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Charles Darwin – The Voyage of the Beagle

May 12, 2014

30. The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin (1839)

Length: 496 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 10 March 2009
Finished: 12 April 2014 (No, that’s not a typo. I read this book in bits and pieces over five years, mostly whenever I didn’t have anything else going on my Kindle.)

Where did it come from? Not sure. Probably from a campus bookstore somewhere along the line.
Why do I have it? Seemed like it should be required for an evolutionary biologist.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since sometime after April 2004, which is when my edition was published, but sometime before summer 2006, which is when I started keeping records.

Bye mom! I’m off on
a boat! Be back in five years!
It’s all for science!

Summary: When people mention Charles Darwin and the HMS Beagle, the only place most people think of (if they think of anything at all) is the Galápagos Islands. However, the Beagle circumnavigated the world in its five year voyage, and the young Charles Darwin saw it all. The Voyage of the Beagle is his account of the journey, edited together from his journal entries at the time. He describes the geology, the animals, the vegetation, and the people of the lands he visits, and speculates about the nature of some of his observations.

Review: I read this book in a very, very piecemeal fashion (over five years it took!) but I really enjoyed it. Darwin is so often depicted as a grumpy old man with the giant beard that I think people tend to forget that his trip on the Beagle was actually when he was quite young, basically a twenty-something who didn’t want to go to med school and didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life (I try to emphasize this point to my students as often as I can, since many of them are probably twenty-somethings not sure what they want to do with their lives). So his journals are full of careful observation and beautifully rendered descriptions and thoughtful conclusions, but there’s also a fair bit of hitting birds with his rock hammer and jumping on the back giant tortoises and hitting them with sticks until they move and knocking birds off of their perches with the muzzle of his gun. (And also occasionally bemoaning his seasickness.)

It was also totally fascinating reading this book in the light of knowing about Darwin’s future work. It’s hard not to spot the germs of his future ideas on evolution by natural selection in some of the passages. This book is just peppered with little bits about the length of time that physical features must have taken, and how similar but different animals in different locations are, and the relationship between changing geology and changing vegetation, and island biogeography. For example: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” There’s half of an introductory lecture on the history of evolutionary thought right there. And who doesn’t hear echoes (or future echoes, I guess. Pre-echoes?) of the last line of On the Origin of Species in the line “Where on the face of the earth can we find a spot on which close investigation will not discover signs of that endless cycle of change, to which this earth has been, is, and will be subjected?”

This book obviously tickled me as a biologist, but it was also easy to read, and well-written, if full of the Victorian standard run-on sentences, but also some wonderfully evocative passages. Some parts are a little dry – he expounds at great length on some seemingly small and obscure topics, like the formation of coral atolls – but as a whole, it’s a really interesting blend of science and adventuring and nature writing, and really a just plain fascinating book to read. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Biologists and those interested in the history of science are the main audience, obviously, but I think anyone who likes travel books, naval adventures, or the age of exploration should find some bits here to interest them as well. If you can find an illustrated edition, I think that would be extremely helpful; if not, keep Wikipedia and a map of the Beagle’s journey handy.

Quotes I particularly liked:

Amidst the din of rushing waters, the noise from the stones, as they rattled one over another, was most distinctly audible even from a distance. This rattling noise, night and day, may be heard along the whole course of the torrent. The sound spoke eloquently to the geologist; the thousands and thousands of stones which, striking against each other, made the one dull uniform sound, were all hurrying in one direction. It was like thinking on time, where the minute that now glides past is irrevocable. So was it with these stones; the ocean is their eternity, and each note of that wild music told of one more step towards their destiny. –Location 5522

When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere resplendently clear; the sky an intense blue; the profound valleys; the wild broken forms: the heaps of ruins, piled up during the lapse of ages; the bright-coloured rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow, all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined. Neither plant nor bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted my attention from the inanimate mass. I felt glad that I was alone: it was like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah. –Location 5622

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature:—no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. –Location 8648

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First Line: After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December, 1831.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • Location 4808: “The yawl and whale-boat were sent under the command of Mr. (now Captain) Sulivan to survey the eastern or inland coast of Chiloe; and with orders to meet the Beagle at the southern extermity of the island; to which point she would proceed by the outside, so as thus to circumnavigate the whole.” – A ship’s small boat, crewed by rowers.
  • Location 4907: “In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite.” – An optical instrument consisting of a small mounted telescope rotatable in horizontal and vertical planes, used to measure angles in surveying, meteorology, and navigation.
  • Location 4961 “The chief part of the range was composed of grand, solid, abrupt masses of granite, which appeared as if they had been coeval with the beginning of the world.” – Originating or existing during the same period; lasting through the same era.
  • Location 5526: “We continued to ride through the uncleared forest; only occasionally meeting an Indian on horseback, or a troop of fine mules bringing alerce-planks from the southern plains.” – a cupressus-like Chilean pine, Fitzroya cupressoides, cut for timber.
  • Location 5743: “The sky, seen through the advanced guard, appeared like a mezzotinto engraving, but the main body was impervious to sight; they were not, however, so thick together, but that they could escape a stick waved backwards and forwards.” – A method of engraving a copper or steel plate by scraping and burnishing areas to produce effects of light and shadow.
  • Location 6145: “On several occasions hydrophobia has prevailed in this valley. It is remarkable thus to find so strange and dreadful a disease appearing time after time in the same isolated spot.” – another name for rabies.
  • Location 6654: “The inhabitants, when walking in the lower district, and overcome with thirst, often take advantage of this circumstance, and drink the contents of the bladder if full: in one I saw killed, the fluid was quite limpid, and had only a very slightly bitter taste.” – clear or transparent.
  • Location 7470: “The roads were excellent, and made upon the MacAdam principle, whinstone having been brought for the purpose from the distance of several miles.” – Any of various hard, dark-colored rocks, especially basalt and chert.
  • Location 7600: “But then immediately occurs the startling difficulty, why has the sea worn out these great through circumscribed depressions on a wide platform, and left mere gorges at the openings, through which the whole vast amount of triturated matter must have been carried away?” – To rub, crush, grind, or pound into fine particles or a powder; pulverize.
  • Location 8427 “When the island was discovered it certainly possessed no quadruped excepting perhaps a mouse: it becomes, therefore, a difficult point to ascertain, whether these stercovorous insects have since been imported by accident, or if aborigines, on what food they formerly subsisted.” – excrement-eating

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2014 8:12 pm

    I really have to get on the stick and read this. It has been on my TBR list forever. I am a geologist, not a biologist, so that atoll stuff is actually one of the reasons I have been wanting to.

    • May 21, 2014 3:15 pm

      Elisa – I can’t really tell anyone about getting on the stick, considering I’ve been actually “reading” the thing for five years… and that was my second try. But yes, there’s a lot of geology there that you’d enjoy!

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