Ah, the Age of Sail: the tempests, the salty dogs, the derring-do. Befouled in the rigging of myth and nostalgia, the stories of the tall ships and the men who rounded the Horn in them are awash with the flotsam of parody and the jetsam of cliché. In an impressive feat of navigation, then, Iain McCalman renews the voyaging narrative in Darwin’s Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution. He does so by reconceptualizing the sailing vessel not as a stage for Homeric exploits but as the 19th century’s version of a postdoctoral fellowship. Recounting the ocean voyages of Charles Darwin and three of his closest associates — botanist Joseph Hooker, fearsome defender of evolution Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Russel Wallace, co-discoverer of natural selection — McCalman shows how important the sailing vessel was to the development of modern biology. For while it was the golden age of natural history, science had not settled into the academic, professionalized mode of its modern-day appearance. A cramped vessel filled with vermin and an ill-fed, resentful rabble would hardly seem the congenial setting for scientific discovery. But McCalman makes a convincing case that for Darwin and his future colleagues, a Royal Navy vessel under sail was “a type of college, with multidisciplinary knowledge available in an instant.” Although the four men featured in Darwin’s Armada emerged from radically different backgrounds, the circumstances of circumnavigation left them all “well-salted” — tested to the limits of intellectual as well as physical enterprise and endurance, prepared for the scientific and cultural typhoon that their discoveries would stir.
About the Writer
Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.