Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Charles Darwin's Voyage in his 200th year

By Jere Lipps

During this year, the 200th since Charles Darwin’s birthday on Feb 12, 1809, I thought I’d read his Voyage of the Beagle from start to finish.  His voyage, of course, is what solidified much of his view of geology and biology, and he used his observations and insights in the Origin of Species (we also celebrated its 150th anniversary in November) and his other 15 books.  The Voyage is not a complete story, it is a journal of observations on the biology, people, and, especially, the geology of the Beagle’s five-year cruise to map the coastlines of the southern part of the world.  Although scheduled for only two years, it stretched to 57 months, 42 of which were spent in South America.  The book can be opened read at most any place, because it is not a continuous story, but a condensation of his observations at various places he saw (over 40 islands and two continents in some detail).  I was interested to see how Darwin’s thoughts and writing developed over the voyage, but, other than his theory on the formation of reefs, nothing came from the voyage immediately.  Like most natural history studies, the real work came when he returned to England and his specimens and notes were studied by others and himself.  The Voyage remains one of those wonderful accounts of relatively unknown places in the world, and takes a place next to Joseph Banks's observations with Cook, Alcide d’Orbigny’s explorations of South American chiefly by foot, and Alexander Humboldt’s descriptions of his travels.  Many of the places Darwin went are much like they were when he visited but others are completely changed by the sheer growth of  humanity.  Before reading the Origin, I recommend reading the Voyage to see how Darwin developed as an observational scientist, and later used that knowledge to move into making theoretical sense of all that he saw.    But if you already read the Origin, now read the Voyage.  Even in the rereading, I found it an exciting, interesting and revealing account that forced memories of my own time on Darwin's trail and elsewhere in the natural world!