Category Archives: evolution

A Visit to Great Malvern and Annie Darwin’s Grave

Anne Darwin's Grave at Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)
I suspect Darwin would be happy to see squirrels running over his daughter’s grave. ‘Annie’ Darwin’s Grave at Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)

Until last week, I’d only seen the Worcestershire town of Great Malvern from the air.  Flying light aircraft in the nineties, one of my favourite sightseeing tours was to head out west from my local airfield near Stratford, turn south over Worcester racecourse towards the Malvern Hills, and watch the sun set over the waters of the Severn estuary.

The ‘Malverns’ are odd.  An isolated stretch of peaks, nine miles long and 1394 feet at the highest point.  Rising half way up the Eastern side, like a carpet pushed up against a wall, is the town of Great Malvern.  In an aeroplane it’s a nice spot to practice steep-banked turns, while distracting your passenger with one of England’s greener and pleasanter views.   We mostly got cloud and rain last week – so here’s a view in brighter conditions:

Malvern Hills (WikiCommons)
Malvern Hills (WikiCommons)
Malvern's gas lamps may have inspired the opening to C.S.Lewis's Narnia (Photo:Tim Jones)
Malvern’s gas lamps may have inspired the opening to C.S.Lewis’s Narnia (Photo:Tim Jones)

Amongst the famous folk associated with Malvern are C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, whose experiences walking together in the hills, it’s said, fed into their fantasy worlds.  For sure, I can see how elves and dwarves might emerge from the cloudy scrumpy cider we sampled at the Unicorn pub – the authors’ favourite after-hike watering hole.

The composer Sir Edward Elgar was a local, and rests with his wife in nearby Little Malvern.

And the private school Malvern College gave many influential political, military, and media people their educational start – including journalist Jeremy Paxman; but not so many scientists or engineers it seems.

That said, it’s a scientist, Charles Darwin, that I associate most strongly with Malvern.  A regular visitor from 1849, Darwin made the two-day journey to Malvern to partake of the town’s popular water therapy, hoping it might relieve the chronic vomiting and headaches that plagued him for much of his life (and caused some now think by Chagas’s disease1 contracted on his Beagle voyage to South America).  He would later return with his seriously ill daughter Annie.

Ten year old Annie had weakened from scarlet fever over the previous two years, and, with her condition worsening, on 24th March 1851 Darwin made the trip with her to Malvern and Dr James Gully.

Pioneers of hydrotherapy, or hydropathy as they called it, Gully and his colleague James Wilson set up the first of several specialist clinics in the town.  Like other spa towns in England, the geographic and economic growth of Malvern was largely driven by the perceived value of its natural waters.

First Water Cure Establishment in Great Malvern (Photo:Tim Jones)
First Water Cure Establishment in Great Malvern (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to the first purpose built water cure establishment (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to the first purpose built water cure establishment (Photo:Tim Jones)

Despite Gully’s efforts, Annie was beyond any water-cure, and Darwin was to leave her in Malvern, permanently, a month later.   She died at their lodgings in Montreal House on the Worcester Road, and is buried in the grounds of nearby Great Malvern Priory – literally a stone’s throw from our hotel.  Gully described Annie’s condition at death as a “Bilious fever with typhoid character”2; it’s now thought more likely she died from tuberculosis.

Anne Elizabeth Darwin, 1848 (Wikipedia)
Anne Elizabeth Darwin, 1848 (Wikipedia)
House on Worcester Road, Great Malvern, where Anne Darwin died (Photo:Tim Jones)
Montreal House on Worcester Road, Great Malvern, where Charles and Anne lodged with Eliza Partington, and Anne Darwin died on 23rd April 1851 (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Charles and Anne Darwin (Photo:Tim Jones)
Plaque to Charles and Anne Darwin (Photo:Tim Jones)
Great Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)
Great Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)
'Annie' Darwin's gravestone at Great Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)
‘Annie’ Darwin’s gravestone at Great Malvern Priory (Photo:Tim Jones)

From a modern perspective, Gully’s water treatments were doomed to failure.  The enthusiastic Gully might wrap a patient in wet sheets, subject them to heavy douches from above and below, or enroll them for a course of ‘spinal washing’.

The core water treatment might be augmented with anything from hill walks to homeopathy, to clairvoyancey, to what amounted to a light baking under oil lamps.  Hydropathy’s enthusiastic adoption and questionable effectiveness groups it with the electrical and magnetic treatments popular with Victorian physicians at the time, eager to apply new insights on nature, however misguided, to human well-being.

Some of the water treatments Gully and Wilson would have used. From: Hydropathy, or, The water-cure: its principles, modes of treatment. Joel Shew, Wiley & Putnam 1844 (Ref.5)
Some of the water treatments Gully and Wilson would have used. From: Hydropathy, or, The water-cure: its principles, modes of treatment. Joel Shew, Wiley & Putnam 1844 (Ref.3)

Perceived benefits were most likely due less to the watery aspects of Gully’s therapy, and more to the generally healthy context of their delivery.  Plain eating, abstention from alcohol, and daily exercise in a calming environment could do a lot for a bloated Victorian gentleman.  But that didn’t stop Gully and like-minded advocates publishing elaborate treatises and supposedly affirmative case studies4 directly linking water therapy to the cure of all kinds of disease.

