Monday, November 29, 2021

The Journals of Charles Darwin

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 5 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

[Introduction] Whenever we see someone who is an "overnight success," we need to ask ourselves how many years of work went into achieving that status.

Such is the case with Charles Darwin, the world's most famous biologist. He stunned the world in 1859 with the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That, and the follow-up The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871, caused a furor that has never died down. But he actually had been publishing treatises and monographs for years, the earliest in 1829--fully thirty years before the Origin of Species, and even before his voyage on the ship HMS Beagle.

One of the most readable of his works, and the first of his books per se (after appearing in parts), was originally titled Journal and Remarks (1839), though we often call it The Voyage of the Beagle. It is a record of Darwin's voyage around the world aboard the Beagle (December 27, 1831, to October 2, 1836). As a geologist and naturalist, he was tasked with making observations and collecting specimens--work that led directly to his theory of evolution. He was also to serve as companion to the ship's arrogant and somewhat fundamentalist captain, Robert FitzRoy, with whom he often argued about theories.

The Voyage of the Beagle brought Darwin some fame (though it didn't cause anything like the stir created by Origin of Species). Furthermore, it gives us a glimpse into the workings of his mind in addition to observations of "untouched" places before they were affected by the long arm of "civilization."

Darwin once said, "The journey on the Beagle was, by far, the most important event in my life, and shaped my whole career."

Aside from his keen powers of observation, Darwin was also a superb writer (which I'm sure is responsible for no small measure of his success). Rather than attempt to summarize what he wrote in his journals, I'd rather share selected direct quotes, with just the minimum of commentary. Enjoy!

A note for readers: Darwin's writing, while elegant, is that of a well-educated person of the 19th century, and may be difficult for some modern readers. One way to approach this is to "slow read" one passage, again and again, until its full meaning sinks in, before moving on to the next one.


[1] Early in the journey we experience some of the rich poetry in Darwin's writing. Here he reflects on the phenomenon called bioluminescence, and ties it in to the works of John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. (Milton's work was the only personal book Darwin brought along when he made land excursions away from the Beagle.)

The night was pitch dark, with a fresh breeze.-- The sea from its extreme luminousness presented a wonderful -- most beautiful appearance; every part of the water, which by day is seen as foam, glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, -- in her wake was a milky train.-- As far as the eye reached, the crest of every wave was bright; -- from the reflected light, the sky just above the horizon was not so utterly dark as the rest of the Heavens.-- It was impossible to behold this plain of matter, as it were melted -- consuming by heat, without being reminded of Miltons description of the regions of Chaos and Anarchy. (Chapter V -- Bahia Blanca)

[2] Here Darwin reflects on the effect of colonists on what we would now call the "ecology" of South America:

...few countries have undergone more remarkable changes, since the year 1535, when the first colonist of La Plata landed with seventy-two horses. The countless herds of horses, cattle, and sheep, not only have altered the whole aspect of the vegetation, but they have almost banished the guanaco, deer, and ostrich. Numberless other changes must likewise have taken place; the wild pig in some parts probably replaces the peccari; packs of wild dogs may be heard howling on the wooded banks of the less-frequented streams; and the common cat, altered into a large and fierce animal, inhabits rocky hills. (Chapter VI -- Bahia Blanca to Buenos Aires)

[3] Darwin sees a natural connection between the dwindling population of a species and its extinction, pointing out that calling on the hand of an "extraordinary agent" is unnecessary:

To admit that species generally become rare before they become extinct--to feel no surprise at the comparative rarity of one species with another, and yet to call in some extraordinary agent and to marvel greatly when a species ceases to exist, appears to me much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the prelude to death--to feel no surprise at sickness--but when the sick man dies to wonder, and to believe that he died through violence. (Chapter VIII -- Banda Oriental and Patagonia)

[4a] In one of my favorite passages in the book, Darwin describes his experience in an earthquake in Valdivia, Chile, on February 20th, 1835 (known as "the 1835 ConcepciĆ³n earthquake"). Here is his full journal entry for that day:

This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid;--one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe-exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high-water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength. (Chapter XIV -- Chiloe and Concepcion: Great Earthquake)

[4b] The changes wrought by the quake helped Darwin realize that the prevailing theory of gradualism--the idea that the earth changed through processes over long periods of time--was not always so; change was sometimes quite sudden. Here's part of his next entry, for March 4th:

The island [of Quiriquina, up the coast from Valdivia] itself as plainly showed the overwhelming power of the earthquake, as the beach did that of the consequent great wave. The ground in many parts was fissured in north and south lines, perhaps caused by the yielding of the parallel and steep sides of this narrow island. Some of the fissures near the cliffs were a yard wide. Many enormous masses had already fallen on the beach; and the inhabitants thought that when the rains commenced far greater slips would happen. The effect of the vibration on the hard primary slate, which composes the foundation of the island, was still more curious: the superficial parts of some narrow ridges were as completely shivered as if they had been blasted by gunpowder. This effect, which was rendered conspicuous by the fresh fractures and displaced soil, must be confined to near the surface, for otherwise there would not exist a block of solid rock throughout Chile; nor is this improbable, as it is known that the surface of a vibrating body is affected differently from the central part. It is, perhaps, owing to this same reason, that earthquakes do not cause quite such terrific havoc within deep mines as would be expected. I believe this convulsion has been more effectual in lessening the size of the island of Quiriquina, than the ordinary wear-and-tear of the sea and weather during the course of a whole century. (Chapter XIV -- Chiloe and Concepcion: Great Earthquake)

[5] In a later chapter, we see Darwin's curious mind unable to fathom why others were not as curious about their world as he was:

My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos? – why some springs were hot and others cold? – why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behind hand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains. (Chapter XVI -- Northern Chile and Peru)

