November 20, 2017
Darwin's First Look at the SpeciesOn this day in 1836, Charles Darwin returned to England from his Beagle voyage, five years and three days after he set out. Darwin was twenty-two, recently (and barely) graduated from Cambridge, and headed for a career as a clergyman when he received an invitation to join the Beagle on what was intended to be a two-year science and survey expedition to South America. Although an enthusiastic hobbyist, Darwin had little formal training in science; he had been invited along more as a gentlemanly companion for Captain Fitzroy than for any contribution he might make to the mission. Fitzroy believed in phrenology, and when he finally met Darwin, just days before departure, he very nearly withdrew his invitation on the grounds that he didn't like the look of Darwin's head. Upon Darwin's return, his father seems to have been similarly struck: the first thing he is reported to have said is, "Why, the shape of his head is quite altered." The theory inside the head was still a long way off at this point. -- although partial or wacky theories of evolution were in the air in Victorian England, Darwin's grandfather having proposed one version of it. By the summer of 1837, eight months after his return from the Beagle voyage, Darwin had his first sketchy 'tree-of-life' diagram on paper, but he would not publish the full theory for twenty-two years, until he had supported it with a range and amount of data that would make it difficult to dismiss.
The voyage educated Darwin not only to the origins of the human species but some of its cruelties. Apart from his exposure to the larger, multi-national competition to enslave or exterminate the natives of South America, the Beagle was involved in an ethnocentric black comedy of its own. From his first voyage to Tierra del Fuego, Fitzroy had returned to England with a number of the local tribe, and three were now being returned to their habitat, made over with British names, manners and beliefs. Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster were to be models of Christian behavior and belief, and helpers to the young missionary who accompanied them. The Beagle crew built their huts, helped unpack such articles as the well-meaning ladies of London had seen fit to provide them -- wine glasses, tea-trays, top hats and white linen -- and went off to do science. When they returned in two weeks' time the missionary ran screaming to the captain's launch before it had stopped, refusing to return. The Fuegians did not like beards, and had at that moment been plucking out his facial hair with mussel shells. On the Beagle's return a year later, the settlement, tea-trays and all, had disappeared, although a naked, dirty and -- according to Darwin -- ashamed Jemmy Button was finally recognized among those still in camp. When asked, he showed no interest in returning to England.
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