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The Darwin Blogs – July 6, 2006.

The Darwin Exhibition #5. The Voyage of the Beagle, Part 1.

Way back in March of this year I began a set of blogs giving my personal take on the fabulously successful exhibition Darwin that opened in New York at the American Museum of Natural History on November 19, 2005. The exhibition was originally scheduled to run to May 29th of this year—and then move on to other venues. But we have extended its run in New York until August 20th—when it will then move on to venues in Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, London and San Diego. As the Curator of the exhibition—the one with overall responsibility for its intellectual content—I will of course hate to see it leave New York—though I am also of course excited that the exhibition will ultimately be seen by hundreds of thousands (perhaps, ultimately, millions) of people during its extended run. Over 350,000 people have already seen Darwin in New York!

I left off my story with Darwin’s days at Cambridge University, where he took an undergraduate degree, with the idea of going on and studying to become a clergyman in the Church of England (you can go back and read these blogs on this website). He evidently agreed with his father that he needed some sort of professional calling to keep him occupied and give him some respectability—even though at medical school in Edinburgh (or so he tells us in his Autobiography) Darwin had concluded that his father would eventually leave him enough money that he would never have to work for a living. Medical school had been a bust—he hated the sight of blood and the screams of the patients—and the boring lectures that kept him indoors. He vastly preferred to continue his outdoor rambles—“shooting, dogs and rat-catching” as he recalled his father railing at him in despair at one point. And he continued his mania for collecting beetles. Darwin probably figured that, as a clergyman, he could deliver a sermon once a week, and spend the rest of his time outdoors shooting and collecting beetles.

As recounted in a previous blog, his natural history passions took a serious turn at Edinburgh as he collected intertidal marine invertebrates with the young, pro-evolution biologist Robert Grant. Grant taught Darwin how to collect and make serious observations on these primitive forms of life; they were looking for the evidence of close connections between the animal and plant kingdoms: the earliest glimmerings of Darwin’s decidedly “phylogenetic” bent (i.e. analyzing relationships among and within what were then usually called “natural groups”) that eventually led him to become a “transmutationist.”

At Cambridge, Darwin became the “man who walks with Henslow”—the Reverend John Stevens Henslow. Henslow was a crystallographer and mineralogist who became an important botanist. He founded the herbarium and botanical gardens at Cambridge, and taught a course in botany that Darwin ended up taking three times! Henslow, like nearly everyone in England at the time—scientist or not—was a creationist, thinking that all species were created separately by the Creator, more or less in their present form, sometime within the past 10,000 years (though geologists such as Adam Sedgwick, another clergyman-professor on the Cambridge faculty, were already showing that the earth had to be much older than the mere 10,000 years traditionally allocated to it from analyzing Scripture).

Henslow taught Darwin the importance of variation: plant species of the British flora often vary in their appearance from place to place, and sometimes show considerable variation in the same locale. Darwin also learned from Henslow how to be meticulous in taking notes and labeling specimens with the exact location and date that they were collected, as well as other important data bearing on the climate, soils and other kinds of plant life found in the same place. Darwin learned these lessons well—and only slipped up once so far as anyone knows: the famous lapse where he failed to keep accurate notes on those little dark birds on the Galapagos—now famous as “Darwin’s finches.” Darwin failed to record which of his birds came from which island; more on this in due course.

Darwin graduated from Cambridge in 1831. Henslow persuaded Sedgwick to take the young graduate with him as he set out on his yearly geological field excursion to Wales. (Sedgwick named the Cambrian System based on his analysis of the sequence of sedimentary rocks in Wales. The Cambrian, of course, is the lowest division of Paleozoic time—when complex forms of life proliferated in a tremendous evolutionary burst spanning some 10,000,000 years).

