The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Voyage of the Beagle shows the English naturalist Charles Darwin’s brilliant mind already at work on the problems that led to his seminal theory of evolution. The work’s title is somewhat misleading, for the author actually has little to say about the voyage. The original full title—Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, Under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., from 1832 to 1836—is a better reflection of the scope of the work.

The Voyage of the Beagle is not only an important book in the history of modern thought but also a highly significant one in the life of Darwin. As a young man, Darwin had little sense of vocation or direction. When he was sixteen, he began a career of medicine at Edinburgh University. Discovering, however, that he was unfit for the profession, he entered Christ College, Cambridge, three years later in 1828 to prepare himself to be a clergyman. Failing to take honors or to distinguish himself in any way, he accepted the offer of Captain Fitz Roy of the Beagle to sign on as a naturalist on a voyage around the world that eventually took five years. During that time, Darwin not only discovered himself and his career but also began making those observations that he later developed into the theory of evolution expounded in On the Origin of Species (1859). This work, together with the works of Karl Marx and of Sigmund Freud, constituted a powerful influence on twentieth century scientific thought and values.

In December, 1831, the brig Beagle of the Royal Navy set sail from Devonport, England, to begin a series of surveys of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, some of the islands of the Pacific, and Australia. In addition, chronometric measurements were to be made while the ship circumnavigated the earth. Darwin kept a detailed record of the journey that included observations in natural history and geology. It was in particular his observations on the relationships between animals segregated geographically (those living on islands and those on the mainland) and on the relationships between species separated by time (those living forms and those recently extinct ones) that forced him to reconsider the standard, scientific view of the fixity of species. He was also impressed by “the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards” in South America.

The Beagle began the voyage by sailing to the coast of South America by way of the Canary Islands, the Cape Verde Islands, and the island of St. Paul’s Rocks. From the first American seaport the ship touched, Rio de Janeiro, Darwin went on an inland excursion, and upon his return he made natural history observations near Botofogo Bay. From there the expedition went southward to the mouth of the River Plate, where Darwin remained several weeks collecting animals, birds, and reptiles. On his journeys to the interior, he met gauchos and witnessed their skill with the lasso and the bolas in capturing horses and cattle.

From the next anchorage at Rio Negro, Darwin decided to go to Buenos Aires by land under the protection of the Spanish army, who had declared war on various Indian tribes. On this journey, he was able to observe the habits of the South American ostrich.

After a stop in Buenos Aires, Darwin set out for Santa Fe by means of a slow bullock wagon. He returned by boat down the Parana River to the seacoast and joined the Beagle at Montevideo. On an excursion inland from that seaport, Darwin observed herds of sheep that were watched only by dogs who had been brought up with the flocks. On the coast of Patagonia, a land where Spanish settlement was unsuccessful, Darwin observed the guanaco, or wild llama, which he found to be extremely wary but easily domesticated after capture. From Patagonia, the Beagle went to the Falkland Islands, where Darwin found horses, cattle, and rabbits thriving on the seemingly desolate land. In Tierra del Fuego, the natives...

(The entire section is 1,949 words.)