Darwin Under Sail

The founder of evolution reconsidered on his 200th birthday

This article is based on the following:
The Voyage of the Beagle, and
On the Origin of the Species, by Charles Darwin
The Origin: a biographical novel of Charles Darwin, by Irving Stone


A watercolor by HMS Beagle’s draftsman, Conrad Martens; painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts the Beagle being hailed by native Fuegians | Photo: Wikicommons

Charles Darwin was just 21 on Dec. 27, 1831 when he boarded the two-masted clipper ship the Beagle in Plymouth, England and began a more than four-year voyage, around the world. The journals that he kept of his travels became the basis for a book, later known as The Voyage of the Beagle, and the beginning a career that was to change the way we understand the nature of life on earth.

“Now it’s open sea, with a fine wind in our sails all the way down to Tenerife and South America. You will soon be going to work as a naturalist,” remarked Captain Robert Fitzroy, the Captain of the Beagle, on second day out. Darwin was a keen observer and kept a detailed record of all he saw, sent home in installments to his family, annotated with his changing understanding of the natural world.

“[…] Each species had not been independently created,,” he wrote, “but had descended, like varieties, from other species.” While his theories are often seen today as a contradiction to religion, Darwin saw them as congruent. He had trained as a clergyman, and had no intention of “impugning the existence of God,” as evolution controversies argue. For him his new theories meant that “Nature simply follows His laws.” but without knowing he created the most cited and most misunderstood theory about evolution.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth in 1809, and his theories of evolution, published in 189 as On the Origin of Species, still define the basis of how science understands the world.

“When on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts,” Darwin wrote. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species – that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.”

Once he was back in England from his voyage around the continents on the H.M.S. Beagle, he used the diaries and personal outlines he wrote while he was on sea to make a scientific abstract, On the Origin of the Species, where he was finally able to publish his theories about the natural selection, to explain why there were different species on every continent he travelled to.

Darwin was a careful scientist, in many ways a humble man. He did not claim to know everything nor does he claim to have the best sources.

“This abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect,” he wrote. “I cannot here give references and authorities for my several statements. No doubt errors will have crept in.”

A portrait of Darwin at about the age when he set sail of what was a nearly five-year journey around the world | Photo: Wikicommons

Both the Voyage of the Beagle and The Origin of the Species were widely read at the time, and their fundamental insight – the fact that evolution occurs – became accepted by both the scientific community and much of the general public in his lifetime.

The Origin of Species has special claims on our attention,” writes Joseph Carroll in his introduction to a 2003 reissue. “It is one of the two or three most significant works of all time—one of those works that fundamentally and permanently alter our vision of the world… It is argued with a singularly rigorous consistency but it is also eloquent, imaginatively evocative, and rhetorically compelling.”

However it took nearly a century for the emergence of what has been called the “modern evolutionary synthesis,” achieving a broad consensus that natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution, a kind of unifying theory of the life sciences that successfully explains the diversity of life on earth.

“My work is now nearly finished; but as it will take me two or three more years to complete it, and as my health is far from strong, I have been urged to publish this Abstract.” Darwin expected controversy, but hoped that he would be able to make the ideas clear.

For the non-specialist, a highly engaging introduction to Darwin’s life and history is Irving Stone’s fictional biography The Origin. Irvin Stone recreates Darwin’s life, before, during and after his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, detailing the major incidents and details of his developing thought, against the background of personal realities like his later health issues, and his wife’s discomfort with the challenges his science might bring to religion:

“Emma turned pale. “Is this not anti-Christian?”

“No, it’s anti-dogma; a set of dogmas superimposed upon the church rather late in life,” Stone has Darwin answer. “It does not impugn the existence of God. Nature simply follows his laws.”  Stone was sensitive to the discomfort, and at times seems to be looking for ways to make Darwin a less controversial person, particularly to the Church. “It is hard for me to accept that all living things are not as God made them,” Stone’s Darwin says, “and are not blessed by Him and meant to flourish.” Writing in the 1950s, however, Stone was also benefiting from an era of reverence for science, in which intellectual fashion was, on the whole, on his side.  One wonders if such a book would have been so well receive in the current era of the evolution-creationism debates.

While some question Stone’s technique of fictional biography, a number of distinguished natural scientists, like Steven Jay Gould, have been among his defenders.

“He permitted himself all the conventional fictional devices, including inventing conversations, conjecturing about thoughts and motives,” Gould wrote in his essay, An Unpublished Darwin Letter. “But he scrupulously collected factual data, (far more extensively than most academic scholars do or can) and never departed from this information.

A caricature of Darwin satirising him as having evolved from the lower spieces himself. | Images: Wikicommons

So were Darwin’s beliefs shaken, after his return from the H.M.S. Beagle?  There is no question that his direction became clear, from which he never turned back.

Back from his long voyage, he married his cousin Emma Wedgewood, whom he had known since childhood and he was awarded a Masters Degree from Christ College Cambridge, on the basis of his publications.

“We have come to the conclusion that your work in the five years that you left our august halls has entitled you to the degree of Master of Arts” the citation read. “This is not an honourary degree. It has had to be earned.”  His publisher was equally happy.

“Your book has sold out, Darwin,” one bookseller told him.

Besides his health, which never seemed to improve, Darwin’s life, according to Irving Stone, seemed to dance through his years; having achieved renown early in life, he never seemed to want for money and was blessed with a happy marriage and 10 children, nine of whom survived.

On the Origin of Species proved unexpectedly popular, with the entire stock of 1,250 copies oversubscribed when it went on sale to booksellers Nov. 22, 1859. Mostly setting out “one long argument” of detailed observations and consideration of anticipated objections, his only allusion to human evolution was the suggestion that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin write in his conclusion, “with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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