Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” Reviewed

WE FOUND AN EXCELLENT article in the Wall Street Journal titled Darwin’s Joyful Journey of Discovery, written by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College, London. Jones reminds us:

Next year is Darwin year: the bicentennial of the great man’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin of Species.”

But Jones isn’t writing about that book, nor Darwin’s other famous work, “Descent of Man.” Jones’ article is about Darwin’s equally well-known but lesser-read book:

“The Voyage of the Beagle,” in contrast, sings. Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics (“To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again”) and careless of the risks (“Upon landing I found that I was to a certain degree a prisoner . . . a traveller has no protection beside his fire-arms”). The youthful Darwin was a master of unadorned English. He took with him more than geology textbooks: “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.”

This is an excellent article about an excellent book. Even if you haven’t yet read Darwin’s other work, Jones is likely to seduce you into reading “The Voyage of the Beagle.”

Darwin spent only five weeks of the five-year adventure in the Galapagos, with just half that time on visits to islands. He scarcely noticed the finches and lumped their corpses together into a jumbled mass. In fact, the local tortoises were more important. … In those lumbering creatures, Darwin saw, without realizing it at the time, his first hint of evolution, for animals from James were subtly distinct from those on Indefatigable and Albemarle nearby. In a rare conjunction of taxonomy with gastronomy, he noted that the James specimens were “rounder, blacker, and had a better taste when cooked” — which at the time seemed little more than a curiosity but was in fact his introduction to the biology of change.

It’s impressive when a reviewer can write “In a rare conjunction of taxonomy with gastronomy,” and more importantly, it indicates that the subject of such a review is well worth our attention.

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