Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:47 pm on 19th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Shadow Minister, Health 3:47 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Hooper on initiating this splendid debate. It has been so revealing that several noble Lords have such distinguished ancestors associated with Darwin, including my noble friends Lord Jenkin of Roding and Lord Lyell, and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, but more of that anon.

Several noble Lords have rightly dealt fully with Darwin's unique and outstanding contribution to science and his very careful and humble construction of his theory of evolution. I should like to deal mainly with the man, his family and Down House. My interest in Charles Darwin began when Sir Hedley Atkins, my chief at Guy's Hospital, took charge and lived in Down House in Downe, Kent. He took over this splendid old house which was very much in need of repairs; the ground floor was overrun with chickens. He raised a great deal of money, including fees from his private surgical practice, to transform the house and extensive gardens into a most attractive place. He lived on the top floor with his family while the ground floor was the Darwin Museum, which could not have had a more enthusiastic curator than Sir Hedley.

The village of Downe spelt with an "e" at the end was originally spelt without an "e" but in the early 19th century it was changed to its present spelling. It was said by some that it was to avoid confusion with County Down in Ireland. Darwin and his family did not approve of the change and continued with the original spelling.

Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury and when he was eight his mother died and he was looked after by his three elder sisters. At school his unusual interest in chemistry earned him the nickname "Gas". As his father considered that his 16 year-old son was spending too much time shooting game, he sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine, but he left after two years having seen, and been horrified by, a child having an operation without an anaesthetic. He then studied theology at Cambridge, where he secured tenth place in the bachelor of arts degree in 1831. Shortly after, he sailed on the "Beagle" and the five-year voyage of hardship was the making of him. As has been mentioned, he was unfortunately plagued by intolerable sea-sickness, but nausea was also a problem on land, according to his autobiography. Darwin wrote:

"I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me".

Although it has been suggested that the Galapagos Islands clinched his great theory, that was probably not the case. Having visited the Galapagos Islands, I fully agree with the enthusiasm of noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery of Alamein, for those wonderful islands, but I was pleased not to have experienced Darwin's finding that the islands were "frying hot".

Darwin was immensely wealthy. While he was still in his 30s, he had £80,000 of investments and two large farms in Lincolnshire and in the 1880s, he bought thousands of pounds' worth of railway shares, so working for nothing on the five-year expedition was not exactly a problem.

His evolutionary theories were also bound up with his botanical work, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey of Talgarth. He conducted thousands of crossings to prove that cross-pollinated plants produce better offspring than those that self-pollinate. He had a vested interest in the subject of inbreeding as he had married his cousin from the Wedgwood family. Indeed, he agonised over the possible harmful effects on his children. As it transpired, he need not have worried too much as three of his sons were knighted for important contributions to science: George in astronomy, Francis in botany and Horace in civil engineering. His grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, the polymath physician, poet, philosopher and inventor, and, as has already been mentioned, his cousin was Sir Francis Galton, who was the founder of the science of eugenics. The Darwin and Wedgwood genes were clearly of high quality, and their descendents have continued to show great distinction.

He was always making lists, and before marrying, he made two lists of the pros and cons of marriage. Emma, who became his wife, was a devoted and loving soul, but she was not very keen on her husband's work. During the course of one of his lectures, he turned to her and said, "I'm afraid this must be very wearisome to you". She politely replied, "Not more than all the rest".

He moved into Down House in 1862, where he worked for 20 years on his theories and perfected his books. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, mentioned, his thinking walks were a marked feature around Down House. In the 1860s, Down House was described as an infirmary run by his wife because he suffered ill-health and once vomited every day for a month, which left him emaciated. He suffered from poor health for a large part of his life, and there have been many theories to explain this, including Chagas disease, which is prevalent in South America.

In spite of Emma's devotion and care for him, he considered women inferior, and that view extended to ethnic minorities, although he supported the abolition of slavery. Darwin was,

"immersed in a competitive Whig culture, and enshrining its values in his science, he had no time for socialism".

While I am on the subject of Whigs, he became friends with his neighbours Sir John Lubbock and his son, also called Sir John, who was the grandfather of our own Lord Avebury.

Among his achievements, he introduced four bank holidays, which for many years were known as St Lubbock days. When I first met the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, 30 years ago, I suggested to him that we ought to revert to the original name of St Lubbock days. Especially we should do so today in view of the recent behaviour of the banks.

Sir John worshipped in the church in Downe Village until the vicar preached a rather uncharitable sermon attacking Darwin's theories. He then transferred his allegiance to Farnborough Church, where he was later buried.

As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, mentioned, Darwin was devastated by the death of his oldest daughter with typhoid in 1851. That seriously affected his faith, which was not exactly helped by subsequent opposition to his work from some parts of the religious world. In 1869, Professor Huxley was at a party in the house of John Knowles in Clapham Common where he coined the term agnostic, which he took from St Paul's reference to the Greek altar to an unknown God. He denied that he was an atheist, but he exhorted all men to know how little they knew and said that the origin of all things must be unknown and unknowable.

Darwin himself was not anti-Christian, but had problems with several doctrines, as the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, mentioned. I very much agree with what my noble friend Lord Jenkin of Roding and his great-grandfather, Professor Fleeming Jenkin, said about Darwinism and Christianity.

Charles Darwin rarely ventured out in public, but he was visited by a philosopher from Harvard called John Fiske, who went to see him in Down House. He described him as,

"the dearest sweetest old grandpa that ever was".

Prime Minister Gladstone visited Charles at Down House for several hours. When he left, Charles said:

"What an honour that such a great man should come to visit me!".

Charles Darwin was one of our greatest scientists, a charming, courteous and honest gentleman.