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  • In the late summer of 1859, Charles Darwin finally completed the last

  • paragraph of his greatest work on The Origin Of Species.

  • But he wasn't drawing his inspiration from the exotic islands

  • that he'd visited on his famous voyage on HMS Beagle.

  • A chalk bank in Kent, near his house at Downe,

  • provided his metaphor for the laws

  • that explain the diversity of life on our planet.

  • It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds,

  • with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about,

  • and with worms crawling through the damp earth,

  • and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms,

  • so different from each other,

  • and dependent on each other in so complex a manner,

  • have all been produced by laws acting around us.

  • Darwin was unleashing a new vision of nature,

  • where species evolved independently from the guiding hand of a creator.

  • The established vision of a harmonious world, divinely ordaine

  • to serve God's noblest creation, mankind, would be shattered.

  • He was very aware

  • that what he was dealing with was effectively intellectual dynamite,

  • and he kept most of his thoughts about what he was doing

  • in terms of where man might come from,

  • where new species might arise, effectively secret.

  • It was a secret with which Darwin had wrestled for 20 years.

  • 20 years of unflinching support from his wife Emma, who feared that

  • her beloved husband might be consigned to eternal damnation

  • for challenging traditional beliefs.

  • Together they would endure two decades of debilitating illness,

  • self-doubt, and family tragedy.

  • It was a life struggle that Darwin also saw

  • among the animals and plants in the fields and tangled banks

  • of the Kentish countryside.

  • A struggle that is a founding principle of his theory of natural selection.

  • And the last paragraph of the Origin Of Species really goes out with a perfect bang.

  • The whole book has been about the struggle for existence

  • and what Tennyson had called nature red in tooth and claw.

  • The last paragraph gives, to me, a sense of hope.

  • It sort of shows that this war of all against all,

  • actually has a result and the result is the living world we see around us.

  • The beauties of the tangled bank,

  • the worms and the butterflies and the grass and the orchids,

  • all of these beauties of nature emerge from Darwin's simple idea.

  • There is grandeur in this view of life,

  • with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms

  • or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling along

  • according to the fixed laws of gravity,

  • from so simple a beginning

  • endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful

  • have been, and are being, evolved.

  • Just as beauty and wonder emerge out of a war of nature,

  • so too did Charles Darwin's great book evolve out of years

  • of painstaking research and inner conflict.

  • At the age of 33,

  • Charles Robert Darwin was already an established gentleman naturalist.

  • His substantial private income

  • enabled him to pursue his particular interest,

  • solving what had been called "the mystery of mysteries".

  • How animals and plants might transmute or evolve.

  • It was to find a quiet place to write

  • that in 1842 he and his burgeoning family had moved to a house

  • just outside London near the village of Downe, in Kent.

  • After several fruitless searches in Surrey and elsewhere,

  • we found this house and purchased it.

  • I was pleased by the diversified appearance

  • of the vegetation proper to a chalk district,

  • and so unlike what I had been accustomed to in the Midland counties.

  • And still more pleased with the extreme quietness

  • and rusticity of the place.

  • Darwin knew in the country there was space to expand his experiments,

  • to walk, to observe nature.

  • There was plenty of information there for him to draw on

  • and then there was a very important factor for Darwin

  • of getting into a space where he felt safe,

  • with his secret theory of transmutation.

  • In the early 1840s, transmutation or evolution was still a radical idea,

  • associated with social revolution.

  • It was a secret that he shared with his wife and first cousin

  • Emma Wedgwood, whom he had married three years earlier.

  • I marvel at my good fortune that Emma, so infinitely my superior

  • in every single moral quality, should have consented to be my wife.

  • Emma was the precondition for everything that he did.

  • She... created a love-shaped space

  • where he felt safe to work obsessively without fearing

  • the loss of love and damaging their relationship.

  • She was to nurse him through years of recurrent bouts of illness,

  • the nature of which remains unclear to this day.

  • Possibly damage caused by a South American parasite,

  • inflamed by anxiety and nervous tension.

  • 25 years' extreme spasmodic daily and nightly flatulence.

  • Vomiting preceded by shivering, hysterical crying,

  • dying sensations or half-faint and copious and very pallid urine.

  • Air fatigues bring on head symptoms, nervousness when Emma leaves me.

  • I think she was always concerned about his health.

  • She was constantly trying to persuade him

  • to have a day off here, go on a trip there,

  • not because she wanted his company,

  • but because she felt if he carried on working at the pace

  • at which he was going, then he would become more ill.

  • Emma was to provide Charles with ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

  • As a father, Charles Darwin did not conform

  • to the standard Victorian stereotype

  • of the distant and stern pater familias.

  • Darwin was very much a family man.

  • He writes rather wryly one year

  • that his wife hadn't been doing very well last year

  • because she hadn't had a baby,

  • which is pretty rude for a Victorian, I have to say.

  • But what's fascinating is that he used his children

  • as experimental animals.

  • He noted their expressions when they were crying, when they were angry

  • and he saw how similar they were to the expression of a dog.

  • He saw his family as part of the human family,

  • the human family as part of the mammal family,

  • the mammal family as at one with the primroses.

  • And that really shows that he saw humankind

  • as an intrinsic part of the living world and not apart from it.

  • This was radically different from the established Christian view

  • of the time, where mankind was God's special and separate creation.

  • He kept his real opinions in a private notebook.

  • Man in his arrogance thinks of himself as a great work,

  • worthy of the interposition of a deity.

  • More humble and I believe true,

  • to think him created from animals.

  • And Charles and Emma did what animals do,

  • only they had a bed to do it in, upstairs.

  • But then because Darwin believed strongly in analogy,

  • it's not only animals that do what people do, but it's also plants

  • that do what people do in strange and complicated ways.