Clairvoyance - after George CruikshankDarwin hung in with Gully’s ideas for years before concluding any benefit was limited and purely psychosomatic.  He never bought into homeopathy, and seems to have gone along with the more spiritual add-ons from Gully’s palette to keep their relationship.  Darwin was open to new ideas, but he always judged them against the standard of reason.

Annie was a special favourite among Darwin’s children, and her death took a lasting toll on his mental state.  The poignant memorial he wrote to Annie is here at the Darwin Correspondence Project5

Annie’s story also formed the background to the movie Creation (my earlier review here), with Paul Bettany as Darwin, Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma, and Bill Paterson as Dr Gully.  The film, based on Darwin’s descendent Randal Keynes’s book Annie’s Box, is worth watching if you can forgive a bit of historical license-taking (for one thing, Darwin’s other children don’t age through a series of flashbacks involving Annie).  Also, note that the town where they shoot the Malvern scenes, which I can now vouch has the feel of the place, is actually Bedford-on-Avon).



1. The Mystery of Darwin’s Ill Health.  The Darwin Correspondence Project

2. Darwin, Desmond and Moore, Pub.Michael Joseph, 1991, p.384

3. Hydropathy, or, The water-cure: its principles, modes of treatment, &c., illustrated with many cases : compiled chiefly from the most eminent English authors on the subject. Shew, Joel, 1816-1855. New York : Wiley & Putnam, 1844. Link to text at U.S. Library of Medicine here.

4. The Water Cure in Chronic Disease.  James Manby Gully, M.D., 1850, John Churchill, London

5. The death of Anne Elizabeth Darwin.  The Darwin Correspondence Project

6. Note on the IHS monogram here at History from Headstones


Clairvoyance cartoon from George Cruikshank’s Table Book, 1845

Darwin’s Many Origins

Owning multiple copies of a book isn’t that unusual.   There’s that extra copy for the bath, the duplicate Christmas present you don’t have the heart to return, or maybe you’ve just made home with someone with similar interests – and library: always a good idea.  But no one has hundreds of copies of the same title – do  they?

Sure they do.  Meet the front end of the Huntington Library‘s 252 strong collection of Darwin’s Origin of Species –  all 20 feet of them. I snapped this at the permanent ‘Beautiful Science’ exhibition last month, and have just gotten around to a bit of research:

And turning the corner, here are the rest of them:

Henry Edwards Huntington acquired much of his collection, now at San Marino, by buying up ready-made collections or even whole libraries.  But some books he bought individually, including, in 1860s New York, an 1859 first edition of the Origin of Species in original cloth – for $22.79 (1).   Checking just now, I see you can pick up the same thing in the same city today for a cool $210,000 (Arader Gallery). Nice investment, Henry.

All the Origins at Huntington are different.  Most of the variations are reprints of the early six editions published by John Murray between 1859 and 1872; and then there are all the various languages.  The original six do vary in content though, with Darwin making material changes in response to readers’ comments.

Despite the title’s legendary status, the print runs of Murray’s Origin look modest by modern standards:

1st Edition (1859) 1,250

2nd Edition (1860) 3,000

3rd Edition (1861) 2,000

4th Edition (1866) 1,500

5th Edition (1869) 2,000

6th Edition (1872) 3,000

which goes some way to explain their value today  – although the first editions command disproportionately very much more than any of the others.  (For a comprehensive bibliography of all Darwin’s works see Freeman, R. B. 1977. The works of Charles Darwin: an annotated bibliographical handlist. 2d ed. Dawson: Folkstone. and accompanying database at Darwin Online.)

Scholars have argued over the Origin’s scientific content since, well, its origin – so it’s refreshing to find an analysis along a different tack, like Michele and Chris Kohler’s essay about the Origin of Species as a physical object (2).

The authors mention Huntington’s collection of Origins as one of the three largest, along with the Kohler Collection at the Natural History Museum London and the Thomas Fisher Library of the University of Toronto.

Their research also suggests that many more people may have read the first edition than the 1,250 figure suggests, with 500 copies going not to wealthy individuals (books like this were still a luxury for most people) but to Mudies Lending Library – the largest commercial library in the country.  (btw, current Origin sales are a respectable 75,000 to 100,000 units per annum.)

There’s also a discussion on how the content was on occasion not so much lost, but subtley changed, in translation, as in the case of Heinrich Bronn’s first German edition.

The Kohlers’ analysis of price history shows a run-away escalation of first edition values in the 20th and 21st centuries: so from an average £36 in the mid-50’s, to still only £4000 in the 80’s, to a top price of £49,000 in 1999; that’s still a long way off the £100,000+ values being achieved today.

The collector demographic has necessarly changed in step: from pure scholars to business people; but perhaps those working in sci-tech related areas who want, and can afford, to be close to a piece of scientific history.  Maybe that ownership requires a Henry Huntington income is a good thing – reflecting an increased awareness of the value of it’s intellectual message?

