The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
by Paul Mathers
Having already done my penance of writing apologies over Darwin, I shall simply write about the experience of reading this book as best my memory serves at this point so far removed from having finished it.
* What a lot of people may not realize is that Darwin was far more interested in geology while traveling on The Beagle. A great deal of the book is focused on the land and rocks. Another thing people may not realize is that Darwin spent as little time as possible on The Beagle. He is famous for suffering from extreme seasickness on the voyage, but what is less famous is that he, therefore, traveled by land as much as humanly possible.
*Darwin’s view of the less developed world was… I am tempted to say 19th century, but it’s not like I live in some golden age of First World views toward the Third World. On several occasions he remarks on how the difference between the difference between uncivilized man and civilized man is greater than the difference between domestic animals and undomesticated animals. On one occasion, he tells the story of an errant slave lady who throws herself off a cliff to avoid capture. He writes “In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.”
So, yeah, not the most enlightened time.
* Darwin is also a bit of a poet. I found his fervent interest in the natural world to be contagious. Indeed, Whitman’s ‘Learned Astronomer’ argument aside, it is much richer to go about knowing the what and why of the trees, stars, clouds, flora, fauna, and physics of things.
*There were a few points of the voyage which were particularly memorable. I suspect that he devoted the greater part of the book to these events if I were to graph it. One of those events was the volcanic earthquake. This was, of course, long before an understanding of tectonic plates and so there is a great deal of talk about the lava flowing under the thin crust of earth (in this case applicable, but not so for a great deal of earthquakes as we now know). Darwin is sitting out in the wild when it happens. It devastates whole cities, which he sees later. Interesting read.
* Another major point is the Galapagos Islands, which I suppose is to be expected. I expected that Darwin would marvel at the odd animals, tell us details about the animals, wax poetic about the diversity and reveal seeds of his future theory at this point. All of which is basically true and is there in the text (as is his theory on how seeds travel), but what I did not expect was that the bulk of the section on the Galapagos Islands is about torturing the animals.
Granted, that is my value judgment, but Darwin writes about holding lizards together to make them fight, tying lizards to rocks and throwing them in the ocean to see if they drown, seeing if the tortoises can get up when they are turned on their backs, riding the tortoises, eating an awful lot of the tortoises, how easy it was to kill the trusting birds, and so forth.
* He also devotes a lot of time to praising Christianity’s influence on human civilization. Yeah, let that sink in, those of you who have read Dawkins’ three card monte games of rhetoric, while you chew on a quote from Charles Darwin. It’s a lengthy one, but worth it:
“From the varying accounts which I had read before reaching these islands, I was very anxious to form, from my own observation, a judgment of their moral state- although such judgment would necessarily be very imperfect. A first impression at all times very much depends on one’s previously-acquired ideas. My notions were drawn from Ellis’s Polynesian Researches– an admirable and most interesting work, but naturally looking at every thing under a favourable point of view; from Beechey’s Voyage; and from that of Kotzebue, which is strongly adverse to the whole missionary system. He who compares these three accounts, will, I think, form a tolerably accurate conception of the present state of Tahiti. One of my impressions, which I took from the two last authorities, was decidedly incorrect; viz., that the Tahitians had become a gloomy race, and lived in fear of the missionaries. Of the latter feeling I saw no trace, unless, indeed, fear and respect be confounded under one name. Instead of discontent being a common feeling, it would be difficult in Europe to pick out of a crowd half so many merry and happy faces. The prohibition of the flute and dancing is inveighed against as wrong and foolish; the more than presbyterian manner of keeping the sabbath, is looked at in a similar light. On these points I will not pretend to offer any opinion in opposition to men who have resided as many years as I was days on the island.
“On the whole it appears to me, that the morality and religion of the inhabitants is highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. They expect the missionaries to effect that, which the Apostles themselves failed to do. In as much as the condition of the people falls short of this high order, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices, and the power of an idolatrous priesthood- a system of profligacy unparalleled in the world, and infanticide a consequence on that system- bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children- that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by the introduction of Christianity.“
Emphasis mine. And later:
“So excellent is the Christian faith, that the outward conduct even of the unbelievers is said to have been decidedly improved by the spread of its doctrines.”
And even later, reflecting on what he has seen:
“One Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.”
I am telling you, the dichotomy is false!
He also talks about rodents, St. Elmo’s Fire, Cape Horn, banana republic generals, Australia and New Zealand, emus, and lots and lots of blood and death.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It is a ripping good read and very well may change the way you look at the world.