Saturday, 16 October 2004

The voyage of the Beagle

Listening to:

Schubert, symphony no. 8 in B minor, “Unfinished”, D.759. Played by the Dresden Staatskapelle, conducted by Otmar Suitner.

Just read:

Charles Darwin, The voyage of the Beagle.

This is a famous scientific classic. It describes Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle in the mid 1830s. The journey was a circumnavigation of the world, but most of the time was spent to-ing and fro-ing around South America. Darwin famously made it to the Galapagos Islands, but also visited the Cape Verde islands, the Falklands, New Zealand, and Australia. To use the Kiwi jargon, it was the OE to end all OEs.

Darwin’s job on the journey was to be a geologist who knew something about biology. His book is something akin to his official report, so there’s lots of geology and biology in there. For example, one not insubstantial chapter is an extended discussion of how coral atolls came to be formed. (His theory is that the coral originally ringed an island, and that as the island subsided, the coral naturally grew upwards within the increased height of water above it. If the subsidence went on for too long, the coral would die because the lower parts of the organism couldn’t survive at that depth of water. I don’t know if this theory is now considered correct, but it seems pretty convincing.)

Darwin’s biology is also interesting. He was apparently one of the first zoologists to make a point of describing animal behaviour in addition to animal bodies and structures. At this point in his life, he hadn’t realised that all of the variety and similarities he observed could be explained by evolution and natural selection, but there are occasional hints that he is on this path. I find it quite fascinating to see what is to come foreshadowed in his comments. It’s also worth pointing out that he revised the book a few times in the years between returning from the journey and publishing The origin of species, so some of the musing is not necessarily true to what he felt while actually abroad.

A book full of just this material would probably make fairly dry reading. It must be said that Darwin is so enthusiastic about his material that I could even cope with the geology, about which I know very little. But in addition to the science, Darwin also describes the people he meets, from South American generals, to gauchos that acted as his guides in modern-day Argentina, to the miserable people from Tierra del Fuego, to New Zealanders (pakeha and Maori) and Australians (aborigines, convicts and other colonists). It sounds as if he was happy to talk to any and everyone, and he is almost always sympathetic. On a couple of occasions, he vividly describes his encounters with slavery and its hideousness.

If you’re going to follow someone ’round the world, it helps if they’re not only intellectually stimulating, but friendly and engaging as well. Even if you occasionally find Darwin’s 19th century English a little hard-going, this is just what The voyage of the Beagle provides: a fascinating journey with a great guide and companion.

To review next:

Patrick O’Brian, The wine-dark sea.