Friday, June 22, 2012

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

The joy of adventure and the thrill of discovery
The Voyage of the Beagle is Charles Darwin’s account of his nearly five-year trip around the world as natural historian on board a British survey ship. Though the book is named after the ship, it contains very little description of life at sea, and concentrates almost exclusively on the details of Darwin’s many excursions on land. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle is primarily remembered for his discoveries on the Galapagos Islands, but that particularly destination only occupies one short chapter, though it is the most interesting portion of the book from the standpoint of biological science. The large majority of the book’s narrative takes place on the mainland of South America, in the lush jungles of Brazil, the pampas of Argentina, the harsh coasts of Tierra del Fuego, and the deserts of Chile. The itinerary also includes Tahiti, Australia, New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa, and numerous other islands in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans.

One would think that The Voyage of the Beagle, being a first-hand account of world travel, adventure, and discovery, would be more thrilling and engaging than Darwin’s most famous book, the complex scientific treatise On the Origin of Species, but that’s not the case. On the Origin of Species presents a well-structured scientific argument in which each idea builds upon the one before it, creating a snowball effect which captivates and excites the reader. The Voyage of the Beagle, on the other hand, is basically a collection of raw empirical data arranged in roughly chronological order. Occasionally Darwin will use that data to construct a hypothesis, for example in regards to the varying beaks of the Galapagos finches or the formation of the world’s coral reefs, but there’s no overarching theory or argument that unites the book as a whole. The primary value of The Voyage of the Beagle is its contribution as a precursor to the development of On the Origin of Species.

Though Darwin is primarily known as a biologist, he does not limit himself to that field and is equally articulate when expounding on geology, meteorology, anthropology, or even politics. In fact, in this book he probably spends more time discussing geology than he spends on zoology and botany combined. The text represents a combination of scientific research and travel writing. While the scientific portions of the book sometimes take the form of laundry lists of species or natural phenomena, the travel writing is quite good. Darwin eloquently captures the thrill of entering a foreign landscape for the first time, discovering a species never before seen by European eyes, or encountering the unfamiliar inhabitants of a distant land. He shows great respect for the culture of the gauchos of Argentina, and he truly relished the wilderness adventures he shared with them. One of the great benefits of this book is that it gives us insight into Darwin as a human being. It’s a far cry from the image of scientist as lab rat. Yes, he was an erudite scholar who seems to have read everything under the sun, but he was also a man of action who was not afraid to get his hands dirty.

I’m a big fan of the Wordsworth Classics series of paperbacks, and often sing their praises in my reviews, but their edition of The Voyage of the Beagle left me wanting more. The introduction is very good, providing valuable context for the voyage, yet it lacks even the simplest of maps, and if ever a book needed a glossary it’s this one. The copious use of geological terminology and Latin names of species hinder this book’s accessibility to the general reader. The more well-versed you are in the sciences, the more you will enjoy it.

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