Sunday, February 23, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging II

The pace of the book is so slow that I find it a little tedious. After more than two hundred pages I'm only up to 1832, when Darwin was 23. So much detail is provided from letters, diaries and other documents that it reads almost like a novel. Part of the problem is that, so far, Darwin hasn't distinguished himself in any way, and it is a little painful to watch him develop into a functional adult. At the moment he is a mediocre student whose father has made futile efforts to start him in a career while showering him with money. Besides showing no vocational talents, Darwin also lacks social skills and is somewhat physically unattractive, in part because of his large nose.

During the 1825-1826 college year in Edinburgh, Charles had simply accompanied his brother, Erasmus, and neither of them mingled with people at the university. In the 1826-1827 year, without Erasmus, though Charles didn't like his medical studies, he socialized a little and made friends. He joined the Plinian Society, a student group which engaged in discussion of a wide range of topics, and he walked with friends along the shore looking for marine specimens. At the close of that school year, his father decided that, since a medical career wasn't in the cards, Charles should become a clergyman. To that end, a tutor was hired to brush up Charles's Latin, Greek and mathematical skills so that he might gain admission to Cambridge. In January, 1828 Charles began studies there at Christ's College, which his brother had attended.

The intellectual atmosphere in Cambridge was far more stimulating than in Edinburgh. Almost immediately, Charles began a friendship with John Stevens Henslow, a professor of botany and a mineralogist. Henslow became his mentor and was subsequently influential with respect to Charles's career advancement. This was a boom period in the natural sciences, and Charles met Adam Sedgwick, one of the founders of modern geology. In the summer of 1831 they traveled together to Wales on a field expedition. Of course, Charles took no interest in studying for the clergy, and he engaged in a lot of outdoor activities while in college. He took a horse with him and liked to hunt. He became proficient at shooting and often went out in search of game birds. He also developed a romantic interest in Fanny Owen, a potential wife who seems as if she came right out of a Jane Austen novel.

Having received his B.A. in 1831, his father's plan was for Charles to return to Cambridge in October for a D.B., or Bachelor of Divinity, which would qualify him for the clergy. Charles hoped instead to travel with friends to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, to study natural history, and his father opposed that idea. As luck would have it, unbeknownst to Charles, Henslow had put him forward for a position on the Beagle, which the Admiralty was preparing to embark on a geographical and hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego and then continue around the world on a voyage that would last two years. The position did not have technical responsibilities, and its main purpose seems to have been to provide a suitable companion for the captain, Robert FitzRoy. However, the companion would be permitted to collect specimens and record observations as a naturalist. Although FitzRoy was an aristocrat and a Tory and Darwin was not an aristocrat and came from a Whig family, FitzRoy took a liking to him when they met and he was selected for the position. Browne goes to some length explaining how Darwin benefited from the wide-reaching Cambridge network that was in place to dole out positions for the ruling class. In this case, it was an unpaid position, and Darwin had to pay all of his expenses, which were substantial. Of course, his father disliked the scheme and listed several objections. Fortunately, Charles prevailed upon an uncle to defend him and won the argument.

As far as I've read, the Beagle has made it to South America, Charles has often been seasick, and his potential girlfriend, Fanny, has dumped him by marrying someone else just as soon as the Beagle had departed.

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