The voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle around the world, but with long stops in South America and a crucial five-week layover in the Galapagos Islands, launched the career of amateur scientist Charles Darwin. It also launched one of the most controversial and influential works in Western thought, Darwin's The Origin of the Species (1859), which was largely based on material gathered during the five-year journey (1831-1835). Darwin was the fourth choice to be the gentleman companion (and only secondarily, naturalist) to the moody, irascible Captain Robert FitzRoy who feared for his own mental stability because the previous captain had committed suicide -- which FitzRoy actually did succumb to post-voyage). Darwin was almost rejected because FitzRoy objected to the shape of his nose, believing that it denoted lack of perseverance. Moreover, Darwin's father, whose approval and financial support were essential, wanted young Charles -- an uninspiring student who had dropped out of medical school in Edinburgh -- to stay home and become a pastor. However, thanks to an uncle's intervention, FitzRoy's inability to find a more suitable companion, and Darwin's geniality and ability to hunt and ride (not his scientific expertise), at age twenty-two Charles signed on for what be believed was a two-year journey. Darwin persevered, despite intense seasickness the entire voyage (writing to his family, "I hate every wave of the ocean") and the troubling screams of sailors being flogged by FitzRoy, in large part because he spent three-fifths of the trip taking land expeditions. The Voyage of the Beagle is Darwin's fascinating account of his trip -- of his biological and geologicalobservations and collection activities, of his speculations about the causes and theories behind scientific phenomena, of his interactions with various native peoples, of his beautiful descriptions of the lands he visited (particularly Tahiti), and of his amazing discoveries in the Galapagos archipelago. Darwin explored the tropical rain forest of Brazil, climbed the Andes mountains of Chile, and experienced, first hand, both a volcano and an earthquake. During the five years young Darwin was gone, he matured from an undirected dilettante, whose only real passion was collecting beetles, into one of the preeminent scientists of his day. The trip was, in his own words, "by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career." This engaging scientific and literary text is crucial reading for anyone interested in Western thought.
Born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) in 1809, Darwin is arguably even more influential than the famous statesman. In fact, in the spirit of Lincoln, the first major argument between Captain FitzRoy and this son of abolitionists (with physicians on one side and the Wedgwood pottery family on the other) was over slavery. This decidedly average student eventually received a B.A. at Cambridge, where he became fast friends with his science professor, John Henslow, who "influenced my whole career more than any other." Darwin lived as a child in Shrewsbury, and then, after his voyage, for a few years in London, before retiring with his wife and eventually, numerous children, to Down village in Kent, where he spent his last forty years, in ill health, before dying in 1882. Scientific fame prevented him from being buried, as he had wished, in the local churchyard; instead, he lies at Westminster Abbey, a few feet from Isaac Newton. Thanks to his family's wealth, he was able to devote his entire life to his studies, which he did with Victorian diligence. All of his work was well received. First, upon his return from the voyage of the Beagle, he wrote The Voyage of the Beagle, officially titled Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by the H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836 (London: Henry Colburn, 1839) -- the third volume in a set published by FitzRoy. (Darwin's volume was independently published later that year, without payment to, or permission from the author.) This was followed by a five-volume set, Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. Then, after the publication of a major work on coral and some other primarily botanical works, he began The Origin of the Species. Part way through, Darwin heard that another scientist, Alfred Wallace, was to publish an independent treatise putting forth similar ideas. Darwin therefore rushed to publish but a brief abstract of his ideas, which is the famous work we know today. It was eventually followed by a sequel, The Descent of Man (1871), as well as a continuing series of less-well-known scientific studies. Ironically, the forced brevity of The Origin of the Species, in Darwin's opinion, appreciably contributed to its popularity. Darwin attributes his overall success to his "love of science -- unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject -- industry in observing and collecting facts -- and a fair share of invention as of common-sense." It is impossible to overstate the impact of this man who revolutionized science.
