Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Paleontologist Barbie pays tribute to Darwin on his 205th birthday by reminiscing about her visit to Down House

Happy 205th birthday Charles Darwin on February 12, 2014! Below is Paleontologist Barbie's long overdue interview with Hallellujah Truth, the wife of her colleague and collaborator, Tony Martin about her visit in 2012 to Darwin's home, Down House, and what it meant to her.
Hallelujah Truth: First of all, why are you so enthusiastic about Charles Darwin, a man born in 1809?

Paleontologist Barbie: Darwin rocked! Which is to say, Darwin was a geologist, not just a biologist. He knew a lot about fossils and was taught by one of the founders of modern geology, Charles Lyell.

Hallelujah Truth: What is so special about Darwin's home, Down House?

Paleontologist Barbie:  Well, this was where Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, and it was the site of Darwin’s “backyard” experiments on plants and the effects of earthworms on soils. That's pretty special!
Hallelujah Truth: I know when you travel, you like to use local  transportation. Why and how did you get to Down House?

Paleontologist Barbie: First of all, I like to use local transportation because it's really good for the environment. Secondly, I was afraid to drive because of the steering wheel being on the wrong side of the car, plus not being able to see over the steering wheel anyway!

Buses and trains are also great for seeing the English countryside without having to worry about driving. Getting to Darwin’s home from London requires a little effort, but is well worth it. We had to take a couple of train transfers and one bus connection to get to Downe Village.

JOURNEY TO DOWN HOUSE.  Once in Downe Village, Paleontologist Barbie led the way to Down House, just a short walk along a country road. “Origin of evolutionary theory, here I come!” she shouted with glee. Incidentally, Paleontologist Barbie does not drive, a result of both her inability to reach a steering wheel and look out the windscreen, as well as her strong support of public transportation. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: Can you describe your first impression of Down House as you approached it on foot?

Paleontologist Barbie: It felt like I was approaching a sacred shrine. But when you walk up to it, you see it's a nice house and you can totally understand how Darwin felt there comfortable with his family, yet he could still do science at home, too.

TEA TIME. Once at Down House, Paleontologist Barbie was very excited about being there, but before touring the home and the grounds outside, she made sure to properly hydrate and fortify herself with some tea at the café. “I say, old chaps, may I have a spot of tea?” she asked with a mock English accent, in a vain attempt to blend in with the locals. One thing is for sure about Paleontologist Barbie: she always manages to stand out from the crowd. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: As you toured Darwin's parlor, dining room, and study, what did you feel?

Paleontologist Barbie: It was neat to see the parlor with the piano in because I read how Darwin did experiments on earthworms to see if they could detect sound. He used musical instruments - like the piano - to test the reactions of the earthworms. It turns out they can't hear, but they did pick up on the vibrations from the sounds, which was really important for Darwin to know.

Hallelujah Truth: And how about his study? I heard you loved seeing where he wrote Origin of Species.

Paleontologist Barbie: It was incredible to see his study, knowing that was the desk where he sat down and wrote out his thoughts about the theory of evolution. But you could also see some of his scientific instruments nearby, which meant his study was also a place where he could write and experiment. 

REFLECTING UPON ANOTHER ERA. Paleontologist Barbie thoroughly enjoyed her tour of the Down House interior, and was especially thrilled to see the study where Darwin did much of his writing and thinking. Photography was not allowed inside Down House, although the Down House guides at the entrance were very excited to meet Paleontologist Barbie, and said, “Take as many pictures as you would like outside.” Here, in a moment of melancholic reflection, she sat on the windowsill outside the dining room, imagining what the Darwin family saw as they looked out during meals. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: Can you explain the significance of the grounds surrounding Darwin's home?

Paleontologist Barbie: Darwin was a great example of a backyard scientist, meaning that his study of evolution wasn't just limited to writing at his desk. For example, he had some stones set out in his yard to measure how much soil earthworms were turning over. 

