Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Part One)

Charles Darwin Voyaging
Part One
I've been reading Charles Darwin: Voyaging, the first volume of Janet Browne's terrific biography. I've finished Part One, so I thought I'd share some things I've learned:

Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus, was a very prominent and respected figure in that class-conscious English society. Everyone knows that Charles Darwin in some ways built upon his grandfather's own theories of inherited traits, but what's interesting is that Erasmus was perhaps best known in his own time for being a poet.

Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on the same day: February 12, 1809. I know of a movement to celebrate Darwin's birthday, but I think it's a bad idea. In the United States, Darwin's birthday will always be overshadowed by Lincoln's. Perhaps we could celebrate another day, such as the anniversary of the Beagle's voyage, December 7, 1831. (That's also my sister's birthday. Not the same year, though.) Is that too close to Hanukah and Christmas? If so, maybe we could celebrate the anniversary of the Beagle's arrival at the Galapagos Islands, September 15, 1835. I didn't realize that the Beagle actually spent more time on the east coast of South America than the west, and spent only a little more than a month at Galapagos. Browne writes, "Of the 57 months that the Beagle was at sea, 42 were spent in the waters of South America. Of these, 27 were spent on the east coast, and 15 on the west."

Darwin's father was a doctor and a meticulous bookkeeper. Darwin no doubt inherited his father's habit of cataloguing everything in great detail. But Dr. Darwin didn't like the idea of his son (who had already dropped out of medical school) going off to set sail. Darwin listed several reasons his father told him he shouldn't go on the Beagle:
(1) Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter
(2) A wild scheme
(3) That they must have offered to many others before me, the place of Naturalist
(4) And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition
(5) That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter
(6) That my accommodations would be most uncomfortable
(7) That you should consider it as again changing my profession
(8) That it would be a useless undertaking

Well, I think we can all agree that No. 8 was wrong, but most of the rest of them pretty much turned out to be correct. Especially No. 3. Captain Robert FitzRoy did, in fact, offer the job to others who turned it down before settling on Darwin. Funny how those decisions can change the course of human history. I wonder how many creationists realize that Darwin was planning to join the clergy before he set sail on the Beagle.

FitzRoy was an interesting character himself. This was his second trip to South America on the Beagle, and the first time he took it upon himself to bring back some natives, collecting them the same way he might have collected rocks or butterflies.

I'll have more to say about this book (as well as Volume 2 of Browne's biography) in the coming weeks.


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