Down House proposal withdrawn

Darwin’s home was going to be submitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage committee for designation as a World Heritage site, but that application was withdrawn, to be resubmitted in two years after some reworking. Down House has some handicaps compared to other World Heritage sites:

But without natural wonders or spectacular architecture, Darwin at Downe does not tick obvious World Heritage boxes. Although he was surprised to hear of Downe’s difficulties, Geoffrey Belcher, site coordinator for the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site in London, thinks that “A site with a limited range of qualities will be at a disadvantage.” The inclusion of the Royal Observatory makes Greenwich one of the few World Heritage Sites to celebrate science, but the site boasts architectural splendour and naval history too.

It is a rather different site—it’s not famous for some major chunk of tangible real estate, something that visitors could touch and take photos of, but for being a place where one of the major thinkers of the 19th century did his research and writing and correspondence, a kind of locus of thought. It’s definitely an important place in the history of science.

Ian Robinson finds one unfortunate comment in the article—a comparison with religious sites. Bleh.

“I can’t think of anything more important to do for the history of nineteenth-century science than to protect the whole environment Darwin inhabited and exploited,” says James Moore, a Darwin scholar at the Open University in Milton Keynes and one of the first historians to explore the importance of this rural refuge to Darwin. “Muslims go to Mecca, Christians go to Jerusalem, Darwinians go to Downe,” he says.

That’s putting the wrong spin on it. Another World Heritage site is Independence Hall in Philadelphia; we don’t go there because we worship the declaration of independence, or because we think the founding fathers were gods (OK, some people do, but they’re insane). Another is the Olympic National Park—again, it’s not a holy place, it’s a natural wonder. I like both, but that doesn’t make me an Independencehallian or an Olympian…although the latter does have a nice ring to it.

Nicholls H (2007) Darwin down but not out. Nature, 20 June 2007, doi:10.1038/447896a


  1. H. Humbert says

    When I was in college, I attended a school trip to London. We visited Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-on-Avon. If it seemed a good idea to preserve the house of a bard, why not a scientist? And why not without appealing to religious sentiments, of all things?

  2. Kseniya says

    “Muslims go to Mecca, Christians go to Jerusalem, Darwinians go to Downe,” he says.

    Yeccch. That’s just awful. Monticello would have been a much better comparison. Nobody goes there for religious reasons.

  3. inkadu says

    Preserving historic sites that are only interesting for what happened at them always seemed overly-sentimental to me — not to mention dull as nails.

    How about the Beagle? It’s probably not different than any other ship of the time, but it’s at least a ship. Think of all the bored children who get dragged to historical places by well-meaning parents… I think they’d rather go on a ship. Then they can at least imagine fighting pirates, or braving storms, instead, of you know, having to imagine penning treatises at and asking the wife what’s for dinner.

  4. Caledonian says

    Considering the widespread acceptance of the Theory of Evolution, I’d expect Downe to be a lot more popular than it is if that man’s claim were true. There are a lot of Muslims, and a lot of Christians, but every intelligent, educated, and moderately honest person is a Darwinian.

  5. says

    The Cradle of Humankind IS a world heritage site. That is a South Africa district (known formerly as the Transvaal Caves) where much of the evidence for human evolution has been found.

    The fact that SA’s Cradle has made it to the list (with a LOT of work, by the way, put into it) and Down House has not yet done so is actually encouraging in a way. If the exact opposite was the case, we would probably be looking at another case of Euro- and Anglo-centered science, culture, and culture of science.

    However, in the present case there is almost a reversal. The South African evidence for human evolution was among the earliest discovered and the latest accepted my mainstream science, because of anglo-anti-africanism and not really for any other reason.

    You know that great embarrassment of human evolutionary biology, the one the creationists keep holding up? Piltdown? THAT (Piltdown) was preferred by the British over Taung for many many years, because Taung was from Africa, found by Africans, and tauted by Africans as important.

    So while I would strongly support Down House as being part of this program, please remember that part of the reason this program exists is because the US, Britain, etc. have major and actual functioning national park systems that actually protect resources, but many other countries do not. The World Heritage Park system is partly to get the rest of the world up to speed on doing this kind of thing. Down house SHOULD have World Heritage Status, but does not NEED it. The former Transvaal Caves, I promise you, would be condos and paper bag factories by the end of the decade if it did not have it.

    Down House will get this in two or three years, I’m sure.

  6. Caledonian says

    Mr. Laden makes an excellent point. Need before factionalism – Darwin’s residence simply doesn’t need this status right now.

  7. says

    Like Greg said, there really isn’t much risk of Down House being lost. It’s looking good right now, and I haven’t heard of any major development threats. One reason for that might be that it isn’t easy to get to, despite being so close to London.

