Enduring Darwin

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I’ve have at last struggled through the final third of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, motivated by anticipation of his accounts of the Galapagos and Tahiti, tidbits of a part of the world in which I have been immersed for the past six months or so. The arduous nature of this effort was imposed upon me by Darwin’s dogged tenacity in detailed analytical expositions upon geology, biology, and sociology that had little comparison in my life, that is, until he arrived at the sites of my own recent adventures. It was the images of grotesque marine iguanas sprawled in vagrant poses along fissured basaltic shorelines and, for contrast, the bright green and white shallows of coral atolls seemingly afloat upon the deepest depths of the Pacific ocean that finally began to draw me onward in the kinship of shared vistas.

An additional undercurrent of interest was promoted by my recent completion of Jack Repcheck’s The Man Who Found Time. This is a somewhat rambling biography of James Hutton who, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, labored against the incessant diatribe of the Christian pseudo-scientific dogma of the time to assemble the beginnings of a defensible theory that Earth is immensely older than the 6000 years or so proclaimed by biblical scholars since the Nicaean Council in the early decades of the fourth century.

It is unusual for me to read non-fiction and even more surprising for me to read two such works in succession, but following Repcheck’s work by completing The Voyage of the Beagle was a natural exception. Over the past year I’d already slogged through two-thirds of the book, having sailed with Darwin from England, through the Straits of Magellan, and on to Patagonia, there embarking on treks through the Cordillera of Chile and Peru. The Man Who Found Time explicitly referred to the effect the expanded global time scale posited by Hutton’s theories had had upon on Darwin’s foundation for his theories on the origin of species, so it made additional sense for me to sift through Darwin’s accounts of his voyage with a new, broader basis for understanding the thought processes of this burgeoning scientific era.

One of the things that is more easily appreciated once one begins to have an understanding of the state of natural science in the first decades of the 1800s upon which Beagle’s voyage floated is the fantastic assembly of logical deduction that drove Darwin toward his conclusions. The idea that life on Earth enjoyed the luxury of millions, if not billions of years to evolve was new. That realization set a backdrop for geological change that began to explain how the tiny, if sometimes violent elevations and subsidences of the very terra firma we take for granted can creep through history with barely any notice by its inhabitants, yet ultimately have profound effect on the face of the world. Out of this new perspective, understanding the mechanisms of evolution and plate tectonics led to a much humbler opinion of man’s place in nature.

Of great interest to me was Darwin’s early synthesis of what we now accept to be the progressive development of various forms of coral reefs and atolls associated with the rise and fall of mid-ocean mountain ranges. We normally credit Darwin only with the theory of the origin of species as promulgated by his book of that name, but in his account of the Beagle’s circumnavigation and his own many land-side explorations, Darwin expounds on almost every kind of natural philosophy of interest in those days and these.

It must be said that Hutton’s geological theories were only barely accepted in his time. He’d inspired a small cadre of followers among his fellow natural philosophers, but his early papers were not widely distributed and the writings of his later years in which he attempted to bolster his ideas against the rigid doctrine of prevailing creationism were hampered by failing health. After his death, it came to one of his youngest followers, Charles Lyell, to reassemble Hutton’s theory into popularly readable form along with additional proofs and expositions. It was Lyell’s writing that Darwin ingested soon after Beagle’s departure from England that so profoundly expanded his concept of time.

These days, except for a few archaic corners of religious conservatism, we either take the great age of Earth and man’s slow evolution upon it’s shifting surface as a given or give it short shrift as immaterial to our daily lives. It is difficult, however, for those such as I who have done our equivalent of walking across its watery face not to wonder at the natural wisdom embedded in its creases and folds. Indeed, these features almost feel like laugh lines when I consider how little I understand of its mechanisms.