There again, maybe it’s all going the way of the art market, with rare books becoming a commodity currency.  What do you think?


1. Henry Edwards Huntington, A Biography. James Ernest Thorpe, University of California Press, 1994

2. Essay by Michele and Chris Kohler in: The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species, Ed. Michael Ruse, Robert J Richards, New York, 2008 ( .txt version here)




Getting Cute at Disneyland

What do they say?  It’s never too late and you’re never too old?   I finally made it to Disneyland (Anaheim) last week.

There we were: doing all the rides – some several times, eating food that’s bad for us, buying stuff we don’t need.  I so want to take the Star Tours sim home with me.

It’s a hard experience to knock.  Except, looking round, aren’t the Disney icons a bit thin on the ground, especially that icon of icons – Mickey Mouse.  Where’s the guy off the TV with his big mouse head, big mouse eyes and ears, flowing tailcoats?  Okay, between whipping round Space Mountain and transfering the contents of the flume into my fleece, our accessibility to roaming mice is limited; but I’m still half disappointed (half thankful too) we’ve avoided a mugging by the world’s cutest rodent – me with my ‘1st Visit’ badge an’ all.

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse (Photo:Tim Jones at Disneyland, Anaheim)
Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse (Photo:Tim Jones at Disneyland, Anaheim)

Then at the end of the day, as we sit munching Mickey surrogate pretzels, the mouse himself finally shows on the Parade float; and with that box ticked, we head home to live happily ever after.

Hurtling down LA’s great big freeway, I can only mull, through waves of incipient indigestion, the definitive paper on ‘the impact of twelve hours of corn dogs, ice cream and churros on the human body under intermittent acceleration to 3g’.  Shelving that due to data-weakness in cotton candy (with a recommendation for further work), I move to the important question of why exactly is Mickey Mouse so very popular?  Some thirty years ago, evolutionary biologist and sometime Disney scholar Stephen J Gould asked the  very same question.

Gould’s essay, Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz, originaly pubished in the May 1979 issue of Natural History, and reappearing as  ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse‘  (link to pdf) in the Panda’s Thumb collection of essays, is a light-hearted yet sound scientific analysis of how Disney artists changed Mickey’s features over the years to make him more innately appealing to us.  Perhaps not knowingly, but in biological terms they’d neotenized him, migrating his more adult features to the juvenile forms we see, and are programmed to endear, in human children.   It’s one of my favourite pieces of science communication and a recommended read.

Disneyland (Photo:Tim Jones)
Disneyland (Photo:Tim Jones)

Animals, real or caricatured, score high on the cute scale if they have: (a) a large eye size compared to head-length, (b) a large head size to body-length, and (c) a large cranium (Gould measured a ‘cranial vault’ ratio for this, only meaningful for Mickey in profile, but equating to what Lorenz describes as “predominance of the brain capsule”).  They display short, thick, extremities – like  stubby legs (Disney achieved the illusion by putting Mickey in shorts), and a short snout (in cartoonland, only villains sport pointy snouts  – think the weasels from Who Framed Roger Rabbit).

The principles from Lorenz’s and Gould’s work have been applied to everything from vehicle design to this assessment of how cute NASA’s Mars rover Spirit is,…to pretzels.

 Applied to animals, they suggest our attitude, affection, concern, and the general way we treat species will be influenced by how closely each resembles a human child – how juvenile they appear.  Conservationists call it ‘survival of the cutest’ –  whereby public conservation support favours attractive species over more deserving cases under a greater threat of extinction.   It’s the reason pandas and badgers get more sympathy than the Purple Burrowing Frog (Nasikabatrachus sahyadrensis), or the Helmeted Hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) – to pull a couple of real lookers from the IUCN Red List; the former is ‘endangered’, the latter a ‘near threatened’ species.

Even favoured species like dolphins fall off the radar once a variant moves away from a norm we can easily anthropomorphise.  Compare the  Ganges (endangered) and Yangtze (critically endangered, possibly extinct) river dolphins with their slightly odd-looking extended beaks, with the familiar smiley Common Short-Beaked dolphin (‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN list).

Purple Burrowing Frog


Helmeted Hornbill. Not such a pretty boy (Wikicommons)

I’m bringing badgers into this because of their prominence in the UK news at the moment, where the government has introduced a controversial culling policy to reduce Bovine TB, which badgers carry.   Controversy centres on the effectiveness of culling (by shooting at feed lures) over other controls like vaccination, and a general point on how transparently science or politics based the decisions have been.  In terms of its conservation status, the Eurasian Badger (Meles meles) is classified by the IUCN as a ‘least concern’ species.

Eurasian Badger

Taking nothing away from the arguments, it’s interesting to test the badger against Gould’s cuteness criteria to see how looks might be influencing popular support.  I got the idea from this Guardian piece that’s against the culling, but suggesting that with respect to “one of Britain’s best-loved animals”…”our attachment to badgers may be irrational” (as is culling, in that author’s view).

