It’s Charles Darwin’s birthday today, 12 February – a special one, since it’s the bicentennial of his birth. I was lucky enough to recently visit the Darwin exhibition in London’s Natural History Museum. It was a small exhibition but contained some fascinating artefacts, including a mock-up of his study. I learned that he added casters to his chair so he wouldn’t have to get up to fetch his notes and books spread around the room and therefore risk exacerbating one of his many ailments. What’s more, he was perpetually covered in blankets, even in the summer, because he was always cold.
What was striking about the collection was its outline of the enormous adventures he undertook when traveling on The Beagle. A huge wall chart traced his path around the world and back again, and included hotspots where he witnessed events as various as riots or earthquakes and almost everything in between.
Although by all accounts he was a rather timid man he threw himself into the adventure completely. One story tells us that he hunted with a tribe in South America and managed to entwine his hunting bolas around the legs of his own horse, sending him tumbling. We’re told once he dusted himself off, he laughed along with the locals at his mishap: it’s certainly clear that he made many friends along the way, and felt great affection for many of those he met.
We learned, too, that his theories on evolution and their clear opposition to Christian creationism jarred with family and friends, including his wife. The death of his young daughter left him scarred and he was prone to severe panic attacks. His is very human story, fitting for a man who fortified humanism – and all its frailties, wonder and complexities – replacing it firmly at the centre of modern and contemporary experience.