Moreover, my career has led me to travel a greater expanse of the world than many. These past few years of cruising have extended those travels in a direction and by a means that gives a different perspective than the red-eye business flights and job-chasing relocations, even to foreign countries, to which I subjected myself and my family. In my own way, my recent writings have tried to convey the images and the wonder I’ve found along the west coast of Central America and, thus far, across the Pacific, but I have not the point of view bestowed upon Darwin by his circumnavigation on the Beagle nor do I have the base of scientific knowledge he had on which to build opinions of what I’ve seen.

This brings me to the point of sharing Charles Darwin’s summary view of the world adventure he enjoyed for so many years. It is no surprise that it far exceeds both the breadth and depth of my own experience, yet I find encapsulated in it little nuggets of my own thoughts. Here I quote much of the last chapter of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle:

Our Voyage having come to an end, I will take a short retrospect of the advantages and disadvantages, the pains and pleasures, of our circumnavigation of the world. If a person asked my advice, before undertaking a long voyage, my answer would depend upon his possessing a decided taste for some branch of knowledge, which could by this means be advanced. No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.

Many of the losses which must be experienced are obvious; such as that of the society of every old friend, and of the sight of those places with which every dearest remembrance is so intimately connected. These losses, however, are at the time partly relieved by the exhaustless delight of anticipating the long-wished-for day of return. If, as poets say, life is a dream, I am sure in a voyage these are the visions which best serve to pass away the long night. Other losses, although not at first felt, tell heavily after a period: these are the want of room, of seclusion, of rest; the jading feeling of constant hurry; the privation of small luxuries, the loss of domestic society and even of music and the other pleasures of imagination. When such trifles are mentioned, it is evident that the real grievances, excepting from accidents, of a sea-life are at an end. The short space of sixty years has made an astonishing difference in the facility of distant navigation. Even in the time of Cook, a man who left his fireside for such expeditions underwent severe privations. A yacht now, with every luxury of life, can circumnavigate the globe. Besides the vast improvements in ships and naval resources, the whole western shores of America are thrown open, and Australia has become the capital of a rising continent. How different are the circumstances to a man shipwrecked at the present day in the Pacific, to what they were in the time of Cook! Since his voyage a hemisphere has been added to the civilised world.

If a person suffer much from sea-sickness, let him weigh it heavily in the balance. I speak from experience: it is no trifling evil, cured in a week. If, on the other hand, he take pleasure in naval tactics, he will assuredly have full scope for his taste. But it must be borne in mind how large a proportion of the time, during a long voyage, is spent on the water, as compared with the days in harbour. And what are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean? A tedious waste, a desert of water, as the Arabian calls it. No doubt there are some delightful scenes. A moonlight night, with the clear heavens and the dark glittering sea, and the white sails filled by the soft air of a gently-blowing trade-wind, a dead calm, with the heaving surface polished like a mirror, and all still except the occasional flapping of the canvas. It is well once to behold a squall with its rising arch and coming fury, or the heavy gale of wind and mountainous waves. I confess, however, my imagination had painted something more grand, more terrific, in the full-grown storm. It is an incomparably finer spectacle when beheld on shore, where the waving trees, the wild flight of the birds, the dark shadows and bright lights, the rushing of the torrents, all proclaim the strife of the unloosed elements. At sea the albatross and little petrel fly as if the storm were their proper sphere, the water rises and sinks as if fulfilling its usual task, the ship alone and its inhabitants seem the objects of wrath. On a forlorn and weather-beaten coast the scene is indeed different, but the feelings partake more of horror than of wild delight.

Let us now look at the brighter side of the past time. The pleasure derived from beholding the scenery and the general aspect of the various countries we have visited has decidedly been the most constant and highest source of enjoyment. It is probable that the picturesque beauty of many parts of Europe exceeds anything which we beheld. But there is a growing pleasure in comparing the character of the scenery in different countries, which to a certain degree is distinct from merely admiring its beauty. It depends chiefly on an acquaintance with the individual parts of each view; I am strongly induced to believe that as in music, the person who understands every note will, if he also possesses a proper taste, more thoroughly enjoy the whole, so he who examines each part of a fine view may also thoroughly comprehend the full and combined effect. Hence, a traveller should be a botanist, for in all views plants form the chief embellishment. Group masses of naked rock even in the wildest forms, and they may for a time afford a sublime spectacle, but they will soon grow monotonous. Paint them with bright and varied colours, as in Northern Chile, they will become fantastic; clothe them with vegetation, they must form a decent, if not a beautiful picture. 