Off the blocks things don’t look so good, Mr Badger being a fully paid-up member of your actual weasel family an’ all.  But he’s not stoatish, and from various photos on the web (my preferred methodology short of taking callipers to roadkill), I score him an apparent head to body ratio of five (20%), falling to four (25%) when he bunches up like they do.  Not even up with Mickey’s early Steamboat Willie incarnation at 35%, but still in the ballpark.

Compared to Mickey’s eye to head ratio of 27% to 42% over his career, our badger comes in at unbecoming ratios as low as 7% (measured up the snout, nose to ear) to at best 15% (measured in profile).  But look again.  What we really see in a badger’s face isn’t its beady little weasel eyes, but that glorious stripe (think pandas eyes).  Calculated on stripe width at the eye, the ratios triple, up to a far cuter 35% for the profile.  On the stubby legs criterion the badger is home and dry; it’s hard to even make them out under the fur – a bit like Disney hiding Mickey’s spindles under baggy shorts.  The snout is an enigma though, and there’s no getting round it.  Does the apparent integration of snout, cranium and neck into a continuous cone soften the effect?  Or maybe we see tufty ears and forgive the pointy nose?  On balance though, based on the numbers but with some reservations, I’m going to give the badger his cute badge.

California Ground Squirrel (Photo:Tim Jones)
California Ground Squirrel. Fillng his face – incidentally – improves his cute ratios

I’m not sure the Germans would agree though.  A more oblique cuteness indicator mentioned by Gould, but one I like if only for its reminder of that mouthful of letters Germans use for squirrel – Eichhörnchen – is the wider association of the German diminutive form with certain animals and not others.  So there’s also Rotkehlchen for Robin and Kaninchen for rabbit – all officially cute animals.   I wonder if the trend follows in other countries using a diminutive suffix?  Anyways, the Germans have nicht so honored the badger, who’s a plain simple Dachs (the origin of Dachshund, no less).  I’m making my own stories up now, but have just too many Germans Robin (Photo:Tim Jones)been bitten by (rabid or otherwise) Dachs?  Is the Dachs ‘one of Germany’s best-loved animals’ ?  Guinea pigs are off the cute scale, but Peruvians don’t lose sleep over serving them up for lunch.

And what do North Americans make of their badger, with it’s somewhat skunky appearance?  (To my eyes, the American badger is actually flatter faced and all-round cuter)  And before I diss. skunks too far, remember Pepé Le Pew? – not a million miles off Mickey on the cute ratios.  I don’t know how far Gould and Lorenz factored in cultural variables like these; could be an interesting research topic.

Pepé Le Pew. Even skunks can be cute (Copyright: Warner Bros.)

To wrap up then.  On badgers, I suspect some folks do support them just because they’re cute, but I’m also sure many look rationally at the bigger picture.  Aside from Gould’s criteria, perhaps we should just ask ourselves if, under similar circumstances, we’d put the same effort into saving the poor old Purple Burrowing Frog?

At end though, any improved awareness of factors that influence our thoughts and actions, but are outside our immediate consciousness, is valuable.  That’s what Gould is doing.  I’m just relaying the message and expanding it a bit.

I also like badgers.  And gibbons.




Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz. Natural History 1979, 88 (May): 30-36.

At the Planetary Society Blog, HERE, Melissa Rice tests the appearance of NASA’s now defunct Mars rover Spirit against the same Gould cuteness criteria discussed in the post.  Fantastic!

Latest Reading – Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation

O.K. – so I was the last person on the planet to see E.T., I still watch TV on a cathode ray tube, and I’m seven years late reading Olivia Judson’s hugely entertaining, accessible, not to say stimulating, guide to evolutionary biology: Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, making this an admittedly after-the-event review, but a recommendation all the same.

Throughout the guide, Judson stays in character as sex therapist Dr Tatiana, helping all manner of creatures out with their sex problems – agony aunt style.

Olivia Judson
Olivia Judson (Photo: Tim Jones)

And creatures it is.  Ranging from a stick insect jaded with the tedium of ten week copulations; to a praying mantis who finds sex so much more satisfying after biting off her lover’s head; to a fruit fly dismayed that he’s run out of sperm; to a queen bee’s concern that her mates leave their genitalia inside her after sex.

Mixed in with these familiar heterosexual and homosexual practices are gang rape, cannibalism, self-sacrifice, and deception – all to a background of hopeless promiscuity.

The entertainment is delivered by a fascinating cast of cads, bints, sluts, and whores, bonking away at romantic locations  – including the inside of a rat’s intestines.

Lestes sponsa (Emerald Damselfly)
Damsel flies “have evolved some of the fanciest penises around”  Lestes sponsa (Photo: Tim Jones)

That’s the language and tone then: spirited rather than crude I’d say, but probably not first choice for your great gran.

The anthropomorphism is extreme, caricatured, and humorous enough to make any questions around ambiguity and appropriateness non-issues (at least for me).   It’s clever too, each section introducing a discussion on an aspect of evolutionary biology with some fun, if not a giggle, then quickly morphing into serious, yet always palatable, science.

