Charles Darwin was here

It’s the 150th anniversary of the first public exposition, to the Linnean Society, of Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by natural selection, or at least it was on July 1 and we are just running late as usual (we’ve been working on a couple of large projects that we’ll talk about later).

It’s an important anniversary for us because this blog is an investigation of a less biological version of the theory, an accumulation of examples of technological memes in the process of evolving.

But there is another more immediate reason for its importance, the unlikely fact that Darwin’s first thoughts on the subject occurred only a few hundred metres from where I’m writing this blog in Wallerawang, a small town west of Sydney.

charles darwin in wallerawang

It’s one of those hard-to-believe facts, that something so earth shattering could have originated in what is now an ugly and ruinous industrial gothick landscape, a completely insignificant place to most people although it delights us because of its almost post-apocalyptic weirdness.

Darwin visited Australia in 1836 during the voyage of the Beagle. His only inland trip was to Bathurst, 50 kilometres west of here. On the way he stopped here for several days to make observations of the local fauna, particularly the platypus, our local icon that can still be found living its secretive life in nearby creeks. How could there be a better symbol for adaptive reuse than the platypus,

we are platypus
Snorgtees We are platypus t-shirt

the animal made from leftover parts, we love em.

Anyway it was here on the 19th January 1836 that he wrote in his diary about his observations of ant-lions:

…I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete”.

This comment is considered the first indication of the line of thought that soon led to the theory of evolution.

darwin first tree of life diagram
Darwin’s first tree of life diagram from his 1837 notebook

Of course ironies abound. The site of the sheep station where he stayed is now submerged beneath the waters of a dam that supplies a nearby coal fired power station – so we are now manufacturing the end of species here – and the lake is delightfully named Lake Wallace, although not after Darwin’s great rival, the fascinating and under-rated socialist Alfred Russell Wallace.

lake wallace wallerawang

And we have convinced the local council to rename the shabby adjacent park and erect a monument to the event (although the local National Trust branch had to pay for the plaque which was promptly stolen by the local scrap metal thieves and is currently awaiting a replacement).

charles darwin park wallerawang

So one thing only has not changed, the character of the animals, particularly the humans, remains strange to this day.