Thursday, April 19, 2007

Charles Darwin Died in 1882

In honor of Charles Darwin, who died on this day, I'm posting the opening paragraphs of a manuscript that might eventually be a book called Evolution by Accident.
I approached Westminster Abbey from the south side, crossing Abingdon Street in front of the Houses of Parliament. There was a long line of tourists in front of the ticket window and, not wanting to waste a beautiful Spring day, I decided to do a bit of exploring before joining the queue.

An old three story building caught my eye. It was the Jewel Tower, built 650 years ago to house the treasures of King Edward III. The Jewel Tower is all that remains of the medieval Palace of Westminster that was mostly destroyed by fire in 1834. The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben off to my left were built to replace the original palace—they look old but they have "only" been there for 175 years.

Going behind the Jewel Tower I spot the remains of the old moat and walls that used to surround Westminster Palace. They don’t serve any purpose now since they are well below ground level and, besides, Abingdon Street cuts right through the place where the wall and moat used to protect the old palace buildings.

I cross the street by Victoria Tower at the south-west corner of the Houses of Parliament and enter Victoria Tower Gardens. According to the medieval map in the Jewel Tower, this used to be in the middle of the Thames and there was a quay for loading and unloading boats along the edge of the palace where Victoria Tower now stands. The park is quiet and peaceful at this time of day. I imagine it gets more traffic at lunch time. The Thames is also quiet, but muddy. I watch a family of ducks swim by.

The object of my pilgrimage was inside Westminster Abbey and it was time to return to the entrance. Fortunately, the long line had dissipated and I was able to purchase my ticket (£2) after a short wait. The designated route takes you through the Great North Door where you enter the Transept. Turning left, I follow the other tourists as we are herded around the back of the Abbey through the rooms behind the alter. We pass the tombs of Queen Mary the First (1516-1558), Queen Elizabeth the First (1533-1603), and Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) in the Lady Chapel. We stop to admire the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor (1002-1066).

I’m getting impatient but I can’t move any faster because of the crowd of tourists. Eventually we wind around the Monastery and finally enter the Nave. Ignoring the monument to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and hardly bothering to look up and admire the high ceiling, I head for the back left corner where I can see the statue of Isaac Newton (1643-1727). This is the same statue that plays such an important role in the Da Vinci Code but today I’m not interested in Newton or his orb. It takes me only a few seconds to find the marked stone on the floor. I’m standing on the grave of Charles Robert Darwin.

I can picture the scene on Wednesday, April 26, 1882—a grand funeral attended by all of London’s high society and the leading intellectuals of the most powerful nation in the world. Darwin would not have been pleased. He wanted to be buried quietly in the Downe cemetery with his brother Erasmus and two of his children. Darwin's family was persuaded by his friends Galton, Hooker, Huxley and the President of the Royal Society, William Spottiswoode, that, for the sake of England, Darwin should be laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. As Janet Browne writes in her biography of Charles Darwin, "Dying was the most political thing Darwin could have done."2

Looking around I can see the tombs of two of the scientists who were Darwin’s pallbearers, Joseph Hooker and Alfred Wallace. (Another pallbearer, Thomas Henry Huxley, is buried elsewhere.) Nearby are the final resting places of a host of famous scientists; Kelvin, Joule, Clerk-Maxwell, Faraday, Herschell, and Sir Charles Lyell. (Lyell was Darwin’s hero and mentor. We are told that Darwin’s wife Emma wished he were buried closer to Lyell.)

I am not overly sentimental but this visit has a powerful effect. I think Charles Darwin is the greatest scientist who ever lived—yes, even greater than Sir Isaac Newton whose huge statue overshadows Darwin’s humble marker in the floor. Natural selection is one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time. Darwin discovered it and he deserves enormous praise for his achievement. But Charles Darwin died on April 19, 1882 and that was a long time ago.


  1. Nice repost. I'll be in London gain in July, and I have a day free, so guess where I'll be going?

    Incidentally, if you go to John van Whye's Complete Darwin Online site (can't find the URL right now), and go to Darwin in Pictures, you'll find an engraving of the burial service.

  2. How did you get into the abbey (note the spelling!) for 2 quid?! It costs £6 now; did you go a few years back?

    As an aside, most muesums in the UK (like that Natural History Museum) are totally free to enter, yet you have to pay to step into a house of God.

    Oh and as a geologist, I'm glad you included a mention for Charles Lyell. If you are ever in London again, you can go to Brompton Cemetry and check out Murchison's grave. He was one of the greatest ever geologists, responsible for (amongst other things), the Silurian system. They have also just re-opened viewing of William Smith's original geological map of Britain at the GeolSoc. I highly recommend a visit.

  3. Darwin's ideas have had the greatest effect on how humans view our place in the universe.

    Newton may have transformed our view of the Universe into that of a giant clock that runs by itself, but Darwin completely destroyed all hope man had that he was even the tiniest cog in that clock making it run.

    ...which, of course, is why Darwin's ideas are attacked and Newton's and Einstein's are not.

  4. Great post Larry, hope a publisher sees sense and you get a commission. I only wish your view that Darwin was the greatest scientist ever to live could get more airtime here in Britain. We're very modest on his behalf, preferring fame on on semi literate footballers and eating disordered models.

  5. Peter, I feel your pain. The first time I visited Westminster Abbey I didn't know where to go so I asked one of the attendents where Charles Darwin was buried. He had no idea. I'm not sure he even knew who Darwin was.

    Both times I was there I was struck by the fact that very few people were looking at the gravestones in the area around Newton. Lots of other areas were getting far more attention. This is very sad. Charles Darwin is probably the most influential person buried in Westminster Abbey but visitors don't even know it.

    Here's a great opportunity for a series of popular articles in a London newspaper, "Who's Buried in Westminster Abbey?"

  6. The saddest part, of course, is that many Americans who have heard of Darwin have a negative view of him -- largely because of the way he has been "framed": eg, associated with Hilter's use of Social Darwinism.

    They have an opinion of him that is not based on knowledge but instead on the way that Darwin has been "spun" by others.

    The Spinners have spun Darwin in their web and then sucked the life out of him.

  7. How like the man himself that Darwin's gravestone is so modest and unpretentious.