In Shrewsbury, where Darwin was born, for the celebrations to mark his 200th birthday. This town are very proud of their prodigal son (actually, unlike the Biblical prodigal son, Darwin didn’t leave home and come back. He left and went to live in Kent.) In the town square people are handing out slices of a birthday cake decorated with 200 candles. It’s very nice. I’m also glad to see people had made no effort to resist the very English urge to dress up like they did in the olden days. There are a few top hats, some great coats, a few buxom wenches and even a couple of firemen (not entirely sure of the relevance here, but they do have nice shiny buttons on their uniforms).
Not everyone was entering into the spirit of the day though. This man had very deliberately taken up residence on one of the benches just out of reach of those handing out the cake in a cold and lonely crusade to convince people that we are not all descended from monkeys after all. Apparently, half of us agree that evolution is bunk. Everybody here in Shrewsbury, however, seems positively happy to have a monkey in the family tree and ignores him. Or rather, almost everyone. One man leans out of the crowd to shout: “Mate, I really do believe that. There is no God.”
“Well it’s only the fool who says that, so you must be a fool then,” replies the Christian, crossly, before resuming his previous position of scowling in the cold. Entirely delighted by the school-boy level of this exchange, I decide to go back for another slice of cake.
But what has Darwin got to do with the Carterets? More than you might think. The Carterets, you see, are a coral atoll. Darwin saw coral atolls while on the Beagle and got very exited (remember he had grown up in the English midlands), describing them as “These most curious rings of land”. Back on dry land, he devised a theory that elegantly explains their formation – essentially, coral reefs grow surrounding volcanoes that are thrown up on the sea floor. Tectonic drift causes the volcano to sink relative to the water level, leaving only the ring of coral behind above the waves. So the Carterets are literally a sinking land. In his autobiography, Darwin said it was this theory that gave him more pleasure than any other. Which is a big call.
Back in Shrewsbury, someone has even thought to tie balloons onto the statue of the birthday boy sitting outside his old school building. The school is now the town library, where I am writing this.