So, on Wednesday, despite appalling weather, a small band of enthusiasts gathered to toast the birthday of Shrewsbury’s most famous son; Charles Darwin.
It’s a tradition that began back in 2003 when I founded the Shrewsbury Darwin Festival. The venue is the courtyard in front of the Morris Hall. Darwin’s birthplace is half a mile or so away and it may seem odd that we don’t toast his birthday there. Truth to tell, the former Darwin family seat is not open to the public. It’s the offices of the District Valuer. But that’s not why I chose this alternative venue for the birthday toast.
Beside the gates to the hall stands a smooth boulder just over half a metre in width. It’s known locally as The Bellstone and may have once been used as a parish boundary marker. It’s what’s known in geological circles as an erratic. That’s to say, it ‘aint from around these parts. In fact, you’d have to travel as far north as Cumbria to find this stone occurring naturally (over 180 miles).
Back when Darwin was a fresh-faced (clean shaven) youth, a local amateur naturalist, Mr Coton said to the youngster “the world will come to an end before we learn how this stone came to rest here”
The assumption being that because there is something we don’t presently know or understand, we will never know or understand it. At this point it may be useful to be reminded of Darwin’s lineage.
His grandfather on his father’s side was Erasmus Darwin; physician, inventor, poet and philosopher. On his mother’s side, it was Josiah Wedgwood; innovator, amateur scientist and founder of the Wedgwood dynasty. And both of them were members of the 18th century group known as The Lunar Men; polymaths, revolutionaries and free thinkers all. The nature/nurture debate has been a long one but if Darwin picked up even the merest essence of his grand-parental DNA it would help explain his young enquiring mind. And this young enquiring mind would not have been content with Mr Coton’s take on scientific understanding. In fact, Darwin remembers this incident in his autobiography and recalls sitting in a geology lecture just a few years afterwards and learning about the brute force of the encroaching glaciers during the last Ice Age . How they re-painted the landscape beneath them like a palette knife through oils. And how boulders even bigger than The Bellstone were left dazed and displaced when the ice sheets retreated. And as the explanation unfolded in that Edinburgh lecture hall, Darwin ‘marvelled at the progress of science’
It’s also the tradition at the birthday toast to read an extract from the final two paragraphs of Darwin’s greatest work ‘On the Origin of Species’. He’d worked on the book for decades and planned a might tome but when a letter arrived from Alfred Wallace outlining Darwin’s own theory in startling brevity, he was rushed into print. It could be argued that the result was a better work for all that. Concise and written for the lay man, it was an instant best seller and arguably the first work to further the public understanding of science. After explaining how tiny changes over generations lead to new variations in nature by likening it to man’s breeding of race horses and pigeons to create desirable traits he comes to a simple, startling conclusion; this is what is read out at the birthday toast:
“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into new forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.”
Charles Darwin:On the Origin of Species 1859
So that’s why we toast Darwin at The Bellstone at noon on the 12th of February every year come rain or shine. Perhaps you’d like to join us next year?
The Darwin Festival is currently run by The Shropshire Wildlife Trust.
Jon leads a Darwin Walk around Shrewsbury for small groups, underlining the importance of early influences on the later development of the great naturalist. Use the contact form below for enquiries.