Given how absolutely critical to Darwin’s scientific career this field trip with Sedgwick turned out to be, I was astonished to learn that Darwin was out with Sedgwick for only a week. Darwin learned how to measure the angles of inclination of the rock beds he saw exposed—a vital procedure when it comes to determining the order (i.e. what lies on top of what) of the pile of sedimentary rocks in a given region. This is not hard in places like the Grand Canyon—where the entire sequence is clearly exposed. But it is tough indeed when most exposures are simple roadside cuts, stream banks and other small, localized outcrops. This short trip with Sedgwick, along with his reading of Charles Lyell’s monumental three-volume Principles of Geology while he was on the Beagle, gave Darwin the foundation he needed to become a first-rate field geologist and paleontologist during the voyage. To the end of his life, Darwin regarded himself first and foremost as a geologist.

The exhibition recounts the essence of these stories, alongside the geological hammer Darwin used while on the Beagle. We also have Darwin’s clinometer—the instrument, looking much like an ordinary compass, that Darwin used on the Beagle to measure the “strike and dip” (angles of inclination) of the rock strata he encountered during the trip. (We also feature a small “cosh” he brought along for self defense; his small pistol; and his Bible—printed in German to help him master that language. That this was Darwin’s German “text” only underscores how familiar he already was with the Bible!).

When Darwin arrived home in Shropshire (near the Welsh border) after his week with Sedgwick in August of 1831, he found a letter from Henslow conveying the invitation for Darwin to join the HMS Beagle on its planned two-year voyage around the world. Darwin was invited to be the unpaid ship’s naturalist and gentleman companion to the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy was a member of the monied nobility—and though the trip was sanctioned and paid for by the British Admiralty (the HMS Beagle was a British naval ship), FitzRoy himself bore much of the extra expense of equipping the ship with the latest in scientific equipment for the journey.

The purpose of the voyage was primarily exploratory: the crew was to take careful measurements, charting the waters of the southern coast of South America on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. The motive was both commercial and military: England had just wrested control of the Malvinas Islands (now calling them the Falkland Islands) in 1828; the British were already in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—so the ship’s mapping and measuring charge was part of a larger vision of British control of the world’s southern oceans.

But Darwin almost didn’t get to go. Our exhibition shows a selection of a series of letters about Darwin’s participation in the voyage—starting with the letter Henslow sent Darwin raising the possibility (Henslow was asked first—but as a newly married man, and a curate of a parish, he felt he could not be away for so long. No one then realized that the trip would stretch from the planned two years to nearly five!).

But Darwin’s father said “no”—much to Darwin’s dismay. (Darwin had wanted to visit the tropics at least since his early days as a Cambridge undergraduate; he had read about the exploits of Alexander von Humboldt and other early explorers, and was anxious to go particularly to Tenerife and get the feel of the tropics). Patiently and politely, Darwin wrote his father, listing his father’s objections and gently trying to counter them. Darwin’s father had thrown up all sorts of reasons why he thought this was a bad idea—too costly, too dangerous, a distraction from the still unfinished business of finding a profession, etc. He also suggested that they must be desperate, scraping the bottom of the barrel of likely candidates for them to have selected the green, untrained, young Darwin!.

Darwin’s father didn’t exactly change his mind in response—but did tell young Charles (only 22 years old when this was happening in August of 1831) that if he could find anyone whose opinion Darwin’s father respected, who thought that it was a good idea for Darwin to go, he would change his mind.

Darwin turned to uncle Josiah Wedgwood—son of the founder of the Wedgwood pottery works (Darwin’s grandfather), and father of Emma Wedgwood, who Darwin was ultimately to marry not long after he returned from the long voyage. Uncle Jos came through, recommending the trip to Darwin’s father Robert Waring Darwin. The final letter of the sequence on display is from Darwin’s father to Uncle Jos; beginning “Dear Wedgwood,” the letter contains Darwin’s father’s consent for him to take the journey—a journey that, as we well know now, was to shake the world.

Next: Darwin in America.

Niles Eldredge


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