Australia will rule

Evolution Festival, Media releases

Tasmania is remarkable
But I do not like Sydney society

That was Charles Darwin’s view of Australia according to Emeritus Professor Frank Nicholas speaking on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Darwin’s 200th birthday is tomorrow, Thursday 12 February. It will be celebrated by scientists around the world, recognising the role that Darwin’s theory of evolution plays in underpinning all of modern biology.

His theory grew out of his five year voyage on HMS Beagle – which took him to Sydney, Hobart, and Albany.

If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out, former Prime Minister, Paul Keating once opined.

Charles Darwin disagreed. He was repelled by the social environment of the Emerald City, Nicholas says. “On the whole I do not like New South Wales,” he wrote in his diary. “It is without doubt an admirable place to accumulate pounds & shillings; but Heaven forfend that ever I should live, where every other man is sure to be somewhere between a petty rogue & bloodthirsty villain.- “.

Nicholas, a geneticist at the University of Sydney, co-authored Charles Darwin in Australia with his wife Jan. The book has been recently updated and republished for Darwin’s anniversary by Cambridge University Press.

Nicholas is speaking this week at Evolution: The Experience conference at the Melbourne Convention Centre.

“It has now become clear that Darwin left his heart in Hobart Town,” says Nicholas.  In a letter to his friend John Hooker, on the news that Hooker had been provided financial support by the Tasmanian Government to publish his Flora of Tasmania, Darwin even flirted with the idea of emigrating there:

“What capital news from Tasmania: it really is a very remarkable & creditable fact to the Colony: I am always building veritable castles-in-the-air about emigrating, & Tasmania has been my head quarters of late, so that I feel very proud of my adopted country; it is really a very singular & delightful fact, contrasted with the slight appreciation of science in the Old Country.”

These views on Hobart have just been highlighted in a chapter written by historian Emeritus Prof Michael Roe of the University of Tasmania for Charles Darwin in Hobart Town, published and launched by the Royal Society of Tasmania only last week.

But by end of his time in Australia, says Nicholas, Darwin was predicting great things for the 50 year old British settlement, even if its ambience was not always to his taste. His views are summarised in his Journal published three years after his visit:

“In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilization, which at some not very remote period, will rule as empress over the southern hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag, seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.”

But that wasn’t the last time Australia crossed Darwin’s path. An exhibition to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, which will open at Sydney University’s Macleay Museum on Thursday, traces the Antipodean connection of “Darwin’s bulldog”-Thomas Huxley, the zoologist and educator who became Darwin’s chief defender in the intellectual storm stirred up by the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859.

It turns out that Huxley met Henrietta Heathorn-his motivator, the love of his life and his eventual wife and mother of eight children-in Sydney in 1846. The love letters between the two in the late 1840s while she remained in Sydney and he returned to London were painstaking transcribed by Sydney University’s Prof Iain McCalman, another speaker at the conference.

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