A True Wandering Wonderer
Saturday, December 05, 2009 | Author: eventer79
I know, I know, my head is hanging in shame that I missed your Friday Fun Fact this week, but I offer a new look at an old friend as compensation.

We all think we know him, but I have recently discovered that there is much more than I ever thought to the man who stood biology and society on its head. Yep, this week was the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin's legendary epistle on evolution of species via natural selection. Now being a biologist, one would think that I have pored over the pages of this particular tome, but in truth, I had managed to reach this point in my life without ever cracking the cover.

Feeling a bit out of the loop, I figured I should read SOMETHING he wrote, seeing as he gets the credit (or blame if you happen to be some crazy right wing nut in sheer denial of reality, but then, I'd guess if you were, my blog is not exactly on your Favourites Toolbar anyway) for the founding theory of my field (even though credit should be fully shared with his gifted contemporary, Alfred Russell Wallace). I didn't really want to drag my toes through Origin itself, I confess that as much I love to read, it just seemed too much like a text book and too much like, well, work! So I picked up a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle instead and began following a young Darwin on mule treks through South America, hikes across Australian bushland, banquets in Tahiti and all the other things that I had no idea he ever did!

Turns out Charles Darwin was a lot more than a naturalist. He had an objective curiosity about the world and EVERYTHING in it. Every where, why, how, and when, he pondered possible answers. He had a keen eye for details and patterns that led him, unbeknownst to him, to ideas decades ahead of his time. Every place he went, he also turned his hand to rudimentary anthropology and tells story after story of both the native peoples and the (mostly Spanish) colonizers, both good and bad that cross his path. I also discovered he had a very dry wit about him and even in the most dismal circumstances, could bring an unexpectedly humourous turn of phrase to a story, such as a recounting of his guides hurling a cooking pot from the summit of a mountain in the belief that it was cursed after having failed to cook their potatoes (even though Darwin himself tried to explain to them that water boils at a reduced temperature at high elevations). In Tierra del Fuego, he tells of scaling a mountain.

During the first two hours I gave over all hopes of reaching the summit. So thick was the wood,...every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out...So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish...one's course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood;...we did not stay long on the top of the mountain. Our descent was not quite so laborious as our ascent, for the weight of the body forced a passage, and all the slips and falls were in the right direction.

The Beagle's route around the world

In short, though it's taken me forever to read it, it's a wonderful book and I LOVE it. I feel as though I am sitting at the knee of the legend himself while he recounts his stories. Each story of each day wanders in the tracks of his thought and you never know where the road will leave you. It is no great leap for his curious mind to go from observing a crawling insect to philosophizing on fate of mankind or the world. At times, I even felt a bit like a cheering teacher, watching his theories develop and with my own knowledge of modern biology, seeing where he is completely off course and then a few moments later, postulating ground-breaking truth. To appreciate how far out on a scientific limb Darwin's theories really were, one must understand that the current accepted theory in the scientific community of his time was that God had created each species individually and these species would continue, unchanging forever and were unrelated to each other.

It's fascinating, entertaining, amusing, and educational, all in one. There is sadness at the treatment of indiginous peoples, at the rapacious waste of resources newly found, but at the same time, wonder that fairly oozes from every line as he discovers people and places and creatures unknown to his world. I would like to have met him, to have basked in that passion, in that eagerness to explore and to question and to experience every moment and detail life has to offer. But since I can't, I shall have to suffice with this journal of his voyage which really did change the world.

I will leave you with one of his more beautiful passages revealing his deep love and wonder for the animals he spent his life pursuing and watching, written as he gazed upon waves pounding the shore of the coral atoll islands in the Malay archipelago.

It is impossible to behold these waves without feeling a conviction that an island, though built of the hardest rock...would ultimately yield and be demolished by such an irresistable power. Yet these low, insignificant coral-islets stand and are victorious: for here another power, as an antagonist, takes part in the contest...Let the hurricane tear up its thousand huge fragments; yet what will that tell against the accumulated labor of myriads of architects at work night and day, month after month? Thus do we see the soft and gelatious body of a polypus, [I interject: here he refers to the corals themselves, living animals who build the hard structure of the reefs and islands] through the agency of the vital laws, conquering the great mechanical power of the waves of an ocean which neither the art of man nor the inanimate works of nature could successfully resist.
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On December 7, 2009 at 3:41 PM , lifeshighway said...

You are forgiven. Great entry today. I feel good and not the least guilty.

On December 10, 2009 at 4:45 PM , emKem said...

So perhaps this Beagle book will be my next read...