Until my early twenties, I had never really thought about Darwin. I was halfway through a doctorate in biology by then, so in retrospect this seems like a glaring omission. Naturally, I had thought about Darwinism – or more accurately, I simply knew about it. Darwinism was at the centre of a scientific ‘theory of everything’ instilled early on by my parents, both professional biologists. There were very few childish ‘why’s’ in our household that couldn’t be answered by either Darwin or Newton. Laws of nature stood in for any conventional religion, with perhaps the advantage that they didn’t seem irrational or intrusive, so as I grew up, I never felt moved to reject them. Such was the happy upbringing that could produce a student of biology who had never given a serious second thought to what has been called ‘the greatest single idea in the history of thought’: that living species are not God-given and immutable but are capable of changing and evolving under the pressure of natural selection.
Fortunately, my consciousness was raised by a friend and mentor who took me to visit Down House, Darwin’s family home and now one of the most charming specialist museums in Great Britain. The house lies in a beautiful tract of Kentish countryside and we visited on a rare day of perfect English summer, green and golden hills rolling away on all sides. Romanticism aside, however, Down House truly brought Charles Darwin to life for me. Here was his ‘thinking path’, a tree-lined walk around the gardens where he paced and pondered daily. Here was the book-lined study where he spent eight patient years dissecting barnacles. Later, as I began to read the cumbersomely titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), its imagined author accompanied me like an affable, Victorian David Attenborough.
Darwin’s masterwork has been in print fo
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