  • So from the marriage bed to the flower bed was only 100 yards

  • and Darwin would go downstairs,

  • out the back door, down to his flower beds

  • where experiments were being performed and how these creatures,

  • he even regarded some plants as simple animals,

  • also reproduced themselves.

  • Just over a year after he arrived at Downe,

  • he felt bold enough to tentatively raise the issue of species change

  • with his botanist friend Joseph Hooker.

  • At last gleams of light have come

  • and I'm almost convinced that species are not immutable.

  • It is like confessing a murder.

  • Hooker's response was noncommittal.

  • Darwin retreated into his shell.

  • If Hooker wouldn't buy it, then his old teachers at Cambridge certainly wouldn't.

  • Even the most progressive members of the Anglican clergy still saw nature's beauty and abundance

  • as divinely ordained for the benefit of the Lord's highest creation, man.

  • The fundamental idea around nature for many people during the early part of the 19th century,

  • particularly in Cambridge, but throughout Anglican Britain,

  • was that of design.

  • The world was made for man and probably the best way

  • of explaining this is just to think about the 24 hour day.

  • We think of that of course as just an outcome of astronomical chance,

  • in the way that the planets work and so forth.

  • For people who were sitting in Cambridge,

  • the idea was basically the 24 hour day is...

  • that's because humans need to sleep for eight hours.

  • And everything around them is organised from that fact,

  • from human need going outwards.

  • To suggest that mankind was merely a product of nature risked attack

  • from the black robed priests, the black beasts, as Darwin called them.

  • But what he possibly feared even more was the loss of respect

  • from the Cambridge dons who had taught and inspired him.

  • Men such as the straight spoken Yorkshireman

  • the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, professor of geology,

  • who saw God's design in nature.

  • "Denying this... "

  • ".. Might brutalise it and sink the human race

  • "into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen

  • "since records tell us of its history. "

  • Sedgwick represents a union, an uneasy union of science and religion

  • that had prevailed since the 17th century, in Britain particularly.

  • A division of labour in which those who study nature

  • offer to those who study God,

  • evidence of God's greatness and goodness and wisdom

  • in the world about us and those who study God's revelation in the Bible

  • offer reasons for believing in God that he has revealed to us

  • and how to go to heaven.

  • Nature doesn't tell us how to go to heaven,

  • but it tells us that there is a God in heaven,

  • who has revealed himself and how to get there in the Bible.

  • It was with these traditional views in mind that in early 1844,

  • Darwin began to prepare a manuscript

  • that he hoped would eventually show even men like Sedgwick

  • that evolution was a reality,

  • and that he had found the mechanism that made it happen.

  • But as a punctilious and cautious man,

  • he needed to marshal his evidence.

  • What he does there at Downe

  • is really create a living laboratory.

  • You know, a laboratory to go along with his career, as it were.

  • It's not just Darwin sitting alone, looking out the window.

  • Darwin didn't just use his house and gardens to observe and learn from nature.

  • He bred pigeons and orchids, raised 50 varieties of gooseberry,

  • and to counter the creationists,

  • he became a beekeeper

  • in order to show that the near perfect hexagons in honeycombs

  • were made by instinct rather than divine design.

  • My habits are methodical,

  • my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.

  • I have the strongest desire

  • to understand or explain whatever I have observed.

  • To group all facts under some general laws.

  • He would also create a place to think.

  • A rough oval shaped path of gravel was laid down and trees planted

  • to provide him with a half kilometre walking circuit.

  • He called it the Sand Walk.

  • Darwin called the Sand Walk his thinking path.

  • He watched the trees grow and many of them are still there...

  • .. in the knowledge and hope that he would be able to

  • pace around this plot and escape the pressure

  • of sitting in one place

  • and writing and squeezing one's ideas out the point of a pen.

  • Darwin would lose himself in thought on the Sand Walk,

  • so much so that the only way he could keep track of the time he spent there

  • was to keep track of the laps and he kept track of the laps

  • by a pile of flints,

  • one of which he would kick to the side after a lap

  • and when the whole pile had been moved across the path,

  • he knew he had completed his exercise, that was your thinking time for the day.

  • We, the subsequent generation, love the Sand Walk

  • because we can imagine Darwin on it and think about

  • what he can see from the sand... in the Sand Walk.

  • He can see these climbing plants, the bryony

  • in the hedge for example.

  • He can see Great Puckland's field where he will, you know,

  • formulate a concept of biodiversity.

  • Secluded in his rural laboratory, Darwin's manuscript on what he was already calling natural selection

  • developed into an essay, suitable for publication.

  • Some of his text drew on the experiences he had on his round the world Beagle expedition.

  • Out of the five years he spent on the voyage,

  • he'd stayed just five weeks on the Galapagos Islands,

  • collecting specimens of plants and different species of mockingbirds and finches.

  • The significance of his Galapagos experience in the development of his theory has been overstated.

  • Just as I think it's very common to imagine

  • that great theories appear in a rush, through inspiration, all at once,

  • as though every scientist is like Archimedes

  • streaking along a street from his bath somewhere in Syracuse.

  • So, we want the place where the inspiration hits

  • to be glamorous and exotic and the Galapagos does that perfectly,

  • but that's completely to get the origin of the origin entirely wrong.

  • It was only back in London after his Galapagos visit that Darwin realised

  • that the species of birds and plants he collected were subtly

  • different from island to island,

  • yet were closely similar to species on the South American continent.

  • In the 1844 manuscript, he used this as evidence

  • that new species had evolved

  • as continental birds and plants adapted to the different island habitats.

  • The Galapagos of course are a fantastic

  • place to go and... there's a way

  • in which they're inevitably going to be associated with Darwin.

  • But I think their importance I think is easy to misunderstand.