Dabbling in Darwin


The polymathic Victorian is good company on a winter’s evening

By Priscilla Long


Charles Darwin is a good read. He exudes Victorian cheer, curiosity, and enthusiasm. You could spend your life studying him—Darwin scholars abound—but he also repays dipping into, picking up and putting down, spending an hour with.

The dipping and dabbling might begin with The Voyage of the Beagle, the account of the seminal five-year voyage Darwin began as a 22-year-old late in 1831. And here’s where reading more than one book at a time (my usual bad habit) actually repays. The Voyage of the Beagle might be read with Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: Voyaging, the first volume of her superb two-part biography. Browne details how utterly supported the young Charles Darwin was, financially by his father and socially and intellectually by the “vast unacknowledged support system of the Victorian gentry.” Beyond that, he benefitted from “the far-flung network of imperial, colonial Britain.” As a young man his passion was shooting birds. In this and other ways, Darwin was very 19th century.

On the HMS Beagle, the young naturalist wrote daily in a personal journal, kept a logbook, and amassed field notebooks. He learned these routines from Captain Robert Fitzroy, who, as a British naval officer, was trained in them and required to carry them out. Darwin always recorded his thoughts and observations when they were fresh. He lived in an epistolary age and also maintained an extensive correspondence with his sisters, father, mentors, and friends back home. His assiduous writing practice continued for a lifetime and underlay his achievements in science. And because Darwin became Darwin, his writings are extensively available. (Darwin Online contains more than 100,000 pages of searchable text.)

Much of his prose is simple and charming. On December 12, 1831, finally settled in his minuscule shared quarters on the Beagle, and recovered from the first of many bouts of seasickness, he wrote, “We have had a long & rough pull to the vessel, but I am now seated in my own corner, snug & quiet & am listening to the wind roaring through the rigging with same sort of feeling that I often have when sitting round a Christmas fire. — Eight bells have struck, or it is 12 oclock, so I will turn into my hammock.”

The better to dabble in Darwin, I put Google Earth into the mix, to see where the “10-gun brig” actually went. (First stop, the Cape Verde Islands about 450 miles off the coast of Africa). I also have a fat dictionary at hand to ascertain that a “brig” was a two-masted, square-rigged ship.

Darwin spent about a third of the four-year, nine-month Beagle voyage on land. He observed plants, animals, and rocks; hunted for food and for fun; theorized on geology; and became an indefatigable collector. According to one source, he collected 1,529 specimens preserved in alcohol, each with a tin label, and 3,921 dried specimens, each with a colored paper tag with a number on it. He kept lists of specimens in small notebooks.

My set of books and aids to dabbling in Darwin includes The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms; with Observations on Their Habits. Published in 1881, it was his last scientific work (he died the following year) and the first Darwin I ever read. Like most people, I’ve read more about Darwin and less by him. For a book entirely about earthworms, it is remarkably entertaining.

So, what of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection? The volume in my bookcase is a boxed, embossed reproduction of the first (1859) edition that includes a glossary that was added to later editions. It was a gift from my brother, Andrew, one that I treasure. Richard Keynes, the great-nephew of Leonard, Darwin’s youngest son, wrote the introduction. Keynes asserts, “And except in a few backward parts of the world, the scientific value of the theory of evolution is now universally recognized.” How true. Add to that Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and you are a long way toward comprehending Darwin.

Natural selection, 2012 version: some environmental stressor, say an insecticide campaign, becomes a catastrophe for some population of mosquitoes. Most die. The survivors (of reproductive age) pass to their offspring whatever trait allowed them to survive and their offspring pass it to their offspring and through the generations this minority variation becomes the common coin of the population. Now you have swarms of mosquitoes resistant to this particular insecticide.

I am now deep in Darwin’s chapter on pigeons (he loved pigeons and his ideas on natural selection evolved from observing the unnatural selection animal breeders use to get varieties that served their purposes and fancies). I have put beside the Origin the second volume of Browne’s biography, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, as well as a new book, Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott.

I am now fully equipped to dabble in Darwin.

Priscilla Long is the author of The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life and Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.

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