When I say that the scenery of parts of Europe is probably superior to anything which we beheld, I except, as a class by itself, that of the intertropical zones. The two classes cannot be compared together; but I have already often enlarged on the grandeur of those regions. As the force of impressions generally depends on preconceived ideas, I may add that mine were taken from the vivid descriptions in the Personal Narrative of Humboldt, which far exceed in merit anything else which I have read. Yet with these high-wrought ideas, my feelings were far from partaking of a tinge of disappointment on my first and final landing on the shores of Brazil.

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. In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless. They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why, then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? Why have not the still more level, the greener and more fertile Pampas, which are serviceable to mankind, produced an equal impression? I can scarcely analyse these feelings: but it must be partly owing to the free scope given to the imagination. The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time. If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man’s knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?

Lastly, of natural scenery, the views from lofty mountains, though certainly in one sense not beautiful, are very memorable. When looking down from the highest crest of the Cordillera, the mind, undisturbed by minute details, was filled with the stupendous dimensions of the surrounding masses.

Of individual objects, perhaps nothing is more certain to create astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a barbarian,—of man in his lowest and most savage state. One’s mind hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, Could our progenitors have been men like these?—men, whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals; men, who do not possess the instinct of those animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason, or at least of arts consequent on that reason. I do not believe it is possible to describe or paint the difference between savage and civilised man. It is the difference between a wild and tame animal: and part of the interest in beholding a savage is the same which would lead every one to desire to see the lion in his desert, the tiger tearing his prey in the jungle, or the rhinoceros wandering over the wild plains of Africa.

Among the other most remarkable spectacles which we have beheld, may be ranked the Southern Cross, the cloud of Magellan, and the other constellations of the southern hemisphere—the waterspout—the glacier leading its blue stream of ice, overhanging the sea in a bold precipice—a lagoon-island raised by the reef-building corals—an active volcano—and the overwhelming effects of a violent earthquake. These latter phenomena, perhaps, possess for me a peculiar interest, from their intimate connexion with the geological structure of the world. The earthquake, however, must be to every one a most impressive event: the earth, considered from our earliest childhood as the type of solidity, has oscillated like a thin crust beneath our feet; and in seeing the laboured works of man in a moment overthrown, we feel the insignificance of his boasted power.

It has been said that the love of the chase is an inherent delight in man—a relic of an instinctive passion. If so, I am sure the pleasure of living in the open air, with the sky for a roof and the ground for a table, is part of the same feeling; it is the savage returning to his wild and native habits. I always look back to our boat cruises, and my land journeys, when through unfrequented countries, with an extreme delight, which no scenes of civilisation could have created. I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced when he first breathed in a foreign clime where the civilised man had seldom or never trod.

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage which are of a more reasonable nature. The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply.

From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea, probably stands by itself in the records of history. It is the more striking when we remember that only sixty years since, Cook, whose excellent judgment none will dispute, could foresee no prospect of a change. Yet these changes have now been effected by the philanthropic spirit of the British nation.

In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilisation, which, at some not very remote period, will rule as empress over the southern hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilisation.

In conclusion it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries. It both sharpens and partly allays that want and craving, which, as Sir J. Herschel remarks, a man experiences although every corporeal sense be fully satisfied. The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity. Moreover, as a number of isolated facts soon become uninteresting, the habit of comparison leads to generalisation. On the other hand, as the traveller stays but a short time in each place, his descriptions must generally consist of mere sketches, instead of detailed observations. Hence arises, as I have found to my cost, a constant tendency to fill up the wide gaps of knowledge by inaccurate and superficial hypotheses.

But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view the effect ought to be to teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.

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