Stick Insect
Stick insects can copulate for 10 weeks continuously (Photo: Tim Jones)

The concepts are familiar: sex ratios, altruism, asexual vs sexual reproduction, dangers of recessive genes and such like; so perhaps I’ve not been under a log after all.  I kept getting flashbacks to ideas I’d first read about in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene or Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen.  By comparison, Judson’s style in the guise of Dr Tatiana is deliberately and overtly entertaining; but not at the cost of scholarly rigor (there are 62 pages of  Notes and Bibliography).

Praying Mantis
Male praying mantis prefer not to give head (Photo: Tim Jones)

Previous reading certainly didn’t stop me picking up a bunch of new facts and figures on the more macabre and icky side of sexual reproduction.  Knowledge any schoolboy/girl  would be proud to have in his/her  armoury.

Insects dominate Dr Tatiana’s surgery hours, but mammals and birds  do get a look in.   Like the girl hyena concerned over the size of her pseudo-phallus, or the moorhen bemused that his girlfriends are always fighting with each other.

But now I’m giving too much away.

Amazon have the paperback Dr Tatiana on for about £6.50 in the UK, and there’s also a DVD of the TV series based on the book.  No brainer – go get it!


The film Creation went on general release in the UK today, and as I’m just back from a lunchtime viewing, here are a few thoughts on the movie while it’s still fresh in my mind.

Finch with fig, California (Tim Jones)

To cut to the chase: enjoyable film, with great performances from Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin and Jennifer Connelly as his wife Emma.   I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

Very odd start though.  I arrived at 12.10 for  a 12.15 showing and had the theatre entirely to myself.  By 12.30 ish, when the ads were over, the final audience had grown to six people.  I know most folk can’t just knock off for the afternoon, but I found it surprising all the same; clearly not one for the pensioners.

I’ve made a point of not reading most  of the Creation reviews already out there; just one or two quickly once over.  So I’m relatively untainted but sufficiently informed to pick up on some of the obvious criticisms.

One of those criticisms has concerned the film’s factual accuracy.  But as few viewers will  have read the various biographies and letters, it strikes me that the emphasis should be more on identifying only serious material misrepresentations – and overall I don’t believe there are any (an exception is Huxley’s character – read on).

I was pleased to see certain events included: the failure to ‘civilise’ the Fuegan kids, the water cures, the influence of Hooker & Huxley, Darwin’s animosity with his local church, and Wallace’s letter.

At times though, I felt some incidents and issues had been slotted in because they had to be there – as if the director had a check list of  ‘leave that out and the Darwin aficionados will play hell’.  That’s how I felt about Huxley’s appearance anyhow.  Arguably, Huxley came in to his own in the affairs of the Origin only after its publication – exactly the point at which this film ends.  But the filmmakers have done T.H. an injustice all the same; the take-away impression of the man is just wrong.  Richard Dawkins wasn’t overjoyed with the portrayal, and I can see why; the character is out of kilter with the historic record, and may as well have worn a ‘new atheist’ sash. (I find New Atheist a silly term; what is an old atheist?  – Quiet?).  Intellectually, the portrayal is overly one-dimensional and aggressive.  Physically, Toby Jones is too short to portray a man whose height and presence in reality matched his intellect. They got Hooker’s whiskers down to a tee, so why not Huxley?

The core narrative revolves around Charles’s relationship with, and thoughts about, his daughter Annie. I don’t know the actor who played Annie, but she has an obvious future in Hollywood.  We don’t get to know the other children anything like so closely as we do Annie; and the intellectual, as well as emotional, bond between Annie and Darwin is particularly well developed.  There is something of the co-conspirator about Annie – a sense of  allegiance lacking in Emma until a reluctant appearance in the final scenes.

The various ghost sequences have been criticised, but again, I just saw these as a device to illustrate Darwin’s pre-occupation.  I don’t think he actually ran about the streets chasing his dead daughter (but please correct me if you know different).

All the themes in the movie ultimately link back to the Origin and what it stands for.  One of the more human incarnations of that influence is the Emma – Charles relationship.  Here I’d liked to have seen Emma’s philosophy explored a little more – even if the detailed  story-line were credibly fabricated (biographers do this all the time).  I guess we can never know someone’s innermost thoughts on life, the universe, and everything – no matter how many letters we read; but I felt the middle ground that our two protagonists must have found could have stood a little more exploration.

And never mind the movie, I find this theme of different fundamental philosophies within a relationship fascinating.  I wonder how many couples today mirror Charles and Emma?  This is a personal blog, so I can say that  I would, for example, find it challenging at best to live with a partner who I knew was going to hell.  That said, I have friends in atheist/Christian marriages who appear to get on just fine.

Which brings us to the big issue: is there a conflict between science and religion?  Back to Huxley, I suspect the director intentionally set him up as the fall guy on this score;  he can safely be hated for his total lack of religious accommodation early on in the film.  Hooker does pop up now and again to reinforce the atheist line (the word is not used – nor is Huxley’s later derived ‘agnostic’), but never with Huxley’s brand of enthusiastic venom.

