UCL News


Charles Darwin of Gower Street

17 October 2008

Worms cannot hear - a conclusion reached by Charles Darwin after he played a variety of musical instruments to them.

Darwin's study of earthworms was published a year before he died; to mark the bicentenary of the author's birth, his book is on display as part of a small exhibition at UCL (University College London) this winter, taken from the considerable collection of Darwin and Galton books and papers held by UCL Library Services.

When he was newly married in his early 30s, Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) lived for nearly four years at 12 Upper Gower Street or 'Macaw Cottage', a site now occupied by UCL's Darwin Building. By the time he came to Gower Street, Darwin had already returned from his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. Darwin went on to establish a reputation as one of the foremost scientists of modern times, his work influencing contemporaries and their successors at UCL.

Darwin is most famous for his book 'On the origin of species by means of natural selection', and the copy of the first edition he gave to his cousin, Francis Galton, is on display as part of the exhibition, hosted from October to January in UCL's Main Library in connection with the Darwin200 programme of events.

Darwin wrote on a number of other themes including 'The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms: with observations on their habits' which was published in 1881, and was Darwin's last book. In it he described the earthworm's characteristics, observing for example that worms had no sense of hearing, as they had made no response to "shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet."

Other items on display include correspondence between Darwin and Galton, a polymath who shared Darwin's interest in heredity and identity. Amongst the many things Francis Galton is credited with pioneering is the methodology for fingerprint identification adopted by Scotland Yard. On display at UCL is a box of 300 sets of fingerprints, just some of the 8,000 he collected, which were meticulously codified and grouped by type.

To mark the opening of the exhibition on Monday 27 October 2008, UCL Professor Steve Jones will give a talk on what Darwinism tells us - and does not tell us - about our own place in nature.

The exhibition runs from the end of October 2008 until January 2009.

Notes for Editors

1. The Darwin and Galton material is on display in UCL's Main Library, Wilkins Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT and is accessible to the public. More information can be found on the website http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Library/exhibitions/.

2. Journalists who wish to attend the opening on Monday 27 October 2008 or find out more should contact Jenny Gimpel at the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile +44 (0)7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk.

3. For more information on the Darwin200 programme of events, see http://www.darwin200.org/.