With Darwin Day approaching Feb. 12, it is important to remember that, without Charles Darwin’s experience sailing around the world as a young man, he might never have made the key insights that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. He first described those formative experiences in his 1839 book, The Voyage of the Beagle.
In the conclusion to his book, The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin writes, “it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in distant countries.”
He couldn’t have known at the time just how true those words were - for himself. The observations he made while sailing with the English ship H.M.S. Beagle would provide an underpinning for Darwin when he later formulated his theory of evolution.
The five-year expedition, under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, had two official purposes: to conduct a charting survey of the South American continent, and to run chronometric readings around the planet. Darwin acted as the crew’s naturalist, collecting specimens of plants and animals everywhere the ship traveled. He took copious notes concerning the geology of the places he visited.
During the trip he explored the shores of Brazil, the high plains of Patagonia, the fjords of Tierra del Fuego, the Chilean Andes, the deserts of Peru, as well as Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia.
The Voyage of the Beagle is arranged in roughly the same chronology as that of the survey itself. There were some places, such as Montevideo, that Darwin journeyed to more than once; he often consolidates these portions of the trip into a single chapter, which can make the order of some events confusing.
The book reveals that Darwin was thinking deeply about the origins of the world’s species long before he formalized his most important theory. Most famously, he was confounded by the wealth of rare creatures to be found in the Galapagos Archipelago. With palpable astonishment, he writes:
“Why, on these small points of land, which within a late geological period must have been covered by the ocean, which are formed by basaltic lava, and therefore differ in geological character from the American continent, and which are placed under a peculiar climate, why were their aboriginal inhabitants, associated, I may add, in different proportions both in kind and in number from those on the continent, and therefore acting on each other in a different manner – why were they created on American types of organization?”
Darwin would answer his own question two decades later.
In addition to his meticulous descriptions of creatures and their habitats, Darwin recorded numerous observations of the cultural practices in each region where he went ashore. Many of these are personal anecdotes, told through the lens of an educated Englishman brought up at the height of the empire’s success. He comments approvingly of the productive potential of Brazil’s untouched landscape, and lauds the Chileans for their industrious mining efforts.
Still, Darwin bucked many of the commonly held beliefs of his own time. He continually laments the injustice of slavery throughout the narrative, and points out how, in some regions, the European settlers enjoyed a high standard of living by conscripting natives as low-wage laborers. Although he typically views “civilized” men as superior to “savages,” he seems to prefer the effort by many in his time to bring modernity to indigenous populations, rather than simply taking them over.
Although the book is primarily a scientific endeavor, the enthusiasm that Darwin felt towards the natural world comes across strongly through his storytelling. For instance, when crossing the Pacific, he was fascinated by the role of corals in building atolls and barrier reefs. He writes of these structures:
“We feel surprise when travelers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason.”
Both that wonder and that ability to reason are on full display in The Voyage of the Beagle.