Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Darwin's Voyages at an End

It took me quite a while to get through Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, but I have finally read the entire work.  I started when much younger (possibly late teens) when I was reading about various scientists including Galileo and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (who made improvements to the microscope).  However, at that time, I only got about 25% of the way in.

This was actually part of a set, and after some searching I found an image of it.

The set was published in 1962 through the offices of the American Museum of Natural History.  It's such a mishmash with two really short (and not particularly distinguished) biographies of Pasteur and Newton and James Conant's 4 essays (Modern Science and Modern Man) that seem fairly reminiscent of C.P. Snow's writings.  These are all fairly forgettable.  I think Stillman Drake's book on Galileo is better, and I probably skimmed it, though I think there are certainly better books on Galileo out there now.  So honestly, the only reason to get the set, even in its day, was for a decent copy of Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, and indeed that was the only book I kept out of the set after I had moved a couple of times.  

Of course, now you can go directly to Project Gutenberg for The Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of the Species (and The Descent of Man for that matter).  I'll most likely try to tackle the other two about a year apart, since Darwin writes extremely dense prose.  Another very interesting site has just put up most of Darwin's working papers, but I think that is mostly of interest to serious biologists and not to armchair scientists such as myself.

It is quite interesting to learn that Darwin only made the one expedition on the Beagle, which did indeed circle the globe over a nearly 5-year voyage.  After that, he basically never left the UK.  In fact, he only made one trip to Paris in his lifetime (and that was several years before he embarked on the Beagle).  Perhaps this is was related to Darwin's seasickness, which apparently never entirely left him (so to put up with this for five years!) and also his general decline in health (at least a few (but not all) researchers feel Darwin caught Chagas disease in South America).  Still, it seems incredible to only have seen Paris once in a lifetime...

Some of the highlights for me were that Darwin found quite a few fossils in South America, though perhaps ironically he didn't find dinosaur bones, but the remains of a mammal called the toxodon as well as mastodon teeth.  He did eventually see some dinosaur skeletons (back in London) but dinosaurs were never at the heart of his worldview or his theories.

He experienced a couple of earthquakes while he was in South America.

He rode an elephant, though it had been imported from India to Mauritius (a small island off the coast of Madagascar, itself an island).  The Beagle didn't stop off in India, and as far as I can tell, Darwin never made a trip to India later in life.

Darwin did visit New Zealand and Australia, however.  He went out looking for kangaroos several times, but never saw a live one (unless he saw one in a zoo at some point).  He encountered a platypus though.  Incidentally, one of the few predictions Darwin made that didn't come to pass (fortunately) is that he thought the kangaroo would be hunted into extinction.

If one is interested in only the best parts of The Voyage of the Beagle, I would recommend Chapters 1-3, 6-7, 14, 17 and the last half or so of Chapter 21.  If one has time (or patience) only for a single chapter, then Chapter 17 is the one covering the Galapagos Islands, which really provided Darwin with the core evidence for much of his most important work later in life.

As noted, Darwin was a very keen observer and writes at a level of detail that can be a bit exhausting at times, which is why it did take so long to finish.  But there are a few passages that I thought were quite good, even poetic and worth setting down here, so that I don't forget them.

From Chapter 14: "A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid;—one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced."

From Chapter 18 (Tahiti): "We may now consider that we have nearly crossed the Pacific. It is necessary to sail over this great ocean to comprehend its immensity. Moving quickly onwards for weeks together, we meet with nothing but the same blue, profoundly deep, ocean. Even within the archipelagoes, the islands are mere specks, and far distant one from the other. Accustomed to look at maps drawn on a small scale, where dots, shading, and names are crowded together, we do not rightly judge how infinitely small the proportion of dry land is to water of this vast expanse. The meridian of the Antipodes has likewise been passed; and now every league, it made us happy to think, was one league nearer to England. These Antipodes call to one's mind old recollections of childish doubt and wonder. Only the other day I looked forward to this airy barrier as a definite point in our voyage homewards; but now I find it, and all such resting-places for the imagination, are like shadows, which a man moving onwards cannot catch."

From Chapter 19 (Australia): "The inhabitants of this [Southern] hemisphere, and of the intertropical regions, thus lose perhaps one of the most glorious, though to our eyes common, spectacles in the world—the first bursting into full foliage of the leafless tree. They may, however, say that we pay dearly for this by having the land covered with mere naked skeletons for so many months. This is too true but our senses thus acquire a keen relish for the exquisite green of the spring, which the eyes of those living within the tropics, sated during the long year with the gorgeous productions of those glowing climates, can never experience."
Finally, Darwin sums up his adventures in a "Retrospect" in Chapter 21 from which I will quote extensively: "Our Voyage having come to an end, I will take a short retrospect of the advantages and disadvantages, the pains and pleasures, of our circumnavigation of the world. ...
Many of the losses which must be experienced are obvious; such as that of the society of every old friend, and of the sight of those places with which every dearest remembrance is so intimately connected. These losses, however, are at the time partly relieved by the exhaustless delight of anticipating the long wished-for day of return. If, as poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which best serve to pass away the long night. Other losses, although not at first felt, tell heavily after a period: these are the want of room, of seclusion, of rest; the jading feeling of constant hurry; the privation of small luxuries, the loss of domestic society and even of music and the other pleasures of imagination. When such trifles are mentioned, it is evident that the real grievances, excepting from accidents, of a sea-life are at an end. ...
... But it must be borne in mind, how large a proportion of the time, during a long voyage, is spent on the water, as compared with the days in harbour. And what are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean. A tedious waste, a desert of water, as the Arabian calls it. No doubt there are some delightful scenes. A moonlight night, with the clear heavens and the dark glittering sea, and the white sails filled by the soft air of a gently blowing trade-wind, a dead calm, with the heaving surface polished like a mirror, and all still except the occasional flapping of the canvas. It is well once to behold a squall with its rising arch and coming fury, or the heavy gale of wind and mountainous waves. ...
Let us now look at the brighter side of the past time. The pleasure derived from beholding the scenery and the general aspect of the various countries we have visited, has decidedly been the most constant and highest source of enjoyment.  
Among the other most remarkable spectacles which we have beheld, may be ranked, the Southern Cross, the cloud of Magellan, and the other constellations of the southern hemisphere—the water-spout—the glacier leading its blue stream of ice, overhanging the sea in a bold precipice—a lagoon-island raised by the reef-building corals—an active volcano—and the overwhelming effects of a violent earthquake. These latter phenomena, perhaps, possess for me a peculiar interest, from their intimate connection with the geological structure of the world. The earthquake, however, must be to every one a most impressive event: the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.
The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply."

We certainly do not typically find such interesting asides in the scientific articles and treatises written today.  But it was a very different era, when gentlemen scholars such as Darwin could make such a mark upon the world.  I hope to have conveyed a bit of the spirit of The Voyage of the Beagle, so that you can judge for yourself if you want to follow along with Darwin on his travels.

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