He also had a garden and loved studying how plants changed over generations. I love paleobotany, so it's neat to think about how his looking at plants in his backyard connected to his explanations of how plants evolved. He even had a greenhouse, which we got to visit. It has lots of carnivorous plants, which I love for how they totally mess with people's expectations of plants. They can be carnivores, too!
DARWIN’S SUNDIAL. Time was always on Darwin’s mind, particularly the vast amounts of geological time needed to produce new species and major transitions in evolution, which were documented through fossils. So it was only appropriate that Paleontologist Barbie was drawn to a sundial in the backyard of Down House, with its time-keeping dependency on a 4.5 billion-year-old sun. “It’s about time!” she said in an obvious reference to macroevolutionary theory and the geological record. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
DARWIN AND THE BRANCHING TREE. Amazingly, a mulberry tree just behind Down House was alive while the Darwin Family lived there, and thus is more than 150 years old. For Paleontologist Barbie, going up this tree with its stout trunk and branches somehow symbolized a connection with Darwin’s depiction of evolution as a branching tree. “There’s nothing like climbing a tree to help you remember your primate heritage,” she said, and then quoted Darwin himself: “Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits.” –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: Could you explain to me your fascination with worms and the fact that you love that Darwin studied them?

Paleontologist Barbie: A lot of people may not know this about Darwin, but he was also an ichnologist. His studies of worms and how much they burrowed and affected soils required a lot of math too. As everybody knows, I'm really good at math and enjoy using it in paleontology. Anyway, Darwin actually applied math to the ichnology of earthworms. How cool is that?
CELEBRATING THE WORMSTONE. Because Paleontologist Barbie is also an ichnologist, she knew that part of her visit to Down House would be to see one of the famous “wormstones” there, mentioned in Darwin’s last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms. Darwin used these stones to calculate how much earthworms burrowed, enriched, and turned over the soil. This turnover eventually caused the stones to sink into the ground, which he figured was at about 2 mm/year. “Quantification rules!”, she shouted exuberantly. However, the vibrations from her yell startled several nearby earthworms, which, thinking she was a mole, quickly retreated into their burrows. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: What will you remember about visiting his garden and being in his greenhouse?

Paleontologist Barbie: That's a good question. I'll always remember the feeling of excitement knowing that I was standing in the same place where he studied his plants. But I'll also think about Darwin cultivating these plants, which required being very caring and gentle. Which means that Darwin was a sensitive guy way ahead of his time. You might say he was EMO-Darwin!

SEE A PLANT, SEE EVOLUTIONARY THEORY. Further behind Down House is a greenhouse Darwin used to grow and study plants that interested him, and an outdoor garden with herb and food plants. This is the same garden that fed the Darwin family and all of the people who worked there. Here, Paleontologist Barbie looked out from the greenhouse onto the garden, pondering how Darwin’s studies of plants, their inheritable traits, and their adaptations all contributed to his development of evolutionary theory. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
EXCITEMENT AMONG CARNIVOROUS PLANTS! Among the plants in the greenhouse are pitcher plants (behind Paleontologist Barbie), sundews, Venus flytraps, and other carnivorous plants. These plants fascinated Darwin because of how they had evolved to trap and consume insects. “Feed me, Charles!” said Paleontologist Barbie with a deep voice, paraphrasing Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
COLLEGIAL SUPPORT. Professor Tony Martin, author of Dinosaurs Without Bones,  documented Paleontologist Barbie's historic visit to Down House --photo by Hallelujah Truth
FOSSIL SUNDEW PLANTS WITH INSECTS? While in the greenhouse, Paleontologist Barbie admired a sundew plant. These plants evolved sticky gels on short tentacles. If flying insects gets too close to these, they become stuck and the tentacles wrap around it, making a nice snack for the plant. “Wouldn’t it be great to discover a fossil sundew preserved with some insects?” she said hopefully. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
FLOWERS, AN ABOMINABLE MYSTERY TO DARWIN. Darwin loved orchids, and he was very interested in learning how animals, particularly insects, pollinated orchids. Darwin also described the origin of flowering plants as an “abominable mystery.” Fortunately, the fossil record has improved tremendously since the late 19th century, with the oldest known fossil flowering plants coming from the Early Cretaceous of China. “Better not try to celebrate Valentine’s Day during the Jurassic!” advised Paleontologist Barbie, in a warning to any romantically inclined time travelers. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
THE POWER AND BEAUTY OF SMART WOMEN. On the brick wall separating the Down House backyard from the garden, Paleontologist Barbie, prompted by her ever-present spirit of adventure and whimsy, climbed one of the vines there. “Behold: the ascent of woman!” she exclaimed energetically. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
Hallelujah Truth: Can you tell me about the area where Darwin used to take a walk and think? You walked in these meditative steps of Darwin, didn't you?

