Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

January 30, 2018

The Voyage of the Beagle
Charles Darwin
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [1839]
432 p.

When Charles Darwin was yet in his early 20s he signed on as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle, bound on a circumnavigation voyage. The purpose of the journey was to chart the coastlines of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and to survey the coasts of Chile, Peru, and several Pacific islands, including the Galapagos. Of course, it turned out that this young scientist’s observations would, in time, overshadow everything else about the enterprise, but that was still several decades away. Upon returning home to England, Darwin published this charming account of the journey and the things he saw along the way.

He seems to have been a born naturalist, with a passion for knowledge of living things that few of us possess. At every opportunity he would make excursions inland, collecting specimens as he went, and reporting on them with winsome excitement: “This day I found a specimen of a curious fungus, called Hymenophallus“. He reports that during occasional bouts of illness he would nonetheless stagger from his bed to pursue his researches. And with each new discovery his wonder at the richness of it all comes shining through:

The number of minute and obscurely coloured beetles is exceedingly great. The cabinets of Europe can, as yet, boast only of the larger species from tropical climates. It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist’s mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue.

He remarks also on the surprising tameness of many of the animals found on remote islands unfrequented by men. On the Galapagos islands he found that he could hunt hawks using his gun in an unorthodox fashion: “with the muzzle I push a hawk off the branch of a tree”. And on the little island of San Pedro (now called South Georgia Island) he went fox hunting:

A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.

For most modern readers his reflections on the history and diversity of life is a principal attraction of the book. We sometimes forget that Darwin’s eventual contribution, in On the Origin of Species, would not be to argue that life on earth evolved, but to propose a particular kind of process — natural selection — as the principal means by which it did so. That species changed over time, and that the earth was of stupefying antiquity, was already well-known before he came along, and he himself is, of course, well aware of this. (He mentions Lamarck on one occasion.)

Nonetheless, he was a keen observer, and his reflections on what he saw retain their interest. He notices, for instance, “in two distant countries a similar relation between plants and insects of the same families, though the species of both are different,” and that although the species one observes change from place to place, proximate regions often have similar species occupying particular ecological niches; this was for him an important fact that deserved explanation:

The Tinochorus is closely related to some other South American birds. Two species of the genus Attagis are in almost every respect ptarmigans in their habits; one lives in Tierra del Fuego, above the limits of the forest land; and the other just beneath the snow-line on the Cordillera of Central Chile. A bird of another closely allied genus, Chionis alba, is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on sea-weed and shells on the tidal rocks. Although not web footed, from some unaccountable habit, it is frequently met with far out at sea. This small family of birds is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created.

Darwin was, even at this young age, an able geologist, and he makes frequent, detailed observations about the geological formations and history that he observes. Naturally he is also interested in the fossils in the rocks. He meditates on the temporal analogue of the regional variation of species — namely, that in a particular place the life-forms have varied over time — and that this temporal variation seems to follow no evident logic. Indeed, he concludes that “no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants.”

It was only when the voyage was reaching its final stages that it visited the Galapagos islands; it was, for most of the ship’s crew, something of an afterthought. But it was here that Darwin was confronted with puzzles of speciation and geography in a particularly clear way. He first noticed that although many of the species found on the Galapagos are unique to those islands, the overall impression one receives is that the creatures are similar to those found on mainland South America, rather than those found on neighbouring island formations:

It was most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants, and yet by innumerable trifling details of structure, and even by the tones of voice and plumage of the birds, to have the temperate plains of Patagonia, or rather the hot dry deserts of Northern Chile, vividly brought before my eyes.

But after visiting several of the islands in the group he noticed “the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago”, for not only were the forms of life on the islands different from those found elsewhere, but “the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings”. Each island had its own species of tortoise, of lizard, of finch, and of various plants. This he found very remarkable:

We have the truly wonderful fact, that in James Island, of the thirty-eight Galapageian plants, or those found in no other part of the world, thirty are exclusively confined to this one island; and in Albemarle Island, of the twenty-six aboriginal Galapageian plants, twenty-two are confined to this one island, that is, only four are at present known to grow in the other islands of the archipelago; and so on…

He finally described the islands of the group as “physically similar, organically distinct, yet intimately related to each other, and all related in a marked, though much lesser degree, to the great American continent”, and the effort to understand how this state of affairs might have come about would be an important influence on his writing of On the Origin of Species two decades later.

*

Apart from his observations of the flora and fauna, he also made interesting remarks on the peoples whom he encountered. I was delighted, for instance, to learn of a charming custom then current among the Catholic people of Uruguay:

On approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse: the formal answer of the owner is, “sin pecado concebida”—that is, conceived without sin.

He also experienced the amazement of less technologically advanced people at their first exposure to unfamiliar technology:

I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been.

At the southern tip of South America, in the region called Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle encountered a people who had little contact with the outside world and who lived what appeared to Darwin to be a life that barely provided for their material needs, with no intellectual or moral culture that he could discern. One reads his account with a kind of horrible fascination at the spectacle of a truly wild human tribe, of a kind that can probably no longer be found. Interestingly, he attributed their state in part to their lack of government or social hierarchy, remarking that “the perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization”, which is perhaps not what we, for whom “equality” is a master word, would have expected him to say. And though it might be easy to dismiss his comments on these matters as merely the prejudices of a Georgian-age gentleman, we note his fierce condemnations, elsewhere in the book, of slavery and all it stands for. He seems to have had no patience for claims of natural human inferiority (or superiority), but had no qualms about calling a spade a spade when it came to social and cultural achievements.

*

The voyage of the Beagle lasted about five years, and although of course much of that time was spent on the ship, Darwin took every opportunity to go ashore and explore, often under quite unpleasant conditions. He seems not to have minded. Oh sure, he complained that “a light stomach and an easy digestion are good things to talk about, but very unpleasant in practice”, and he had bad experiences, as when he was set upon by insects in his sleep:

At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body.

But as I read, I was repeatedly impressed at the hardiness of this astute young naturalist, who was happy to sleep outdoors, go without food, and walk long distances over difficult terrain in search of his treasures. And I, at least, am glad that he went to all the trouble, because even apart from its obvious interest as a prelude or an adjunct to his more famous book, The Voyage of the Beagle is a consistently enjoyable work of natural history and exploration.

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