So  what will a religious person make of this movie?  After all, wasn’t it the possible religious reaction, and associated reduction in box-office $, that was behind the recent stink over US distribution (the film now has a US distributor).

There is nothing in Creation more offensive than a portrayal of the facts of evolution as they were understood in Darwin’s day.  And Darwin’s encounter with Jenny the orangutan, which is beautifully represented in the film (well it’s not really acting is it) leaves little more to be said on the question of our own evolution.   I’m not about to dive into a lengthy science-religion debate, suffice to say my position is that there are elements of religion as defined by some that are – on the evidence – incompatible with some definitions of science; and that the science-religion debate is an important one with practical consequences for us all.

God’s official in Creation, the local vicar, is played by Jeremy Northam.  In one memorable scene, Northam tries to comfort Darwin in his torn anguish, which only sparks a sarcastic tirade from Darwin on the delights of the God-designed  parasitic wasp larvae and the burrowing habits of intestinal worms. Northam’s sincerity and Bettany’s losing his temper are both convincing.

I live within an hour’s drive of the real Down House, and know it pretty well.   While the house in the movie was not Down, the exterior feel – with large bay windows and patio doors opening to the garden captures the right flavour.

Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)

The study has a similar feel to English Heritage’s reproduction of the real thing at Down – even down to Darwin’s screened-off privy. Likewise, the lounge and dining room, while never visible in wide-shot, have an attractive homely ambiance. The village road and church scenes are consistent with the feel of the real Down.

It’s not the end of the world, but a sandwalk scene was noticeable by its absence.  The sandwalk for those who don’t know it is a gravelly path leading into the woods near Down House.  I tend to imagine Darwin pacing down the sandwalk, under the trees or sheltering from the rain; to be sure – it’s a nice spot for thinking.

Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven klinge)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo tks Sven klinge)

To wind up, this movie contains all the main factual, scientific, cultural, and emotional elements I associate with Darwin in this important period in his life.   Issues around the compatibility of science and religion are met head on through illustration (if a little caricatured) rather than tedious debate, and we get to see the human, sensitive and fragile side of a scientist.

There is plenty here to enjoy in the theatre, but also much to take home and mull over – with your partner perhaps :-).

Go see it !   4/5.

What were they thinking?

I’ve just received this photograph from my good mate Sven, showing Alfred Russel Wallace’s grave and ‘tombstone’ in Broadstone Cemetery, in Dorset.

Alfred Russell Wallace's Grave
Alfred Russel Wallace's Grave

Now I know as a member of the ‘Carry-On’ generation my sensibilities are tainted, but all the same, in the spirit of low-brow citizen scientific journalism, it’s good to see A.R. can still stand tall in this remembrance year of his more celebrated associate in evolution – Charles Darwin.

Plaque on A.R.Wallace's grave
Plaque on A.R.Wallace's grave

The structure is in fact a two metres high fossil tree trunk, and the plaque on the wide-angle photo  is for his wife Anne; presumably interred in the same grave.  This is the plaque for A.R. .

Darwin ‘Hat-Trick’

Short note on my ‘Darwin Hat-Trick day’ last Wednesday.  Nothing too profound –  but some nice pics!

Final resting place of the Beagle?  Cutting in the Paglesham shore (photo Tim Jones)
Final resting place of the Beagle? Cutting in the Paglesham shore (photo Tim Jones)
And again with me for scale (photo: Sven Klinge)
And again with me for scale (photo: Sven Klinge)

We set off at 5 a.m., and by the end of the day had visited: (a) the supposed final resting place of Darwin’s Beagle at Paglesham, (b)the newly refurbished former home of Darwin, ‘Down House’, in Kent, (c) the Geological Society in central  London for a talk from Darwin biographer Janet Browne.

The Beagle (image Wikimedia Commons)
The Beagle (image Wikimedia Commons)
Paglesham location Nr. Rochford (image Google Maps)
Paglesham location Nr. Rochford (image Google Maps)

This sudden urge to drive around some of the more remote reaches of England’s green and pleasant land was triggered by a recent talk by Dr Robert Prescott at the Royal Society.  A podcast or vidcast should be available here within the next few days.

Prescott, who is researching the Beagle’s fate post-Darwin, has shown that after her last sea voyage in 1843  the ship served as an anti-smuggling watch vessel, anchored amidst the twisting system of waterways north of the Thames estuary.  He speculates, with evidence from contemporary charts, that the mastless hulk ended its days in a permanent mooring cut into the mud of Paglesham East End, near Rochford.  With images from Prescott’s talks fresh in our minds, we successfully located the otherwise unremarkable stretch of grassy mud-bank shown in the first photo.

Ground radar has revealed something of the right size and shape for the Beagle about 6 meters down, but tests on core drill samples are ongoing.  The team have identified wood and diatoms, and now hope to find evidence of life specific to the South Seas caught up in the timbers.  There’s some evidence that the top half of the ship was salvaged, and wooden structures consistent with the naval architecture of the day have been found in this nearby boathouse.

