January 19, 2018

Charles Darwin and the Beagle

Charles Darwin was a compulsive note-taker and list-maker. As a bachelor, he compiled a one-page list of arguments for and against marriage and then, having made his decision, went out to find someone upon whom to exercise it. As a husband, he recorded every household expense and, despite being independently wealthy, made year-end resolutions for the smallest of savings. As a father, he made notes on how his children cried and when they blushed. As a man often ill -- or, perhaps, hypochondriac -- he tracked and tallied his woes: each headache or bout of flatulence was noted, each morning and evening was ranked, each month proclaimed him feeling well or poorly.

But the most important list Charles Darwin ever made was the one he drew up much earlier, as a twenty-two year-old trying to talk his way around his father, and aboard the Royal Navy brig, the Beagle. Darwin had recently -- and barely -- graduated from Cambridge, and to his father's relief, was about to settle down as a clergyman. Unexpectedly, he received an invitation to tag along on the Beagle's two-year science and survey expedition to South America. Captain FitzRoy was of noble but unstable stock; on his first voyage he had been suicidal from loneliness; he was looking for a gentleman-companion, someone to help with the science, but more for sherry and table-talk.

Darwin summarized his father's objections into an eight-point list. Uncle Josiah Wedgewood -- of the famous pottery family -- was called in to arbitrate. He was fully on the side of adventure and his counter-arguments won the day -- although his last point, that "the pursuit of Natural very suitable to a clergyman," and would not be "in any degree disreputable" for a future church career, must later have given Darwin pause.

The Beagle voyage turned out to be five years rather than two. On it Darwin evolved from a gentleman-naturalist to a scientist, bringing back a stack of notebooks and specimens that would be his life's work, and the backbone of his theories. Partial or wacky ideas of evolution were in the air in Victorian England -- Darwin's grandfather had proposed one version of it -- but Darwin's geological and biological data, and his analysis of it, were a breakthrough.

Image: page from the first edition of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, 1959.
The voyage educated him to not only the origins of the human species, but some of its cruelties. Apart from a 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. 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 offered, he showed no interest in returning to England.

Darwin's first thoughts on evolution, along with a sketchy 'tree of life' diagram, were committed to paper in the summer of 1837, eight months after his return from the Beagle voyage. For the next twenty-two years he gathered and analyzed, trying to shore up the theory with a range and amount of data that would make it hard to dismiss. When it was finally published, on November 24, 1859, On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection sold out in one day.

Although Darwin had cautiously left his chapter on the human species out of the book, the implications were clear, and the uproar was predictable. When the famous Oxford Debate was held the following June, Darwin was too ill to attend, but the Darwinians were there in force. By all accounts, their arguments won the day; the anti-evolutionists had passion and rhetoric, but there was little else on their list.

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