Desert Island Darwin by Professor David Stack #HistoricalDesertIslandDiscs

Today’s castaway is a nineteenth century scientist who, by formulating what the philosopher Daniel Dennett called ‘the single best idea anyone ever had,’ changed the way in which we understand life on earth.

Apeman Darwin image

Our guest today is Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

So, let’s get on with the music.

‘Apeman’ (1970),The Kinks

‘Because compared to the flowers and the birds and the trees, I am an Apeman’

An obvious first choice but hey it’s a Kinks song, and every list is made better by a Kinks song. Darwin’s greatest achievement lay in convincing (almost) all of us that we are, as he put it ‘descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits’. Of course, it wasn’t simply the fact of evolution that Darwin established but also, arguably more importantly, the mechanism by which it occurred: natural selection.

Which brings us neatly to our second song:

‘Survival of the Fittest’ (1995), Mobb Deep

‘Survival of the fit, only the strong survive’

We will never know where Darwin stood in the great East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry of the 1990s (maybe East? sorry Tupac fans), but let’s agree to take a chance to listen again to this bleak rendering of the principle of natural selection.

‘All Around the World’ (1977), The Jam

‘All around the world I’ve been looking for a new. Youth Explosion’

There are two reasons for including this song. First, as is well known, Darwin sailed ‘all around in the world’ on HMS Beagle (1831-1836). Second, and less well appreciated, Darwin’s insights and success were something of a ‘youth explosion’. Don’t laugh! It is easy to forget he was just 22 when he set sail on the Beagle; 29 when he hit upon the mechanism of natural selection; and that the success of his theory depended upon the younger generation of scientists challenging established thinking.

‘Country House’ (1995), Blur

‘He lives in a house, a very big house, in the country’

After The Kinks and The Jam there came Blur, and luckily for us Darwin did indeed live ‘in a house, a very big house, in the country’: Down House, in north Kent, to be precise, from 1842 until his death in 1882. It was here that he wrote all of his great works, including the On the Origin of Species (1859), and undertook some wonderfully Heath Robinson type experiments, including one in which he had one of his sons play bassoon to a group of earthworms.


‘Gonna be Sick’ (2011), Beardyman

‘I think I’m gonna be sick, I’m definitely gonna be sick’

From one beardy man to another, Darwin, like the champion beatboxer, was frequently ‘gonna be sick’. Quite why Darwin threw up as often as he did has intrigued medical and social historians (we are a funny bunch!). Did he pick something up (possibly Chagas disease) during the Beagle voyage? Was it nervous tension at the thought of revealing his revolutionary theories? Either way it gave him great flatulence as well as nausea, but I resisted the temptation to pick Doris Day singing ‘The Windy City’ (1953).

‘Race for the Prize’ (1999), The Flaming Lips

‘Two scientists are racing, for the good of all mankind’

Darwin didn’t realise he was in a race until it was almost too late. Having hit upon his theory in October 1838 he proceeded to procrastinate for twenty years until one day a letter arrived from another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, working in the far east. Wallace had sent Darwin a paper containing a new theory, which looked remarkably like natural selection. ‘So, all my originality,’ Darwin wailed, ‘will be smashed’. Not to worry: aided by his powerful friends, Darwin soon reestablished his priority, and finally got around to finishing the Origin.

‘Losing my Religion’ (1991), REM

‘That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight, losing my religion’

As an undergraduate Darwin was destined for a clerical career, mainly because a quiet country parish would have offered opportunities for pursuing his passion for natural history. That all changed as his theories developed, but he ‘lost’ his religion only slowly. He was still a theist when he wrote the Origin, and eventually settled on describing himself as agnostic.


‘Unnatural Selection’ (2009), Muse

‘Counter balance this commotion, we’re not droplets in the ocean’

Our last song points to one of the directions in which Darwin’s ideas were taken – eugenics. For some, including Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton, the ‘commotion’ was too much, and humans needed to take control of their own evolutionary development. It proved to be an idea with murderous consequences.


Finally, all of our castaways are given a Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, and the chance to choose one luxury item. Neither book is likely to bring Darwin much comfort (in later life Shakespeare made him nauseous … most things did!), and a luxury would be unnecessary. The island itself would provide Darwin with endless entertainment, with his days spent studying the geology (his first love) and the flora and fauna of his new home.
Charles Darwin, thank you for being today’s castaway.

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