[6] Darwin finds wonder in the mighty works of the smallest things: a coral reef is built by a colony of polyps just a few millimeters in diameter and a few centimeters high. Yet their work can stand against the eroding action of waves and be rebuilt after the destructive action of hurricanes:

It is impossible to behold these waves without feeling a conviction that an island, though built of the hardest rock, let it be porphyry, granite, or quartz, would ultimately yield and be demolished by such an irresistible power. Yet these low, insignificant coral-islets stand and are victorious: for here another power, as an antagonist, takes part in the contest. The organic forces separate the atoms of carbonate of lime, one by one, from the foaming breakers, and unite them into a symmetrical structure. Let the hurricane tear up its thousand huge fragments; yet what will that tell against the accumulated labour of myriads of architects at work night and day, month after month? [...] We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason. (Chapter XX -- Keeling Island: Coral Formations)

[7] In this passage Darwin turns his formidable intellect on one of the most pressing social problems of the day: slavery. Though his legacy appears complex through the lens of history--he regularly refers to aboriginal peoples as "savages," for example--he was an ardent abolitionist, as seen here ("palliate," by the way, means "excuse" or "lessen the effect of"):

It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children -- those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own -- being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty... (Chapter XXI -- Mauritius to England)

[8] Darwin was on the path to become a minister when he took ship on the Beagle, and Christians have made claims of a "deathbed" recanting of his theories (he did not do so). The Voyage makes frequent reference to "God," but in this passage we see that there is something else at work here--"the God of Nature"--although he affirms that humans are more than just material beings:

Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity 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. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: -- no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. (Chapter XXI -- Mauritius to England)

[9] A final thought on our "small world," from the concluding paragraphs of the book:

There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage, which are of a more reasonable nature. The map of the world ceases to be a blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures. Each part assumes its proper dimensions: continents are not looked at in the light of islands, or islands considered as mere specks, which are, in truth, larger than many kingdoms of Europe. Africa, or North and South America, are well-sounding names, and easily pronounced; but it is not until having sailed for weeks along small portions of their shores, that one is thoroughly convinced what vast spaces on our immense world these names imply. (Chapter XXI -- Mauritius to England)


The Voyage of the Beagle is easily found online; I encourage you to locate it and read large portions. It's a delight.

The H.M.S. Beagle


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. accumulated
  2. bows
  3. conviction
  4. displaced
  5. glimpse
  6. horizon
  7. overwhelming
  8. preservation
  9. prevail
  10. reflection
  11. rendered
  12. tender
  13. utterly
  14. vessel
  15. yield
  1. soft; delicate
  2. a brief look
  3. made (sometimes, made visible)
  4. the front end of a ship
  5. a firm belief
  6. careful consideration; deep thinking
  7. unable to be withstood
  8. moved from its proper place
  9. give way; submit
  10. " win"; appear widely
  11. the act of keeping something in existence
  12. taken together; total
  13. boat; ship
  14. the seeming line between the earth and sky
  15. completely; absolutely

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions. Correct answers are in the first comment below. Each question is labeled to match a passage above.

[Introduction] Which of these was Darwin's first book?

A. On the Origin of Species
B. The Voyage of the Beagle
C. The Descent of Man
D. Paradise Lost

[1] What reminds Darwin of "the regions of Chaos and Anarchy"?

A. the bow of his ship
B. the horizon
C. the crest of every wave
D. shining organisms in the water

[2] Which is NOT one of the animals introduced to the ecology of South America by the colonists?

A. horses
B. sheep
C. deer
D. pigs

[3] Darwin says extinction is like:

A. a sick man dying of illness.
B. one species being rarer than another.
C. an extraordinary agent.
D. a sick man dying through violence.

[4a] Which of these did Darwin NOT experience in the earthquake in Valdivia?

A. the rocking of the ground
B. difficulty in standing upright
C. feeling almost giddy
D. a breeze moving the trees

[4b] What conclusion did Darwin reach about the earthquake after visiting Quiriquina Island?

A. It had been blasted by gunpowder.
B. The surface was affected more than the deeper layers of rock.
C. There were fissures in the yard.
D. They caused terrific havoc in deep mines.

[5] What did Darwin notice about the "Chilenos" (the people of Chile)?

A. They preferred hot springs to cold.
B. They there were mountains in Chile.
C. They were hunting for mines.
D. They were not curious about their world.

[6] Darwin was amazed that:

A. tiny, soft creatures could build something that withstood the power of waves.
B. hurricanes could tear up a coral reef.
C. islands made of rock could be destroyed by waves.
D. travelers talked about the size of the Pyramids.

[7] Darwin was opposed to slavery. He felt slavery was:

A. appropriately compared to poverty.
B. the right thing for Christians to do.
C. something to get angry about.
D. caused by the laws of nature.

[8] True or False: Darwin felt that humans were just breathing machines.

[9] Darwin felt that:

A. islands were bigger than continents.
B. only by travelling can you realize how big the world is.
C. the kingdoms of Europe were the biggest things on earth.
D. the map of the world is blank.

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Do you think Darwin was a "religious" man?
  2. How do you think Darwin felt about the colonizing of South America? 
  3. Why were people so upset at the idea that humans descended from other forms of life on earth?

1 comment:

  1. Answers:
    Vocabulary: 1. L; 2. D; 3. E; 4. H; 5. B; 6. N; 7. G; 8. K; 9. J; 10. F; 11. C; 12. A; 13. O; 14. M; 15. I

    Questions to Answer: [Introduction] B; [1] D; [2] C; [3] A; [4a] B; [4b] B; [5] D; [6] A; [7] C; [8] False; [9] B

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").