Charles Darwin Part II

Capt. F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman. … there never was a finer chance for a man of zeal & spirit… Don’t put on any modest doubts or fears about your disqualifications for I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of.

~Letter to Charles Darwin concerning his invitation to sail aboard Beagle.

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Charles Darwin was set to sail on the most exciting scientific expedition in hostory.  He was offered the trip of a lifetime not because he excelled in studying ecology (though he did), but rather because of his status as a gentleman.  The captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FizRoy, was concerned about his likely loneliness during the duration of the long voyage and sought the friendship of a suitable gentleman—and so it was Darwin’s pedigree, not degree, that made him eligible.  It would seem that Victorian gentlemen, unlike Modern Gentleman, are born and not made.  Nevertheless, Darwin decided to make the best of his opportunity.

The mission of the Beagle was to survey and chart the coasts of southern South America.  Specifically, they were to make note of land features as observed from the sea for the purpose of naval and commercial navigation.  At that time, important intercontinental shipping routes were only just being established.  Darwin looked forward to moving beyond his role as an gentleman and naturalist.

Unfortunately for Darwin, he became seasick nearly the moment the ship left the port of Plymouth.  The Beagle was a sturdy, yet smaller ship that rolled and tumbled against the waves of the open seas.  For the duration of his time on board, Darwin was a miserable, physical wreck.  What’s more, he received little comfort from FitzRoy, the fellow-gentleman who was supposed to be Darwin’s companion.  The ship’s captain apparently had an unreasonable temper and was generally argumentative with anyone who happened to be standing nearby.

Darwin confined himself to his room for much of his time at sea, where he could scribble in his journals during periods of quiet waters.  In fact, during his self imposed isolation, Darwin filled dozens of journals with thoughts and observations—a practice that became his life-long habit.

When the Beagle first landed, a relieved Darwin set foot on land.  He finally felt freed and unencumbered by the social and nautical uneasiness aboard the Beagle.  Before him was the South American continent.  It was completely new to him, and it contained ecological wonders that were yet mostly unknown to people back home in England.  He did not want back aboard the Beagle, at least not to spend anymore time than absolutely necessary.  FitzRoy and Darwin agreed that Darwin should explore and make his way cross-country by any means he could find and check-in with the Beagle at prearranged ports.

While Darwin was becoming a more serious and studious gentleman of science, old habits would be impossible to shake.  At every opportunity, he sought the transportation of a speedy mount, and with his firearms, he traveled far inland where he spent his time riding and shooting throughout the campo.  This time, rather than failing grades, his passions earned him one of the most important collections of plants and animals made by a field ecologist.  At each meeting with the Beagle, he carefully crated his findings—along with many volumes of annotated journals—and prepared them for shipment back to England.

Darwin explored jungles and rivers, arid plains, steep mountains and encountered people of cultures never contacted by Europeans.  He collected plants and preserved animal specimens.  He created cartographic maps and charts.  He made meteorological observations.  He recorded languages unknown to English ethnographers.  There hardly a scientific discipline he did not explore on this expedition.

Darwin spent significant time wandering about the different Islands of the Galapagos, which are off the coast of what is today Ecuador.  He was particularly taken with the finches that lived there.  He noticed that from island-to-island, the finches had different appearances—especially their beaks.  He noticed also that the beaks were suited for the food supply of each island, which tended to vary a great deal.  On islands where nuts and seeds were prevalent, the finches tended to have larger, sturdier beaks.  On islands with more available insects, finches had more slender beaks for probing and snatching bugs.  His observations of these finches seemed significant to him at the time, and he was careful to crate many specimens to be sent back to England.

Unfortunately riding and shooting were not the only boyhood habits that Darwin could not shake. He was still, and always would be a disorganized person.  When Charles Darwin got back to England to sift through his crates of notes and collected specimens, he found his work a shambles.  He neglected to label or even group the many things that he collected in the field.  In fact, it took years and the help of some of his fellow Beagle compatriots to make sense of the contents of these crates.  But he never gave up, and eventually he created a model that explained the finches that he observed on the Galapagos Islands.  It was his theory that the finches underwent a gradual process of adaptation to take advantage of each island’s food supply, and that each finch was selected naturally for its environment.  It took many more years to write the book that explained that model.  During that time, I wonder if Charles’ father ever forgave him for all of that horseback riding, shooting, and globe-trotting.

* * * * *

Though his On the Origin of Species gets more attention than his other works, I recommend highly :: The Voyage of the Beagle.

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  1. Charles Darwin Part II « Modern Gentleman - December 23, 2011

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