Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Charles Darwin's Gap Year(s)

A few months back I finally got hold of a copy of On the Origin of Species.  I had become a bit embarrassed by the fact that after four years of centering my studies on the ideas of Darwin, I still hadn't read the work.  When my mum picked a copy up at a charity shop and gave it to me, I immediately dived in.   Though enjoyable to finally read Darwin’s great theory in his own words, the best part was the sister book preceding it.

This is The Voyage of the Beagle, a diary describing Darwin’s journey around the world aboard the HMS Beagle as Ship’s Naturalist, straight out of university.  This was the 1830s and it is amusing to see the early nineteenth century gap year (or five) tour of the world.  The twenty-two year old Darwin’s description is vivid, enthralling and makes for a fascinating read.  You begin to admire his pluck and spirit of adventure (and admire his persistence in carrying on through many bouts of seasickness).  You also see his fascination with everything that surrounds him – both animals and people.  He writes in an honest voice, full of wonder and quite often, fun.   His prose is very accessible as well which surprised me - scientists are not often the best adventure writers!

He empathises with every living thing around him no matter how small and (in my opinion) frankly boring a species it may be.   His passion takes him on three month detours through the wilderness to collect samples, leads him to meet the military leader of a revolution in Patagonia and to live through an earthquake in Chile.  Though there are moments that grate with modern sensibilities (such as the derogatory description of indigenous South Americans he encounters), it is hard to fault him when those were the commonly held views in British society at the time.  He does redeem himself in several places further on by expressing his shock at the treatment of native slaves and a wish for equality among men (man being the operative gender).

To finish  - some of my favourite anecdotes:
  •  Fox Murder on San Pedro Island, off the coast of Chile: In which our hero notices a curious fox watching the men of the Beagle surveying the coast.  Whilst it is distracted Darwin creeps up on the animal and knocks it over the head with his geological hammer.  As Darwin puts it: “more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren”.  He later donated the specimen to the Zoological Society in London.  The fox is today known as Lycalopex fulvipesor or Darwin’s Fox. Sadly, it is critically endangered.
  • Giant Tortoise Surfing in the Galapagos:  Yes, Darwin was about twenty six by the time he reached the famous Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.  This does not stop him behaving like a student and riding a Giant Tortoise, albeit rather unsuccessfully.  A vital part of the research process I’m sure.
  •  Hanging with the Gauchos of Patagonia – In Argentina, Darwin makes friends with Gauchos (cowboys) who ride with him when he is collecting specimens.  They show him how to hunt with the traditional bolas, a type of lasso with ball weights attached to entangle the legs of the prey.  Darwin has a little accident with playing with one of these and manages to catch his own horse with him still on it, which amuses his companions greatly.  Another interesting anecdote is the locals distrust of his habit of daily face washing.  Not the done thing in nineteenth century Argentina apparently!

I would urge anyone who has an interest in evolution, Darwin or simply a good story to give The Voyage of the Beagle a go.  It is a fascinating read!