Paleontologist Barbie: Yes! It's a path called "The Sand Walk." It's where Darwin would go out, walk along it, and think. It was a way for him to relax and enjoy the outdoors. I can identify with that. Some of my best thinking is done outside.

Hallelujah Truth: Didn't Darwin have a technique for keeping count of the distance he walked in this relatively small rural area?

Paleontologist Barbie:  Yes! He used rocks as lap counters. I tried to imagine myself doing the same thing, and it was awesome.

Hallelujah Truth: So you had a limited time to spend at Down House because of using local transportation and needing to catch a bus back to London, isn't that right?

Paleontologist Barbie: Yeah, but we also planned to go to Crystal Palace with those cool sculptures of Victorian dinosaurs. How could we miss that? Before catching a bus from Downe Village though we had to get a beer at Darwin's pub. Can you believe it? Being able to sit down at the same bar where Darwin had a pint or two?

REFRESMENT AT DARWIN’S PUB. Just like any paleontologist at the end of the day, and especially one who has been thinking keenly about evolutionary theory and its history, Paleontologist Barbie was overjoyed to find that Downe Village still has the original bar – the Queen’s Head Pub – where Darwin would partake in fermented beverages. “Hey grasses and other flowering plants – thanks for evolving!” she said. By saying this, she was acknowledging how the natural selection of these plants was necessary for the basic materials contributing to the invention of beer, which in turn fueled the development of geology, paleontology, and evolutionary theory. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
FORTIFICATION FOUND IN BEER. Let’s face it: learning about evolution can be quite thirst-inducing, necessitating the consumption of at least a couple of beers while at Darwin’s bar. Paleontologist Barbie also likes to sample local brews whenever she travels. So she was pleased to spot two beers on tap there she not seen previously during her time in the U.K. “Give me two shorties!” she said to the bartender, with a self-referential giggle. She was happy to toast her cohort, Tony Martin, who has also been known to enjoy a good beer. –photo and caption by Tony Martin
AFFIRMING MEANING AND PURPOSE IN LIFE. All in all, Paleontologist Barbie loved her visit to Down House, appreciating it as a place integral to the history of science and a valuable educational resource. While waving goodbye to it and the grounds around it, she quoted Darwin again by saying, "Doing what little one can to increase the general stock of knowledge is as respectable an object of life, as one can in any likelihood pursue." –photo and caption by Tony Martin
HALLELUJAH TRUTH AT DOWN HOUSE 2012. --photo by Tony Martin
Other Interviews with Paleontologist Barbie about Darwin and Paleontology:



PALEONTOLOGIST BARBIE EXPLORES CRYSTAL PALACE PARK: South London Treasure of 19th Century Dinosaur Sculptures, Questions Art Depictions

If you feel enthusiastic about Paleontologist Barbie and want to share your ideas about science, Paleontologist Barbie or her colleagues, or just want to see what others are saying, join our Facebook group, Paleontologist Barbie Rocks HERE.


  1. Oh my gosh...what a fun interview with Paleontologist Barbie that was...and the statues at the Crystal palace are wonderful...She is one lucky gal...enjoyed it very much!

  2. Darlene, it is a far better world because we have Paleontologist Barbie lending her good mind to help us understand evolution, Darwin and dinosaurs!