Re: The Voyage of the Beagle

It took the Beagle five years to sail around the world, and it only took me just over one year for me to get through Darwin’s book about it, The Voyage of the Beagle. It’s basically a travelogue with forays inland to describe the various geologies and curious animals, in short the 19th century equivalent of the Discovery channel, only more well-informed. To be honest, though, I was bored and got bogged down somewhere around the third chapter. And then I heard mention of his account of a Chilean earthquake near Conception.

The earthquake was interesting. Darwin spoke of the water boiling black, and surmised that was the seabed being disturbed. He observed 10 feet of dead mussels on shore and inferred that the land was being lifted. And he extrapolated that to how the mountains were built. Cool stuff that was enough to spur me through the rest of the book.

Wherever he went, Darwin supplied explanations for what he saw. For example, a chapter is spent on explaining the various kinds of reefs: atolls, barrier reefs, and fringing reefs. He often discussed the geologic column and fossils. He remarked on the relationships between animals, and how others assumed that species are fixed and cannot change. (The implication being that he believed otherwise.)

In the Galapagos, what really stood out for him was that each island had a unique set of species. In particular, many people told him they could tell which island a tortoise came from. Often they were closely related species that occupied similar niches, just slightly differently. You can tell he was already thinking about evolution. What he didn’t have yet was the mechanism.

In the last chapter, he reflects on the journey. He goes through the pluses and minuses, comments that it is safer that it was for Cook, 70 years beforehand. He ends up by saying it’s a good thing for a young naturalist to do. And would I recommend that someone else read the book about his journey? If you want a glimpse of what the world was like in the 1830s, sure. If you want a glimpse of Darwin’s mind, of course. The prose is clear and accessible, dotted with anecdotes about the peoples he met. If you don’t let yourself get becalmed in Tierra del Fuego, it’s pretty interesting.

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