Thursday 20th August
Today we drove to The Down House, the family home of Charles Darwin in the leafy village of Downe not that far from us in Kent. I have had a life-long interest in Darwin from university days studying Biology. All of my studies in Biology and Biogeography and genetics forced me to realise that there is a deep unity in the organic make up of all living things and indeed that living things themselves are the product of natural substances found in the environment of the universe. At the same time I was getting excited about my university studies in the history and philosophy of science and realising that in relation to faith and science issues there were thinkers on both sides and all shades in between. Then again majoring in English Literature I soon began to see the need for the different kinds of literature in the Bible to be taken seriously for their original purpose and, for example, it was not necessary to ask historical questions about the parables, or the Book of Revelation, the last chapters of Ezekiel or indeed the first three chapters of Genesis.
This all became very clear to me in university but once I began teaching religious studies to senior students I became immediately aware that one of the biggest barriers to evangelism for thinking students was the issue of evolution and the Bible. How can we believe in this faith if we are required to adopt a literal view of the very important foundational stories in the Bible. I set myself on a course of studies which I have never left to delve deeply into Biblical hermeneutics, the Biblical text and its meaning, approaches to understanding Genesis, evolutionary theory and the philosophies such as creationism that were so inimically opposed to it.
It is still no easy task because the mass media and indeed many secondary teachers in the Humanities continue in their presentation of Christianity to regard Christian faith as being totally opposed to evolution and never bother to look deeper. This is frustrating because students by and large are unaware that a vast array of modern geneticists and evolutionists are also very thoroughly committed Christians including leading Geneticist Dennis Alexander, Francis Collins the key player in unravelling the human genome, Owen Gingrich, Harvard’s Professor of Astronomy and many others. See my book on this blog for a detailed bibliography.
In the process of thinking over the years I amassed a rather large collection of books and studies on the science and religion debate and in the end, with the late and much loved Dr Tony Pepper, physicist and former teaching colleague at St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School, we wrote a book on the subject. I remain convinced that as Augustine, Schaeffer and McGrath have clearly shown there is “no final conflict” in being fully committed to a physical understanding of human origins and having a high view of the Scriptures as being written to help reveal the true and loving nature of the creator God to all mankind. I was pleased to find a remarkable coherence between the books in the Down house study centre and the books on my shelf at home!
This is not to suggest that everything that Darwin wrote stands without modification as written. Biological science has added much since 1859 when the Origin was published and the science of Genetics was non-existent then. Factors other than “natural selection” may well be at play in the evolutionary process and on the other hand, Darwin himself would have and did object to some of the sociological uses “Darwinism” has been put to especially in the areas of eugenics, economic theory and psychology.
With all this in mind I went to the Down House with some trepidation fearing a polemical view on one side or the other. I found instead a thoroughly researched and beautifully preserved and presented exploration of the man, his family, and the methodologies he employed and a very fair treatment of the response to his work and the explosion in the church which resulted. Most of us think of his “work” as the major books such as the Beagle notebook, the Origin, and the Descent of Man. We are often unaware of his detailed research into plant biology, barnacles, beetles, earthworms and many other areas of biology.
The three storey house is full of various experiments he undertook, his greenhouse, beekeeping, wondrous grounds with fruit trees and forest walks as well as beautifully manicured gardens, the old mulberry tree outside his study is still there and much else besides. It is an eerie experience to be in his study which was set up with help from photographs provided by his son Leonard who died in 1943. No photography is permitted inside the house so all we have a some external shots.
Darwin was a loving family man and there is much about his family in the house and of course the tragedy of the death of his much loved first daughter Annie. Her death was the big factor in denting Darwin’s religious faith, not the complexities of nature for which indeed he at times does seem to point to a bigger story. We saw “Annie’s box” which has been much written about, especially by Randall Keynes and to be in this peaceful house and to walk the “sandwalk” through the woods which apparently he often did to ruminate and think was a wonderful privilege.