  8. clamboy says

    When we went to Sun Studios in Memphis some years ago, my not-yet-wife and I took the “tour.” The enthusiatic young man who was our guide (in appropriate subtle greaser garb) explained that this was not a tour through space, but through time. We stood in THE ROOM, and our guide gave a history lesson in 20th century popular music, and that was it, but it was enough to give me chills and thrills. I was in THE ROOM: Johnny Cash had recorded there, and Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich. Later, it was Bob Dylan, then U2.
    And Elvis. The first notes he ever recorded were sung, and played, in that room, using that microphone. He stood…right…there.
    Down House may not have the aesthetic splendor of the Royal Observatory, but its WH recognition is important for the extraordinary thing that happened there, something much more momentous than Elvis Presley making a record for his momma (with the rest to come very soon after). The greatest idea in the whole of biology, possibly in all of science, certainly one of the greatest ideas in history period, was first fleshed out between those walls, and on those grounds. My feelings about Down House are *not* religious, but a rational approximation: the deep appreciation one feels at being in a place where someone did something incredible. I hope the WH status comes through next time around, and that will be that.

  9. carol h says

    My husband is a scientist and when he went on sabbatical to London one site he had to visit was Down House. We took our kids, then 12 and 14, and they may have been a bit bored but that’s OK. They were a bit bored with a lot of things we dragged them to when they were kids but now that they are young adults they thank us. Down House is a bit difficult to get to but not terribly so. A train and a bus from central London got us there fairly easily. Down House is in no danger of dissappearing since it is in the care of English Heritage, a governmental agency that preserves the built history of the UK. It was an inspiration for us to visit Down House and we walked on the famous sand walk, a path through the grounds that Darwin used to pace when he needed to think. We hoped it would give Nobel Prize winning inspriation to my husband and we had no luck in that regard, just the feeling clamboy got from Sun Studios–Darwin walked RIGHT HERE! It certainly deserved World Heritage status but until it gets it, it is still protected.

  10. Numad says

    “I like both, but that doesn’t make me an Independencehallian or an Olympian…although the latter does have a nice ring to it.”

    I think that one is already taken!

  11. T. Bruce McNeely says

    I love going to places where world-shaking events got their start. When I was younger, I missed out on a bunch of these when I was travelling, because they were not well advertised or easy to get to. Heck, I spent a week in London, and didn’t even know about Down House. I’m hoping that when my girls are older, I can drag them to the formative places of my heroes (Darwin – Down House, Roger McGuinn – Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, Taliesin East and West – Frank Lloyd Wright).
    Probably drive the poor things nuts…
    I’m glad to hear that Down House seems to be protected, it’s on my list of places to go before I die.

  12. says

    I am curious to know why the application was withdrawn. I worked on one in graduate school for the National Register. I know that they are a great deal of work and that there are several ways in which you can present your case. Perhaps it was simply withdrawn because they came across new evidence they wanted to add, or they were advised that it was more likely to be successful with a different selection criterion, or there was something in more immediate danger that they wished to present first. There’s any number of innocent explanations. I hope it does make the list eventually.

  13. G. Tingey says

    But, whether you are visiting, or a resident, in London, towards the West side, IS a World Heritage Site that is entirely devoted to science.
    It is also one of the most civilised and relaxing places on the Planet.
    A greater monument to knowledge and learning than any religious building, anywhere – and it has great architecture, as well ….

    The web-address is:

    That’s right, the oldest, and largest botanic garden, anywhere.

    I go at least three or four times a year.

  14. MartinC says

    Rumor has it that its been sold off to Ken Ham as the site for the European branch of the ‘Creation Museum’.

  15. ajay says

    Greg Laden: Piltdown? THAT (Piltdown) was preferred by the British over Taung for many many years, because Taung was from Africa, found by Africans, and tauted by Africans as important.

    Raymond Dart was Australian. Australia isn’t actually in Africa. But don’t let that disturb you!

  16. says

    I like both, but that doesn’t make me an Independencehallian or an Olympian…although the latter does have a nice ring to it.

    Five rings, usually.

  17. says

    Just because somewhere isn’t a World Heritage Site doesn’t mean it’s in immenient danger of being torn down. National governments can still take care of their own cultural treasures. Saudi Arabia for example has not put the Kabbah, Mecca, or the Tomb of Muhammed in Medina on the World Heritage List. Mount Vernon isn’t on the list either. For that matter, just because something is on the list doesn’t necessarily keep it from being wrecked as Bayam was by religious fanatics.
    As a general rule, the protection is for important or unusual places, ( not for important people. Down House is not different from other houses of its time; only its inhabitant. His monument is Origin of Species and Descent of Man. And the most important place for Darwin is the Galapagos (which are on the list).

  18. says

    Does the proposed site include the chalky field used for Darwin’s researches into bioturbation? Because, if so, it may be his only experiment still running. That seems worth keeping.

  19. says

    Isn’t this why there are different categories of World Heritage Sites? Natural covers the Grand Canyon and all those mountains, and Cultural is, well, cultural, I suppose. Sounds like Down House should be a shoe-in for it. But I think they should probably truss the place up, make the area clean and/or restore it to how it was in Darwin’s time. I’ve no idea what it’s like at the moment, so take that as you will.