Around the World with Charles Darwin

charles darwin voyage of the beagle

The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin, 1838

In 1831 an intrepid young naturalist set out aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on a voyage of discovery that would change the whole freaking world. Not kidding. The prospect of reading page after page of field notes about a five year long surveying expedition might not sound entertaining. But, hey, this is Darwin we’re talking about. He’s a young man with a brilliant, penetrating mind, setting out on a dangerous (yes, dangerous!) journey. He’s sacrificing personal comfort, safety and the companionship of friends and family for the sake of Knowledge, that glistening goddess. And not just any type of knowledge: Knowledge of the Natural World. What could be more exciting than that? The natural world is our home; a source of sustenance, wonder, bewilderment and catastrophe. We gotta know all about it. We need to learn science FASTER!

Learn! Science! Faster!

Now that we have an appropriate sense of urgency, we can talk about Darwin’s notes on The Voyage of the Beagle.

The Beagle sailed south from England, bumped off the coast of Africa, stopped at Tenerife, slowly scouted down the east coast of South America, slipped round Cape Horn, journeyed up the west coast of South America, stopped at the Galapagos Islands, continued across the Pacific to New Zealand, Australia, Cape Town, went back to the east side of South Africa and carried on to the Azores and finally home to England. The Beagle apparently stopped at every possible island in its path, which is great because island biogeography is the best!

Darwin took copious notes about the geography, botany, zoology and humanity he encountered.  Reading his observations on these topics gives a glimpse into the mind of the man who developed the Theory of Evolution, which is the biggest, most important concept in biology. So, I will break down for you the 3 habits of Charles Darwin’s highly effective mind that I noticed while reading his notes.

1)      Attention to detail. Darwin, like other naturalists, made meticulous observations and kept detailed notes. In one day he would record observations about the weather, the geological features of the land, the plants he saw including number and variety, the animals he encountered including behavior, and detailed descriptions of the people he encountered: their ways of life, attitude towards him, their clothing, houses, food, stories they had about past geological and biological events in the area, their interactions with natives (if they were European) or with Europeans (if they were native) or with other natives. He would collect plant, animal, mineral and fossil specimens and send them to specialists to examine.

2)      Compare, contrast, compile. Darwin constantly compared new information with what he already knew. How does the emu compare to the ostrich? The palm trees of Africa to the palms of South America? Uplifted land in England to uplifted land in Tierra del Fuego?  The finch bills to the finch bills to the finch bills to the FINCH BILLS!

3)      Synthesis. Every once in a while in his notes, Darwin throws in a little nugget that indicates his search for the overarching, guiding principles that unite all the plants and critters. Why are large, flightless birds found in Africa and South America and formerly in New Zealand? What helps one beast survive a drought while other species die off? The more information he gathers, the better he is able to answer these questions, which makes the two proceeding habits so important. His constant searching, observing and comparing lead to a series of more refined questions about the organizing principles of life. Primarily, Darwin wondered about the distribution of plants and animals. As he circumnavigated the globe gathering information about the types of animals and plants that thrive in different places he started to see the connections between form, function and survival.

That may be an egregious oversimplification of the qualities that made Darwin so great, but scientific thinking is actually pretty simple.

Darwin also includes his subjective reaction to scenery and people. He waxes poetic about lush, tropical scenery and complains frequently about the uniformity of the landscape in some areas of South America. He admires the skill of the gauchos and laments the horrible institution of slavery, but frequently refers to indigenous South Americans and Pacific Islanders as savage, uncivilized, superstitious, mean and degraded. Your sensibilities will be offended by his descriptions of the Tierra del Fuegians. He loves Tahiti for its scenery and because the people are kind, which disposition he attributes to the success of the Christian missionaries in that area. He hated New Zealand. That’s right. Charles Darwin thought that New Zealand was boring and ugly. Obviously, he did not set foot on any of the places where Lord of the Rings was filmed. Darwin found the Maori scary and savage. He did not care for their tattoos.

You might like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • you’re a daring young naturalist with a passion for the natural world
  • you like reading travel narratives
  • you’re interested in European imperialism
  • you’re interested in the cultures present in South America and various islands just before the Victorian era started.

You might not like The Voyage of the Beagle if:

  • travelogues bore you
  • you are a Creationist who feels threatened by critical thinking
  • European Imperialism gives you untreatable heartache


Final Thoughts

Reading Darwin’s field notes felt very homey and comforting to me. They sound a lot like a conversation with my relatives, most of whom are naturalists and evolutionary biologists. Obviously, the best part of the narrative is the visit to the Galapagos Islands, where he encountered the finches and their array of bills and noticed the subtle gradations from one bill shape to another. If you’re interested, you could just check out that chapter.

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