Timber structures consistent with the Beagle were found in this building
Timber structures consistent with the Beagle were found in this building (photo Tim Jones)

According to Prescott, Darwin never visited the Beagle after his famous voyage, despite the relative proximity of the craft to his home at Downe and documentary evidence that the Beagle’s Captain – Fitzroy – had kept in contact with Darwin.  While Darwin acknowledged the importance of the ship to his life and work, it appears any emotional attachment he had for the vessel did not extend to a need to be reunited.

Having driven 60 miles to walk over a (albeit important) stretch of mud, we continued our walk along the river bank to be rewarded with a watch post from another era – a World War II pillbox.  Pillboxes like these can be found across the south of England, and originally formed a continuous defensive line against potential German invasion.

World War II defensive pillbox at Paglesham
World War II defensive pillbox at Paglesham (photo Tim Jones)

Leaving Paglesham around 9 a.m., and arriving at Down House half an hour before the house itself opened, gave us plenty of time to explore the grounds and gardens of the Darwin family home.  There’s been some replanting and landscaping as part of the refurbishment, but the famous greenhouse and ‘sandwalk’ , where Darwin did some of his most inspired thinking, are rightly unchanged.

Learned Gents on the 'Sandwalk'
Learned Gentlemen look for inspiration on the 'Sandwalk' (photo Belinda Murphy)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven klinge)
Interesting angle on the sandwalk (photo Sven Klinge)

The house itself has benefited from a super exterior paint job and refurbishment, and a major re-modeling of the upper-floor exhibition space.  The personal audio guides are now video guides, but retain a pleasant enough welcome from David Attenborough.  But, photographers beware !  I’ve never been anywhere where the taking of pictures inside the house is so actively discouraged – quite a contrast to how things are managed in the USA.   I’d also advise an early weekday visit, as parking is limited and the experience degrades when the house is crowded.   All the same, it’s a beautiful location, the house is full of atmosphere, and it’s well worth the £8 entrance fee.

Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House - rear from the garden (photo Tim Jones)
Down House rear garden (phot Sven Klinge)
Down House rear garden (phot Sven Klinge)
Down House frontage (photo Tim Jones)
Down House frontage (photo Tim Jones)

Down House is a stone’s throw from the village of Downe (with an ‘e’ this time) and the local church where Emma Darwin, Charles’s brother Erasmus, and Darwin’s servant Parslow are buried.

Emma and Erasmus's grave in Downe Cemetary (photo Sven Klinge)
Emma and Erasmus's grave in Downe Cemetary (photo Sven Klinge)
Grave of Darwin's servant (photo Sven Klinge)
Grave of Darwin's servant Parslow (photo Sven Klinge)

At 2 o’clock we were starting to feel the effects of the early start, so it was back to Kingston to drop off the car and consume some large coffees.

Phase three of our hat-trick required a train ride into the centre of London to see and hear Janet Browne speak at the Geological Society.

Janet Browne
Janet Browne at the Royal Geological Society (photo Sven Klinge)

Browne, best known for her two Darwin biographies Voyaging and Power of Place, was over from Harvard to speak on the theme of  ‘Two Hundred Years of Evolution: Celebrating Charles Darwin in 2009’ .

I guess the thrust of the talk was around how the various controversies surrounding Darwin and his theory have been accepted, challenged, and interpreted at different times and places.  For my part I found Browne’s historical interpretation clear and entertaining.  I was, however, at something of a loss to understand quite where she personally stood on more contemporary issues such as the compatibility of Darwinian evolutionary theory and religious belief.  What I took from the early part of her talk as an accommodationist approach didn’t entirely jibe with her response during questions when, for example, she credited Dawkins’s stance as ‘brave’.  Anyhow, you can listen to the podcast here at the Geological Society website and draw your own conclusions.

Time to wash the car….

Darwin Fish ;-)
Darwin Fish 😉

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

As any Darwin aficionado will tell you, as this celebratory week draws to a close, there is one biography of Charles Darwin that stands out from the crowd.

James Moore, Olivia Judson, and Adrian Desmond at Imperial College
James Moore, Olivia Judson, and Adrian Desmond at Imperial College (photo Tim Jones,
Olivia Judson and Adrian Desmond at Imperial College (photo Tim Jones)
Olivia Judson and Adrian Desmond at Imperial College (photo Tim Jones,
James Moore & Olivia Judson at Imperial College (photo Tim Jones)
James Moore & Olivia Judson at Imperial College (photo Tim Jones,

Not only is Adrian Desmond’s and James Moore’s 1991 ‘Darwin‘ comprehensive at 677 pages before the notes, it’s brick-like iconicity somehow speaks of closure, the last word, to any further debate about Darwin.

On a personal note, not withstanding Janet Browne’s Voyaging and Power of Place, which are both excellent reads, and show that Darwin was not in fact the last word, I have a particular affection for the Desmond and Moore biography.   It’s simply one of the few books of  length that I’ve ever  found the right combination of time and inclination to read right through non-stop; it took about a week one Christmas holiday.  And as with all good biographies of departed figures, that level of immersion leaves one genuinely saddened when the subject dies.

