Saturday, February 29, 2020

Charles Darwin: Voyaging III

Darwin became enchanted by the tropical jungle that he saw when the Beagle arrived in Bahia in February, 1832. They sailed down the east coast of South America, stopping in Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. Considerable time was spent in Tierra del Fuego, and there was also a trip to the Falkland Islands. Darwin made several long expeditions inland on the continent, during which he collected plant and animal specimens, along with fossils. He was well-liked by the officers and the crew, and this upset an ambitious naturalist who had come along in a more official capacity than Darwin, and the naturalist left the ship. Darwin accumulated crates of specimens and fossils that were shipped back to Henslow in Cambridge from various ports along the way. Besides this, he became more than ever before a full-scale outdoorsman, and he hunted game to supply the ship with food. He rode with gauchos on the Pampas and was stalked by bloodthirsty natives, reminding me of Blood Meridian. On that occasion, Darwin feared for his life for the first time.

For this voyage, FitzRoy had brought three Fuegians whom he had earlier taken to England, in order to return them home. While in England, they had been taught English, proper table manners, and dressed accordingly. Darwin became interested in them in a way that later affected his views on evolution. They had easily adapted to life in England, and Darwin was inclined to see them as members of his species. At the time, that was not a settled view, and others thought that various indigenous groups comprised separate species. It was a great shock to everyone on the Beagle to see the Fuegians quickly revert to their previous lifestyle, walking naked in that dismal landscape.

From June, 1834 to September, 1835, the Beagle sailed up the west coast of South America, stopping in Valparaiso, Copiapó, Iquique and Callao. On this leg of the trip, Darwin became more interested in geology. He and FitzRoy read recent works by Charles Lyell, who was revolutionizing geology at the time with the concepts of gradual change and the effects of subterranean pressures on the surface. It seems likely that this version of gradualism also influenced Darwin's theory of evolution. As luck would have it, they witnessed both a volcanic eruption and an earthquake. FitzRoy took measurements of a rise in the land following the earthquake and sent the information indirectly to Lyell.

While in Valparaiso, Darwin had an extended illness of uncertain origin and became homesick. At that time, FitzRoy was in a foul mood, because the Admiralty had censured him for overspending, and he threatened to resign his position. FitzRoy, who, according to Browne, showed signs of instability (manic depression?) throughout his life, had a violent row with Darwin then. However, by the time that Darwin had recovered and they had seen the volcanic eruption together, their friendly relationship had resumed.

After Callao, the Beagle set off for the Galápagos Islands, where they stayed from September to October in 1835. Darwin noticed that the species were slightly different from one island to another. They then set off for Tahiti, where they stayed for a few days in November, 1835.

As you can see, the voyage is taking far longer than originally proposed. They're already nearly four years into a trip that was supposed to take two, and they're not even halfway around the world. As noted earlier, Browne's account is quite adequate, but I would prefer a more succinct version with less verbatim use of original source material. For me, the main points could be made with far fewer words. Browne is also a little short on analysis, and I would find it more helpful if she had devoted more space to Darwin's psychological development and how his Beagle period informed his later theories. At least it's obvious that his voyage on the Beagle was a watershed experience that profoundly affected Darwin for the remainder of his life.

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