An otherwise good story about Darwin’s work in South America is marred by historical hyperbole.
Reports of the botanist’s round-the-world voyage are dominated by his findings in the Galápagos. The much longer time he spent in Chile and what he saw there have been overlooked – until today.
It’s true that most people think the Galápagos were the big deal in Darwin’s mind — we like that idea of a magical “A-ha!” moment — but it’s not true that his work in the rest of South America was overlooked. They certainly aren’t ignored in any of the biographies or histories I’ve read, and I put a lot of emphasis on South America in my introductory biology classes, and have done so for as long as I’ve been teaching.
Darwin’s deep knowledge of the flora and fauna of South America was essential to Darwin’s insight. He was familiar with the iguanas of the Pacific coast; he knew the birds and other reptiles that lived there; so when he arrived at the Galápagos, what immediately leapt out at him was the strangeness of the place. Everything was different, but at the same time, it was also clearly similar to what he’d seen on the mainland. The Galápagos were the uncanny valley to Chile.
That appreciation of the obvious relatedness was the key to what Darwin figured out, and it required the knowledge he’d acquired on the mainland.
I also talk up the South American expeditions to the students because it runs entirely counter to the stereotype of Darwin the eggheaded invalid — he was a young man who’d get off the boat, get a horse, load it with guns, and charge off on rides of hundreds of miles to explore the interior. He was Cowboy Charlie…with serious scholarly intent.
He was also a bit of a swashbuckler helping the governor to quell a rebellion.
My genetics lecturer did mention Darwin’s trips to South America and their importance. She did wax lyrical about her trips to the Gallapagos however.
Eamon Knight says
I’ll drop my standard recommendation for The Voyage of the Beagle here. Defer the biographies; go read the man himself first!
Kevin Kehres says
I agree with Eamon. Voyage still reads like the adventure story that it is.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
Fucking fantastic metaphor. This nailed it for me, PZ.
I can recommend Irving Stone’s The Origin as an engaging account of Darwin’s voyage, with his exploits in South America prominently featured. He was indefatigable, often walking 30 or more miles in a day, with a full pack, through all kinds of weather.
As with his other biographical novels, Stone took great pains to be accurate. The Origin is a long novel, but I found it a very enjoyable one.
I listened to Voyage of the Beagle in audio while at work a few years ago, and have never regretted those hours spent in rather monotonous lab work, with the exciting (though somewhat dated) observations of Charles Darwin ringing in my ears.
For not-native English speaker me reading The Voyage of the Beagle was a bit hard at first because so many place and fauna/flora names were completely unfamiliar. I tried Google Earth but to my surprise I couldn’t find most of the obscure place names there, either. Being at a loss, I got my old dead-tree atlas and finally I could follow his journey figuratively AND literally (somewhat, well, on the map…). Mapping old names to current names was still occasionally a challenge.
At this point Google Earth became useful again and Wikipedia too, although many “Voyage-places” seemed to be mentioned only in passing (“place at $location, Darvin was there”) or missing. OTOH Wikipedia occasionally extended it with some interesting additional information. And it was interesting to discover that some villages became towns and cities while I couldn’t locate others.
At this point it became absolutely captivating and I felt a bit like being on an exploration myself.
TLDR: Recommended reading, foreign language readers may find maps useful.
Can we have an “edit post” option?
I don’t understand how you could really tell the story of Darwin’s discovery without mentioning Chile. I learned it in HS biology and it was explained similarly.
@8 Old place names are always a challenge. There are place names that literally no one knows what current place they referred to. For example quite a few towns and villages that had Yiddish place names that differ from their current names. Most likely they still exist, just no one knows which village or town it refers to.
@9 That was discussed before. Edit post features tend to create a moderating nightmare. I seem to recall having a edit feature that had a 5-10 minute time out, but I think that was rejected too.