Adrian Desmond talks about Darwin's Sacred Cause (photo Tim Jones)
Adrian Desmond talks about Darwin's Sacred Cause (photo Tim Jones,

So it was with some interest last Monday, that I walked the whole 100 feet  or so from my department at Imperial College to the Great Hall, to join a public conversation with Olivia Judson interviewing Adrian Desmond and James Moore.  The theme –  the authors’  NEW book, ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause‘.

James Moore
James Moore (photo: Tim Jones,

This post isn’t a book review.  As much as I’d like to drop everything else and read it – I haven’t found the time yet!   Thankfully, it looks nothing in length like (as Desmond reminded us at this session) ‘the brick’.

Olivia Judson
Olivia Judson (photo: Tim Jones,

Rather – before it becomes completely old news, I’ll point you to this online lecture podcast from Imperial College that helpfully captures the whole session.

That said, as a brief preview, the focus of the conversation is around Darwin and race, and the argument that man (as opposed to finches and other animals) was the core motivation behind developments in the theory of natural selection and the writing of the Origin of Species.  The Origin itself, we are told, was originally conceived to include extensive discussion on man and race.  The authors further link Darwin’s feelings about race back to a family upbringing and tradition steeped in benevolence and an active opposition to slavery.

Enough said for now – maybe more when I’ve read the book!


The Other Darwin Genius

Secularist Of The Year

The National Secular Society’s annual award for Secularist of the Year has been awarded jointly to Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, for their success in getting blasphemy laws abolished.  I joined the event this afternoon, which was also a celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th anniversary, at the Imperial Hotel in central London.

Dr Evan Harris MP and  Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood
Dr Evan Harris MP and Lord Avebury, with Executive Director NSS Keith Porteous Wood and Richard Dawkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The awards were made by Professor Richard Dawkins, and comprised a golden ammonite trophy and a cheque for £5000.  Both winners declined to keep the money and donated it instead for next year’s prize.

Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy before presenting it
Richard Dawkins inspects a 'golden ammonite' trophy as Keith Porteous-Wood looks on. (Photo Tim Jones)

A range of politicians, scientists, celebrities, and commentators of various types were in the audience: including from the scientific community Prof.Peter Atkins.  Prof.Steve Jones, a previous year’s winner of the prize, sent best wishes.  Science journalists included Simon Singh (Fermat’s Last Theorem), and Ben Goldacre (Bad Science).   I also spotted former news presenter Anna Ford, and comedian Robin Ince.

Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins
Face in the crowd - Professor Peter Atkins. (Photo Tim Jones)

The abolition of the blasphemy law in 2008 was something of a coup for the NSS.   Secularists have been fighting for years what has seemed like an unwinnable battle, and I sense the movement still can’t quite believe its success.  While not used since the 1970s, Christian evangelicals had been pushing for a revival in the application of the law.

Lord Averbury with trophy
Lord Averbury with trophy (Photo Tim Jones)

A statement on the NSS website after the event said: ‘The ancient law was called the common law offence of blasphemous libel, and was widely thought to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, the Government had not been keen to abolish it, we believe because of fear of discomforting the Established Church. They see abolition as an attack on their privileged position and a possible first step towards disestablishment.’

Dr Evan Harris MP
Dr Evan Harris MP (Photo Tim Jones)

It was a lively afternoon, where the company, food, and entertainment were all excellent.   The formal entertainment took the form of a re-enactment of a debate held in Oxford in 1860 between Thomas Huxley (Darwin’s Bulldog) and the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (Soapy Sam).   In ultimate irony, Wilberforce was (a little too convincingly) played by Terry Sanderson, the President of the NSS.  Given the audience, the winner of the debate was never at issue.

Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce
NSS President, Terry Sanderson - convincing portrayal of Bishop Wilberforce (Photo Tim Jones)
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Thomas Huxley - 'Darwin's Bulldog'
Bishop 'Soapy' Samuel Wilberforce

Joint winner Lord Avebury’s story is equally ironic.  His grandfather, one of Darwin’s great supporters and a member of the ‘X Club‘ with Huxley, was not actually an atheist: he was too ‘conventional’, Avebury said.   Indeed, incongruous with his grandson’s award today, his grandfather had been instrumental in having Darwin buried in Westminster Abbey.

Evan Harris, who one critic has described as humourless, was everything but, quipping in surprise as he received his golden ammonite trophy: “I was always taught at Hebrew School that the Ammonites were slain by the Israelites”.

Charles Schmarles

The Other Darwin Genius - Erasmus (artwork Graham Paterson)
The Other Darwin Genius - Erasmus (artwork Graham Paterson)

Charles Darwin was a great guy and a credit to the species.  But in this centenary year, he’s getting more than enough coverage already.

Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, was the REAL  deal.

View or download my new illustrated article about Erasmus in iScience magazine:

Download pdf HERE (right click then ‘save as’)

then show everyone how ahead of the evolutionary curve you are with this ‘Other Darwin Genius’ tee-shirt, exclusive to Zoonomian at CommunicateScience.  100% American made and shipped to you direct from RedBubble.  Just click the ‘View & Buy’ link below.