Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)

Original title: The Journal of Researches (one volume of several produced following the voyage)
Published: Everyman, 2003

The eighteenth and nineteenth century saw many voyages of exploration by Europeans, most of which would have been followed by reports and books, ancestors of today's travel memoirs. Most of these voyages have now been forgotten, even the names they gave many places being swept away in our post-colonial world. The books produced are even more forgotten in general: the sort of books you sometimes see in the libraries of English stately homes, and maybe read by academics with related interests. The exception is of course this one (and this does not include the companion volumes with which it was originally published). Its survival is not so much due to its literary qualities, though it is eminently readable, but because of the use Darwin later made of this material; the obvservations made on this voyage, especially on the Galapagos islands, form an important part of the foundations of one of the most famous books of all time, The Origin of Species (also included in this Everyman edition).

The voyage began in December 1831, reaching the Galapagos in September 1835 after spending several years surveying the waters around South America (the principal purpose of the voyage), returning to England a year later; a lengthy circumnavigation of the globe. When the Beagle departed, Darwin was only 22. Without a reputation to uphold, or an academic post which would have made it politic to peddle old orthodoxies, he was a modern, up to date naturalist, surely better able to make use of his observations (and the attention to detail with which he observed should be the envy of many scientists to this day) than a more eminent older man, who would, moreover, have probably been reluctant to spend so many years away from European scientific culture. Darwin was a follower of Lyell, whose Principles of Geology, which had the same sort of revolutionary effect on that science that the principle of natural selection was to have on biology, had started appearing in 1830, the year before the Beagle set sail; he was given a copy of volume one by the Beagle's captain. Lyell attributed the character of the most world's rock formations to forces acting over lengthy period of time rather than to a series of catastrophes in the much more recent past. (Indeed, his book should be at least as stringly anathematised by Creationists as Darwin's own ideas.) Darwin was one of the first scientific observers to take part in such an expedition who was able to bear Lyell's ideas in mind, and he describes how they informed his observations at several places in The Voyage of the Beagle, and a long geological history is essential to the principles of Darwinian evolution. It is clear, too, that the ideas which became known as natural selection were in the air (the introduction to the Origin of Species lists quite a number of precursors) and early thoughts about this, as well as rival theories like Lamarck's, may well have influenced the way that Darwin looked at the plants and animals he saw on the voyage.

The Voyage of the Beagle is not all about the natural world. There are interesting observations on the ways in which people lived in the countries he visited, particularly on the gauchos of Argentina, and a lot of material about the effects of colonisation on native peoples and the institution of slavery. On both these issues Darwin had quite modern views.

In terms of style, Darwin is a clear and writer with fascinating information to impart, though perhaps not as good (and certainly not as amusing) as Gerald Durrell, who must be the current bestselling author of natural history travel books.

In the end, though, the principal interest of The Voyage of the Beagle is its formative role in Darwin's later thought, and this makes it completely unique.

It should be noted that the text here is the second, 1845, edition. There is an interesting foreword to the Everyman edition from Richard Dawkins, which (somewhat predictably, but with a certain amount of justification) he claims evolution to be the greatest scientific idea of all time.

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