Some readers might joke that I’m roughly two centuries late with this article, and I admit that they have something of a point. Charles Darwin’s “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” (more popularly known as “The Voyage of the Beagle“) was first published in 1839, two decades before his landmark “On the Origin of the Species.” This latter work has obviously attracted significantly more attention and controversy over the years, but in its own quiet way, “The Voyage of the Beagle” is just as fascinating a window into Darwin’s life and thought. The work that first made him a celebrity in the scientific circles of London is worthy of consideration even now.
Perhaps the most important reason to read “The Voyage of the Beagle” is the way it humanizes Darwin, one of the most revered figures in all of science. High school biology textbooks usually present the naturalist in a photograph like this one:
Darwin’s public image follows from this portrayal as a proper, elderly, luxuriantly bearded English gentleman. Yet as Tetrapod Zoology blogger Darren Naish argues, this image lends itself to a stereotype of scientists as “oddballs that operate on the fringes of society.” Naish fears that students may fail to identify with this depiction, believing that science is something for the old and serious rather than the young and curious. “The Voyage of the Beagle,” in contrast, shows the reader a youthful Darwin, a man closer to the following fresh-faced portrait:
Anecdotes from throughout the book give life to Darwin as a young man, closer in many ways to a frat boy than a Fellow of the Royal Society. He tries to ride the famous Galapagos tortoises when he first encounters them; he tempts temperate Tahitian islanders into sharing swigs of spirits from his flask; he nearly knocks himself out with a pair of bolas as a crowd of sniggering Argentinian gauchos looks on. He is far from all-knowing or authoritative; he is simply a young scientist out in the world, trying to make sense of it all while having fun in the process.
The way the book hints at this process is its other great strength. “On the Origin of Species” is a singular, towering argument, a comprehensive outline of the evidence for evolution and a thorough discussion of the objections that could be raised against the theory. At the time of “The Voyage of the Beagle,” however, Darwin was very much still piecing the theory together. The reader can see hints of the future with Darwin’s treatment of the Galapagos finches or the fossil history of South America, but there is also an obvious frustration, a sense that the scientist is perplexed by the evidence and lacks a complete framework into which it can be placed. The book is a humbling reminder that science takes time, that a great discovery is almost always the result of years of painstaking work instead of a sudden flash of insight.
Although “The Voyage of the Beagle” is a long read, it is certainly a rewarding one. Young scientists can take heart from its portrayal of the great Darwin as one of their own, while the general public can enjoy learning more about the thought process behind what is arguably the most important scientific theory ever to be devised. And all readers can delight in the beauty of Darwin’s eloquent descriptions of his travels, such as this extract from his time sailing towards New Zealand: “It is necessary to sail over this great ocean to comprehend its immensity. Moving quickly onwards for weeks together, we meet with nothing but the same blue, profoundly deep, ocean. Even within the archipelagoes, the islands are mere specks, and far distant one from the other. Accustomed to look at maps drawn on a small scale, where dots, shading, and names are crowded together, we do not rightly judge how infinitely small the proportion of dry land is to water of this vast expanse.”