Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Voyage of the Beagle!

For the first several pages of Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s 22-year-old excitement for his impending round-the-world trip was infectious. I was swept along by his narrative, and excited to be reading about such a legendary journey.

“Delight…is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest,” he writes during one of the Beagle’s first stops in Brazil. “The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration. A most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervades the shady parts of the wood. The noise from the insects is so loud, that it may be heard even in a vessel anchored several hundred yards from the shore; yet within the recesses of the forest a universal silence appears to reign. 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.”

The Voyage, in those early pages, seemed more like a surprisingly well-written adventure novel than a journal. Each page was filled with Darwin’s boundlessly enthusiastic descriptions of new plants, creatures, and people.

But then it continued…and continued. Darwin’s prose, initially so fresh, soon took on an air of perpetual excitement that made my eyes glaze over. Detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, once endearing, became excruciating. As a lover of nature and biology, I felt almost bad that I couldn’t muster up Darwin’s continual enthusiasm for every. Single. Thing.

From a literary standpoint, then, I was disappointed to find the Voyage an almost unbearably boring read. As an historical artifact, however, I think it has immense value. It is a rare and kind of amazing thing that we’re able to read Darwin’s firsthand account of such a legendary event in biological (and world) history, and by going back to the primary source, we notice things that get left out of oft-repeated secondary and tertiary accounts.

Some of those are things we’ve discussed in class—the fact that Darwin spent relatively little time in the Galapagos, for example, or on the Beagle at all. He preferred to walk from port to port, and was actually onboard ship for only 533 days out of the nearly five years the Beagle was at sea.

Other things caught my eye, as well. We all think of Darwin as a curious person and a scientist at heart, but the Voyage makes it particularly clear what joy he took in undiscovered knowledge. He often poses questions—about how a specific animal functions, for example—and then (very happily, it seems) declares he has no idea what the answer might be. About a species of fish in Bahia, Brazil, he writes, “It emitted from the skin of its belly, when handled, a most beautiful carmine red and fibrous secretion, which stained ivory and paper in so permanent a manner, that the tint is retained with all its brightness to the present day. I am quite ignorant of the nature of and use of this secretion.”

Darwin is sometimes blatantly “unscientific.” He frequently personifies both the animals and plants that he finds, and even demeans them—as in the case of the Brazilian Tucotuco, which he describes as “very stupid.” Moments like this, I think, remind us that Darwin is incredibly young on the Beagle, still child-like, wondering about and reacting to the things he finds. In many ways that child-like curiosity never really leaves him, as we’ve seen in artifacts like the “weed garden” at Down House.

The Voyage also brings out Darwin’s complex attitude towards other races. This is often left out of secondary accounts of his life, where he's portrayed purely as a proponent of equality, arguing nobly against slavery with Captain FitzRoy.

Darwin does disapprove of slavery, and he feels sympathy for those who are oppressed. But he also looks down upon them: to Darwin, equality will come from the imposition of “civilized” culture on savage races. He concludes the Voyage by talking about “the march of improvement” through the uncivilized world, and the beneficial changes “effected by the philanthropic spirit of the British nation.” He writes that he believes the native people of South America to exist “in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world.”

Is the slog through Darwin’s prose worth it for a better understanding of these nuances? To me, that question is a broader one—about the value of primary sources, overall. Going back to original documents, although sometimes hard to access and harder to read, is the only real way to come to independent conclusions about an idea or event. And it's key to keeping old ideas alive and fresh. So, reading Darwin’s own words, although more time-consuming (and maybe painful) than skimming an expert’s summary of them, is how new reinterpretations and perspectives will emerge to keep Darwin’s works around for another 200 years.

Conclusion? Reading primary sources is important. But beware—the Beagle might be excruciating. Unless you are into pages-long descriptions of geological formations.


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