Charles Darwin: the Reluctant Revolutionary

A tour through Down House, Darwin’s Home and Laboratory

View of Down House from the garden.

Imagine your parents and in-laws were so rich so that you didn’t have to work for a living. It would be easy then just to waste away your life and stay idle. This, however, was not how Charles Darwin and his wife Emma saw it. Instead, the financial security made it possible for Darwin to dedicate his life to science and to become the world-famous figure we know today. 

One would expect a man who brought us such as a revolutionary theory as the Theory of Evolution to be confident, yet Darwin has often been called a “reluctant revolutionary.” A visit to his private home near London certainly reveals a man who was reluctant to shake the knowledge of his time. The Darwin family—Charles, Emma and their numerous children—lived in Down House, a modest house described by Darwin as “old and ugly,” though comfortable.

The master bedroom in Down House where Emma Darwin had her desk. Today, the interior of the house has been restored to resemble what it must have looked like when the family lived there from 1842 and until Darwin’s death. Inside the house, photographs and documents reveal sides of Darwin that few people know, including that of a family man. In the Darwin family, work and pleasure were intertwined. Emma translated the work and correspondence of her husband in Italian and French, while the children helped their father with his experiments in the house and on the large tract of land around the house where animals grazed.  

Following his voyage around the world, it was in this house that Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. The exhibition shows that Darwin was influenced by prominent scientists and philosophers, such as Carl Linneaus, who established a classification scheme for all plants and animals, and Thomas Robert Malthus, who developed the economic theory of continuous struggle for resources. You can also see signs of Darwin’s mentors John Henslow, the geologists Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick, and friends such as the botanist Joseph Hooker and the zoologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Although Darwin’s theory of evolution was revolutionary, and upset  both academics and the Church, these scientific and philosophical influences show that his ideas did not emerge in a vacuum.

The kitchen garden at Down House where many of the vegetables grown here today are the same varieties as the ones in Darwin's time.

Down House museum goes back to the origins of Charles Darwin’s research. While studying theology at university, Darwin became acquainted with the mineralogist and botanist John Henslow, who suggested that he undertake the journey on the naval vessel HMS Beagle as a gentleman companion to Captain FitzRoy, a trip that ultimately laid the foundation for his evolutionary theory. Darwin observed species he encountered, took extensive notes, and collected specimens such as fossils, skeletons, taxidermied animals, and even live animals, which he sent back to London.

A close-up of the insectivorous (insect eating) plants in the greenhouse. Surprisingly, Darwin’s lack of formal training in the natural sciences ended up being a strength. He did not have the preconceptions that come with specialization. Thanks to his limitless interests, he observed many species and discovered large variations within species of animals and plants, which led him to conclude that species adapt to their environment. In the Galapagos Islands, he noted the different species, such as tortoises, seemed to be adapted to the natural environment of each island in order to survive.

It took years for Darwin to write and publish his book. In 1844, Darwin entrusted his wife Emma with an outline of his theory. At that time he was already aware of its revolutionary nature: unlike Christian's who claimed that God had created the universe and its specimens (including man), Darwin argued that the earth, animals and plants had gone through transformations over the ages. His theory of evolution and natural selection also challenged the idea of a natural order or that man was somehow special. He was challenging core religious belief systems that had prevailed for centuries.

The greenhouse in the garden of Down House, where Darwin did some of his experiments with topical plants.

For the conflict-shy Charles Darwin, married to a deeply Christian woman, these ideas were too daring. Darwin himself had long ago lost his faith, and with the passing of his beloved daughter Anne Elizabeth, he stopped attending church. Yet his work couldn’t be separated from his personal life and religious beliefs. And thus he waited and sought to make his theory fool-proof by transforming Down House into his private laboratory. He read widely and conducted countless experiments on barnacles, worms, bees, and plants, in the house’s garden and the greenhouse, where the results of his observations are displayed.  

Darwin may never have published his research if not for a letter received in 1858 in which the naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace described the very same theory of natural selection that Darwin had come up with. Darwin could no longer hesitate. 

It was finally decided that Darwin and Wallace would present their work at the same time as joint paper that year at the Linnaean Society. In November 1859, when On the Origin of Species was finally published, Darwin did not escape criticism, both from the Church and from the scientific community. Even though Darwin’s theories are still rejected by some, his ideas dramatically changed the way many of us perceive the world we live in, and especially the way we perceive ourselves in comparison to other species. Down House offers a unique entry into the mind and life of a man who changed the way we see the world we live in, despite his reluctance to do so.

St Mary's Church in Downe Village where the Darwin family used to attend Sunday service. Charles Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey (London) in 1882.

*All photos courtesy Ebba Olofsson.

Ebba Olofsson holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from Uppsala University in Sweden. She is currently a Professor at Champlain Regional College and a part-time Professor at the First Peoples Studies Program at Concordia University in Montreal. She is also an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the Department at Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. Ebba Olofsson has done extensive research on identity issues for people with mixed European and Indigenous parentage, both with the Sámi of Sweden and Aboriginals (Inuit and First Nations) in Canada.