The Beagle's voyage originated as a survey of the coast of South America, with the intent that the English government could plan future military and commercial operations, and was Darwin's initiating scientific expedition. During this eventual circumnavigation of the globe, most of the time was spent first on the east, and secondarily on the west coasts of South America. With Darwin signed on as the captain's companion, the vessel's senior surgeon, Robert McCormick, was its naturalist. However, after only four months at sea, McCormick returned to England, because it was obvious that Darwin, nicked named "Philos," short for "Ship's Philosopher," was FitzRoy's preferred naturalist. Darwin brought with him the works of Shakespeare and Milton (taking Paradise Lost with him on his land excursions), and, more importantly, numerous scientific texts, including Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. (As subsequent volumes were published, Darwin had them sent from England.) The tiny cabin FitzRoy and Darwin shared contained a library of some 245 volumes. Even though Darwin missed England, he was not cut off from it; newspapers and journals arrived regularly, and, as much as possible, letters from home. While on shore, he and FitzRoy were "typical" Englishmen, having tea and paying social calls. Characteristic of Darwin's incessantly inquisitive nature, one of his major findings was made during a dinner: he discovered a crucial second species of ostrich -- a rhea -- but only after he had eaten half of it. He dutifully sent the uneaten portion back to England for further examination, and it was later named Rhea darwinii in his honor. He also regularly sent his journals home (carefully making a second copy, knowing the perils of the sea), as well as his collections. Henslow had Darwin's scientific letters published in his absence, as well as read before the Cambridge Philosophical Society, so that all of Britain was waiting for the return of the Beagle's naturalist.
While of course the backbone of The Voyage of the Beagle is Darwin's scientific descriptions and speculations, made virtually everywhere he traveled and pertaining to all facets of science, the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin spent five weeks in the fall of 1835, was of particular interest. Despite his initial impression, "Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava is every where covered by a stunted brushwood, which shows little signs of life," he soon realized the extreme value of the place, nothing that "The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else." This is exactly the setting Darwin needed to fuel his evolutionary theories. Of particular importance are the giant, cactus-eating reptiles; he is amazed to discover that locals can determine the precise island of a tortoises' origin, just by the shape of its shell. The work on these islands figures prominently in his Origin of the Species. Ironically, for all of Darwin's powers of close observation, back in England, Darwin realized that he should have paid close attention to not just the tortoises, but also the finches. Luckily, FitzRoy had a thorough collection, which was available for Darwin's use.
Even though Darwin is known for his natural, not social, science, a fair amount of The Voyage of the Beagle is devoted to descriptions of humans, particular their behavior, in which he demonstrates that he is not just an abolitionist, but also a pacifist. For example, regarding conflicts with Indians, he writes, "Every one here is fully convinced that this is the most just war because it is against barbarians. Who would believe in this age, in a Christian civilized country, that such atrocities were committed?" Predictably, he is also greatly concerned about the plight of both the miners and earthquake victims in Chile.
In addition to being a scientific text, The Voyage of the Beagle is also a literary one, with descriptions that rival, at times, those of John Muir, Henry Thoreau, and Aldo Leopold. The following passage is typical: "The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorous, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train. As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright, and the sky above the horizon, from the reflected glare of these livid flames, was not so utterly obscure, as over the rest of the heavens. Often, his writing is rich in metaphor. For example, when he is trying (unsuccessfully) to climb to the summit of San Pedro, creeping on hands and knees through dense vegetation, he writes, "Here we were more like fishes struggling in a net than any other animal."
Particularly in these descriptions of nature, we see not just an analytical scientist, but a sensitive young man, coming of age in the Romantic period and decidedly reaching maturity in the Victorian era. Throughout, we get to know our narrator, and find him to be indeed, excelling in the traits of congeniality that secured his place on the Beagle. For example, just two months into the trip, Darwin is impatient with local hospitality because it does not adhere to English schedules. Yet, just four months later he is able to graciously comment on differences and similarities in local manners, with total acceptance and curiosity. Throughout, he is extremely humble, typically stating, "Of course, after so very short a visit one's opinion is worth scarcely anything." The most charming revelation of his character comes with his declaration of the ultimate "cure" for altitude sickness: engagement with the natural environment -- in his case, with fossilized shells.
In spite of Darwin's many exciting experiences, when asked if one should undertake such a long voyage, he retorts that it would depend on a desire for gaining some particular knowledge -- most readily botanical -- because "the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils." When he lists his favorite "scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind," "none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil ... or those of Tierra del Fuego." Above all, "The map of the world ceases to be blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures." Thanks to Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, readers are able to experience, through Darwin's perceptive eyes -- those of geologist, botanist, zoologist, social scientist, geographer, and sensitive, observant writer -- the wonders of the many places he visited.
Catherine A. Henze is a writer for Tekno Books.