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Sunday, 24 January 2010

Charles Darwin (1809 - 1882)

So I'm wandering round town on my lunch break last week and espy high on the wall of the Boots pharmacy in central Cambridge a previously unnoticed blue plaque marking the site of Charles Darwins house. Darwins connections to Cambridge are extensive - After abandoning his studies in Edinburgh his father enrolled him at Christs' College in 1827 to read for a Bachelor of Arts degree prior to joining the priesthood. His studies didn't begin well but his interest in natural history flourished. He lodged above a tobacconists in Sidney Street He spent time with his cousin William Fox and met Adam Sedgwick the geologist and also William Paley the natural theologian and in his final year he came under the influence of the eminent botanist Henslow who saw no conflict between science and religion. He was recommended by Henslow as ship's naturalist for a proposed journey by H.M.S. Beagle - five year expedition into the Pacific beginning in 1831. He spent most of his time on board map-making, investigating geology and collecting biological specimens including fossil remains from Patagonia. It was however his work in the Galapagos Islands were his groundbreaking work, work that continues to shake the foundations of our world. He found tiny variations in the fauna of the various islands which led him to postulate on "that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others" During the expedition Darwins' specimens had been returned to Cambridge and on his return work began on cataloging the extensive backlog of work. In 1836 he returned to Fitzwilliam Street Cambridge to organise the work and rewrite his journal. He wrote papers on geography and zoology before moving first to London and then to Kent. There's also Darwin College founded in 1964 to cater for graduate students - the main college building was owned by Darwin's son George and his grandson Charles.
In 2002 the BBC gawd bless em listed the 100 greatest Britons. Darwin came fourth in the poll behind Churchill (OK fair enough - I'll give them that one though is he any more a Great Briton that Elizabeth I or any of those who have struggled against various foreign threats to our island nation), Lady Di (Oh FFS people. Please raise your game here. A brain dead Sloane clotheshorse who left the world no better than when she found it) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel (Yes, a pivotal figure in the industrial revolution but championed by the odious Jeremy Clarkson.) There were two figures in the top 10 who I think could truly be considered to have been world movers - Newton and Darwin - both of whom revolutionised the way that humanity perceives itself, who helped to reveal our place in the universe. Personally I would go for Darwin theres a feeling there that he was very aware of what his theories would do, how they would be misused to justify acts of unbelievable cruelty through programmes like eugenics. Plus of course theres the fact that in one fell swoop he managed to piss off every fundamentalist religious nutbar - not that theyre exactly an endangered species themselves....

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