My history hero: Andrew Marr chooses Charles Darwin (1809–82)

Andrew Marr, broadcaster and author, chooses Charles Darwin, a naturalist and geologist who made history with his On the Origins of Species

Charles Darwin at his home at Down House, Kent, c1880. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Charles Darwin: in profile

Charles Darwin was a British naturalist and geologist. His five-year round-the-world voyage on HMS Beagle and subsequent publication of his diary-journal, Journal and Remarks, 1832–1836, established him as a leading geologist and author. But he is best-known for his groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species (1859), in which he advanced his scientific theory that different species evolved over the course of time through a process of natural selection. The father-of-10 was buried in Westminster Abbey.

When did you first hear about Charles Darwin?

I read The Voyage of the Beagle as a boy, but I was really only turned on to science, and biology in particular, later in life. It wasn’t something I was much interested in at school, to the despair of my teachers. I then went on to champion Darwin in the BBC’s Greatest Britons television series in 2002. I’m proud of the fact that he came fourth in the competition [behind Winston Churchill, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Diana, Princess of Wales] though I naturally think he should have won!

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What kind of man was he?

He was extremely kind and empathetic, lacking pomposity in his demeanour and private life, and a loving father and husband. Yet in his intellect he was utterly ferocious and incredibly brave. To think the way that he thought, and push it to its logical conclusion, in a heavily Christianised period of our history was an extraordinary thing to do. Absolutely extraordinary.

What made Darwin a hero?

To me a hero can’t be a cruel or unpleasant person by definition. By the same token, a hero has to be an open, tolerant individual who treats people from all backgrounds, as well as animals, with kindness – and Darwin was all those things. He was endlessly curious and advanced a new way of thinking which transformed the way the whole world thought. Name me another person in British history on the same scale? There’s nobody.

Charles Darwin was endlessly curious and advanced a new way of thinking, which transformed the way the whole world thought

Is there anything you don’t hugely admire about him?

I don’t think there was a darker side to Darwin, other than the fact that he engaged in feuds with rivals – especially with those who didn’t agree with him.

Could you have ended up as a naturalist, too, if you had been born a century earlier?

We are all the prisoners, in later life, of our early education. I wish I had been more focused on the sciences in general, and biology in particular, in my schooldays, and then indeed I would love to have been a naturalist back in the heroic days…

What would you ask Darwin if you could meet him?

I’d ask him whether he thought that his view of the world meant that humans should and could be bred to make them better – in other words, did he believe in eugenics? I’m pretty sure Darwin’s answer would have been: “Certainly not, what a horrible idea!” If he’d said that, he would have saved the world quite a lot of misery.

Andrew Marr was talking to York Membery. Marr is best-known for presenting The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One. His latest book, Elizabethans: How Modern Britain Was Forged (William Collins), is out now, and his BBC Two series, New Elizabethans, is available on BBC iPlayer now

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine