scientist rather than a composer or a poet, perhaps we as a nation value him a little bit less," says Richard Dawkins, a zoologist and first holder of the Charles Simonyi chair of public understanding of science at Oxford University.

Darwin challenged the human-centered view of the world. He demonstrated that the natural forces that shaped other species also shaped humans. In the struggle for existence, fitter organisms survived and reproduced in greater numbers -- the process he named natural selection.

"His essential idea that we have all evolved from a single common ancestor and that the driving force of evolution is natural selection is a good candidate for the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind," says Dr. Dawkins. "If you think about what Darwin's idea can explain, it is such an enormous amount."

The theory of evolution cut a swath through science, religion, even politics. Those who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible were appalled by the seeming absence of God's hand in evolution. Others misused Darwin's ideas to promote pseudoscientific theories of war and cruelty, claiming they were natural in a world built on the survival of the fittest.

In the United States, the theory has consistently aroused controversy, from the 1925 "monkey trial" of John Scopes, a Tennessee schoolteacher who was charged with violating a law against teaching the theory of evolution, to present-day efforts to reintroduce into public schools the study of creationism. Meanwhile, the scientific community considers the theory of evolution to be the pillar for the study of plant and animal life.

If there is drama in human thought, or in the writing of 12 books, then the drama occurred at Down House, a large, airy place set on 20 acres.

lTC Inside, the controversy about its future fades. Anyone who visits has the sense of being able to reach out and touch genius, despite the rising damp and the peeling paint.

Darwin's chair, writing table and cane are placed in a corner of his study. His scratchy handwriting adorns maps hanging on the walls. A spool of twine rests on a table, a reminder of Darwin's habit of ripping the bindings off journals and wrapping the pages in string. In another room is the original journal from Darwin's five-year voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, the surveying trip that set the course of his career.

"I feel very reverent about the house when I'm there," says Dr. Dawkins. "Darwin is my great hero. I feel there is an atmosphere in the house."

The keeper of the Darwin flame is Solene Morris, a native of Bedford, N.Y. For the last six years, she has served as the Down House curator. She calls herself "Darwin's housekeeper."

"I like to consider this house as an anchor," she says. "People can come here and gather their thoughts, the same as Darwin did."

Darwin and his wife, Emma Wedgwood, had 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. The children participated in his experiments. So did the butler, gardeners and governesses.

It was here that Darwin studied earthworms, pigeons and barnacles.

"This was not just an empty place," naturalist David Attenborough said in a recent lecture. "It wasn't a vacuum that he was working in. He was working in the English countryside. He was working with not only the thoughts that he carried back with him from the Galapagos, but with the animals and plants of the English countryside.

"He wrote a whole volume on earthworms which he observed in the garden. He did entertaining experiments, almost caricature in their simplicity. He played different notes to earthworms on the piano to see their reactions. He got his family to play notes to them."

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