Charles Darwin’s The Voyage Of The Beagle

The Voyage Of The BeagleThe Voyage Of The Beagle is the title posthumously given to Charles Darwin’s account of his time aboard the HMS Beagle, from 1832 to 1836. Darwin was invited by Captain FitzRoy, after a recommendation from a friend, to join the voyage in an unofficial capacity, providing company and conversation to the captain in exchange for an opportunity to explore South America. In his early 20s at the time, Darwin was at something of a crossroads in life. His father wished for his son to follow in his footsteps and continue his medical studies, while Darwin himself was drawn to nature: to botany and taxidermy, to geography and geology. Passion eventually triumphed over practicality when the young Darwin, with the help of his family, was able to convince his father to fund his voyage. Of the five years that he was abroad, more than three were spent on land, trekking across unexplored jungles, scaling mountains and meeting the indigenous peoples of South America, all with the ultimate goal of observing, cataloguing and sometimes collecting the various species of plants, insects and animals he encountered on his travels. The insights gleaned from this mighty endeavour formed the basis for his theory of natural selection, and the world has yet to recover from the shock of Darwinian thought.

The most important quality for a naturalist, or perhaps scientists more generally, is curiosity, and Darwin is limitlessly curious. He trains his mind with equal fervor on animals large and small, plants and insects, algae, weather patterns, rock formations – nothing escapes his notice, and he adds to his curiosity an intrepid willingness to probe and investigate. He spends hours stalking turtles in the tropics, hunts down the nests of various insects, and patiently waits for the appearance of timid birds. When his crew shoot a specimen, he cuts open the stomach to discover its eating habits, or takes advantage of the stillness of the corpse to sketch its salient features. Here he is, at Bahia in Brazil, describing a conflict he witnessed between a wasp and spider:

I was much interested one day by watching a deadly contest between a pepsis and a large spider of the genus Lycosa. The wasp made a sudden dash at its prey, and then flew away: the spider was evidently wounded, for, trying to escape, it rolled down a little slope, but had little strength sufficient to crawl into a thick tuft of grass. The wasp soon returned, and seemed surprised at not finding its victim. It commenced as regular a hunt as ever hound did after fox; making short semicircular casts, and all the time rapidly vibrating its wings and antennae. The spider, though well concealed, was soon discovered; and the wasp, evidently still afraid of its adversary’s jaws, after much manoeuvring, inflicted two stings on the under side of its thorax. At last, carefully examining with its antennae the now motionless spider, it proceeded to drag away the body.

Darwin had read widely enough in the new outpouring of scientific literature, so emblematic of that time period, to know the spider is fated to become a host for the wasp’s eggs, which will grow up to eat their host alive. But in the end he intervenes: “I stopped both tyrant and prey.” Why? He does not say, though that word “tyrant” betrays his motive all the same.

Darwin also trains his critical eye on the people he encounters, whether indigenous or of European descent, and so The Voyage Of The Beagle functions also as a work of sociology. Here, for example, is his description of the habits of Chilean miners:

The Chilean miners are a peculiar race of men in their habits. Living for weeks together in the most desolate spots, when they descent to the villages on feast-days, there is no excess or extravagance into which they do not run. They sometimes gain a considerable sum, and then, like sailors with prize money, they try how soon they can contrive to squander it. They drink excessively, buy quantities of clothes, and in a few days return penniless to their miserable abodes, there to work harder than beasts of burden.

Their behaviour, so incomprehensibly short-sighted to Darwin, is not “peculiar” at all, but common to all men who work dangerous, miserable jobs (Darwin’s description of their habits would not be out of place in a book I was simultaneously reading on America’s illegal immigrant labor force, who toil under a scorching hot sun), with no guarantee of future happiness. He is even more critical of the indigenous tribes of Tierra del Fuego:

The different tribes have no government or chief; yet each is surrounded by other hostile tribes, speaking different dialects, and separated from each other only by a deserted border or neutral territory: the cause of their warfare appears to be the means of subsistence. […] They cannot know the feeling of having a home, and still less that of domestic affection; for the husband is to the wife a brutal master to a laborious slave. […] Their skill in some respects may be compared to the instinct of animals; for it is not improved by experience: the canoe, their most ingenious work, poor as it is, has remained the same, as we know from Drake, for the last two hundred and fifty years.

These and several other passages on the natives of the Americas are sure to offend a modern reader’s sensibilities, but one of the chief questions on his mind – and the mind of Europeans and Native Americans – was why one society could be so affluent, so advanced in science and technology, while others seem to have been stagnant for centuries. His meditation on this gross disparity prompts an oft-quoted line that contains within it a germ of evolutionary thought: “Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.”

Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle was influential in another important respect: it was Captain FitzRoy who first handed him a copy of Charles Lyell’s newly published Principles Of Geology, the book that most forcefully advanced the argument that the Earth was more than 6,000 years old. Lyell gives Darwin the immense timescale necessary to envision the gradual evolution of species. In an earlier passage on the fossil record, whose very existence threatened the prevailing wisdom about the immutability of God’s design, Darwin registers some connection between the extinction of a species and its fitness for the environment in which it lives:

To admit that species generally become more rare before they become extinct – to feel no surprise at the comparative rarity of one species with another, and yet to call in some extraordinary agent and to marvel greatly when a species ceases to exist, appears to me much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the prelude to death – to feel no surprise at sickness – but when the sick man dies, to wonder, and to believe that he died through violence.

By the time Darwin arrives at the Galapagos Islands, his intuitions dominate the reporting, and The Voyage Of The Beagle becomes a high-stakes detective novel, with every new observation functioning as a clue bringing him one step closer to the ultimate truth about our origins.