In 1831 Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) was an amateur naturalist and an aspiring preacher when he was invited to accompany the HMS Beagle as the onboard naturalist. The trip lasted five years and his notes were later published as The Voyage of the Beagle.
Darwin’s extremely detailed observations set the basis for his theory of evolution by natural selection, published much later in The Origin of Species in 1859.
But do not read The Voyage of the Beagle expecting Darwin’s first words on natural selection or even evolution.1
What we read in this well-developed journal is a richly educated and immensely talented Englishman experiencing tropical lands unlike anything he had imagined and taking copious notes on everything ‘natural’ he observed.
Darwin’s observations are rich, detailed and full of wonder at unrivalled sights. Like the plankton that turned the entire sea blood red:
In one day we passed through two spaces of water thus stained, one of which alone must have extended over several square miles. What incalculable numbers of these microscopical animals! The colour of the water, as seen at some distance, was like that of a river which has flowed through a red clay district; but under the shade of the vessel’s side it was dark as chocolate… The animals move with the narrow apex forwards, by the aid of their vibratory ciliae, and generally by rapid starts. They are exceedingly minute, and quite invisible to the naked eye, only covering a space equal to a thousandth of a square inch.2
March 18, off the Cape Verde Islands
Or rabbit-like rodents in Argentina that keep Darwin and his gaucho escort company on the dry, wide flats of the pampas.
The bizcacha has one very singular habit; namely, dragging every hard object to the mouth of its burrow: around each group of holes many bones of cattle, stones, thistle-stalks, hard lumps of earth, dry dung, etc., are collected into an irregular heap, which frequently amounts to as much as a wheelbarrow would contain. I was credibly informed that a gentleman, when riding on a dark night, dropped his watch; he returned in the morning, and by searching in the neighbourhood of every bizcacha hole on the line in the road, and as expected, he soon found it.
September 28, 1831, Argentina
Darwin’s observations on Brazilian cervids:
The most curious fact with respect to this animal, is the overpoweringly strong and offensive odour which proceeds from the buck. It is quite indescribable…I believe the smell is most powerful at the period when its horns are perfect, or free from hairy skin. When in this state the meat is, of course, quite uneatable, but the gauchos assert, that if buried for some time in the fresh earth, the taint is removed.
July 5, Brazil
There is something almost child-like in Darwin’s wonder and astonishment of the life he sees, he is just so overwhelmed with the details and delight of life.3
According to geneticist Paul Nurse, Darwin, by collecting and reviewing massive amounts of data “joined up all the dots and showed how the world how evolution could actually work.”4
This dot connecting relied on the naturalist’s close observation of not only living creatures, but also bones, fossils, and geological oddities laying the foundation for a theory that relied on slow, hereditary change over time.
I have seen, in the Cordillera of the Andes, the evident marks where stupendous mountains have been broken into pieces like so much thin crust, and the strata thrown on their vertical edges; but never did any scene, like these ‘streams of stones,’ so forcibly convey to my mind the idea of a convulsion, of which in historical records we might in vain seek any counterpart, yet the progress of knowledge will probably some day give a simple explanation of this phenomenon.
May 19, near Santa Cruz, Argentina
Today we rather lazily associate The Voyage of the Beagle with Darwin’s exploration of the Galapagos Islands, “the natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention” notes Darwin of this extraordinary archipelago. I travelled to the Galapagos a decade ago and saw the same animals Darwin saw, a testament to Ecuador’s strict conservation efforts.
The Galapagos was a small part of the voyage, however. Darwin and the HMS Beagle also travelled the coast of South America and several South Pacific islands.
Years after the Beagle returned to England with all her sailors and jarred specimens, Darwin claims his most vivid memories remained the “sublimity of the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail.”4
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth” wrote biologist Rachel Carson in her gorgeous study of nature observation, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Darwin continued his observations, and upon returning to England began the work that would lead to one of the most important scientific books of all time.5
Darwin closes his monumental account of the exploratory voyage with a line that perfectly reflects the then-contemporary wisdom of American Transcendalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and poet Walt Whitman:
“No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”