William H. Calvin

Down House

Charles Darwin's country home, outside London

William H. Calvin is a
 neurobiologist at the
 University of Washington
 Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA
 and the author of A Brain for All Seasons, A Brief History of the Mind, Almost Us.

Charles Darwin photo

Only 16 miles from the center of London, in Downe, is Charles Darwin's home, Down House, now under the management of English Heritage.

His study, where he did most of his writing and microscope work, has been recreated from photographs. His "Sand Walk" for his daily walks and "thinking time" is open, out in the back of the large lawn and grounds. 

(check this year's dates)

29 Mar - 30 Sept 10am - 6pm Wed - Sun
1 - 31 October 10am - 5pm Wed - Sun
1 Nov - 30 Mar 10am - 4pm Wed - Sun
23 Dec - 4 Feb Closed
  Open Bank Holidays

Entry 6.30.  Groups must pre-book at least 1 day in advance; telephone the English Heritage booking line:(44)870 6030145.
Down House itself is (0)1689 859119.

There is a good web page about Down House a century ago and AboutDarwin maintains a list of links. The site for the World Heritage Site proposal is very useful.

[Charles Darwin]
Detail of watercolor by George Richmond, 1840. Darwin Museum at Down House

William H. Calvin
is a neurobiologist and the author of a dozen books on anthropology, brains, evolution,
climate, and the history of science.

To browse the books, go to the home page.

To order a copy of one of the books, click on a cover for the link to amazon.


A Brief History
 of the Mind, 2004

click to order from amazon.com
A Brain for All Seasons
(Phi Beta Kappa book prize)

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

 The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996) The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


An excerpt from my book, A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change which involves paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, and considerations from neurobiology and evolutionary biology.  University of Chicago Press (2002); won the Phi Beta Kappa book prize for science as literature.

I'm starting this little tour at Darwin's home, sitting at a park bench under a magnificent oak tree that dates back to Darwin's time here. Five years after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin and his young family moved from central London to a pleasant country home about 16 miles to the southeast, near the village of Downe. He lived here forty years until his death in 1882. No more voyages around the world, not even trips to the Continent, but Darwin had correspondents everywhere, and sometimes they showed up at his door. 

And it was here at Down House that he raised pigeons, studied earthworms, and dissected barnacles. Here he sat, pen in hand, and wrote out his books that provided so much of our modern understanding of how nature came to be the way it is. But only ten years ago, a scientific pilgrimage to Darwin's country home was remarkably difficult, unless you got directions from someone who had been here before. Only the most detailed guidebooks had a mention of Down House, and then only in the fine print. Get off the train from London at Bromley South or Orpington, and the taxi driver, upon learning your destination, would knowingly suggest that there were much finer country homes to visit than Down House - clearly not understanding that it was Charles Darwin that made Down House so important, not its gardens. 

Arrive, pay off your I-told-you-so taxi driver, and you'd find a low budget operation financed over the decades by the London surgeons, with only several rooms restored to what they were like in Darwin's day, back before the place had been turned into a girls boarding school in the early 20th century. There were a few rooms filled with old-fashioned museum cases laden with a dozen coats of paint, but most of the house was in sad need of repairs and unsuitable for visitors. And this for one of the great scientists of all time, not just one of England's greats. 

Still, it was enormously inspiring to anyone who understood the intellectual triumph of Charles Darwin, this chance to see where he had thought it all through - his study with his microscope, his chair by the living room fireplace, and his "sand walk" out back, where he went for three walks a day to digest his thoughts. Often, one supposes, Darwin sloughed through the fine English rain, likely blowing in from the west after forming above the warm Gulf Stream. 

Most people who think a little about evolution are wedded to the basic idea of gradual improvements in efficiency - and not much concerned with the origins of what was later improved (it was just "mutations"). Yet it was Darwin himself (a point omitted from even the modernized science exhibits at Down House) who first cautioned readers about getting fixated on efficiency, and who - at the same time - offered a route for invention. He noted that changes in function could be "so important," that an anatomical structure improved for one function could, in passing, serve some other function that utilized the same anatomical feature. (Darwin's example was the fish's swim bladder serving as a primitive lung.) Novelties come from those nascent secondary uses, not from a bolt out of the blue, as a cosmic ray mutates a gene.

IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN DOWN HOUSE since the reopening in 1998, there's a lot more to see, thanks to much fund-raising by the British Museum. It is currently operated by English Heritage, which issues timed tickets (phone ahead) and provides audio wands to guide you through the rooms. 

Next to Darwin's study, there's his billiard room, where cause and effect operated on a simpler, more direct, level than it does in biology. Across the hall is the large dining room with its bay windows; it was also the "justice room" where Darwin served as a magistrate on occasion. The now-rebuilt stairway to the upstairs leads you to a series of former bedrooms, filled with modern exhibits about Darwin's science. 

Darwin traveled into London for scientific meetings, but mostly he kept up an enormous correspondence. His was something like the modern "home office" style of working, that computers and communications are making possible even for scientists without inherited wealth. Darwin's life shows you another style of doing science, one without classes to teach or students to supervise, without grant applications to write, one where piecing together the big story operated alongside the careful dissection of barnacles, digesting it all on yet another loop around the Sand Walk, carrying a great stick which he struck loudly against the ground, making a rhythmical click as he walked along with a swinging gait.

More at the book's web site.

The TV series on Evolution, all eight hours of it, originally aired on PBS in 2001.  I was one of the dozen science advisors for the series, especially the sixth program, "The Mind's Big Bang."  Science teachers should sign up for the instructor's manual.


Travel DirectionsThanks to Linda Gowdy for the update.

By Train and Bus: From London's Victoria Station, buy a day return ticket for Orpington; trains are frequent. At Orpington, walk southwest several miles or take the once-an-hour R8 bus from the train station, which goes directly past Down House.

If getting off at Bromley, take Bus 146 to Downe (except on Sundays). Down House is about a five minute walk up Luxted Road from the village. A cab from Bromley was 9 each way in 1996.


Bus map (now outdated, doesn't show R8 from Orpington, but good road map)



Driving Directions: Take the A21 toward Bromley and Orpington; Down House is signposted at Farnborough, also on the A233 near Biggin Hill.  Good maps at www.streetmap.co.uk or www.multimap.co.uk which use Ordnance Survey mapping; the latter also provides aerial photographs.

For more relevant books from The Calvin Bookshelf, see anthropology, biology, cognitive sciences, ethology, climate, evolution, brains, language.

National Academy of Sciences report on the Teaching of Evolution is available on the web as well as in print from the National Academy Press. amazon.com

Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Knopf, 1995; Princeton UP pb 1996).

Volume 1 of an excellent Darwin biography (volume 1). 
amazon.com paperback
cover   Charles Darwin: The Power of Place
 (volume 2), hardcover


Helena Cronin, The Ant and the Peacock (Cambridge University Press 1992).

"Imagine a world without Darwin. Imagine a world in which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had not transformed our understanding of living things. What... would become baffling and puzzling..., in urgent need of explanation? The answer is: practically everything about living things...."
UBS amazon.com Powell's

Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London 1859).

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few 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."
amazon.com -- try to get the Penguin or the Harvard University Press facsimile of the first edition (the others tend to be the sixth, which is cluttered with replies to contemporary critics).

Charles Darwin (edited by Paul Ekman), The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals 3rd Edition (Oxford Univ Prress, 1998 reprint).

Yes, ethology is another field that Charles Darwin helped to invent. Among the most readable of his books, it's alive with anecdotes, literary quotations and his own observations of his friends and children. Darwin spent a lot of time seeking out photographs of facial expressions to include in this book, and Paul Ekman (the modern expert on facial expression of emotion) makes a wonderful editor. amazon.com

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London 1871).

"Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system- with all these exalted powers- Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
UBS amazon.com Powell's

Michael White, John R. Gribbin, Darwin: A Life in Science (E P Dutton, 1995).

An intellectual history of evolutionary thought, and a fine short version of Darwin's life and times; a different viewpoint than the other fine bio's of Darwin, such as Janet Browne's.

All those other books by and about Charles Darwin.

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Photographs and text by William H. Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington
 and the author of a dozen popular books on science, who won the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa  book prize for science as literature.

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