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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An incredible adventure and a most enjoyable read, 28 May 2008
This review is from: The Voyage of the Beagle (Classics of World Literature) (Paperback)
One of the amazing things about the voyage of the Beagle is that Darwin survived it! On the voyage south along the eastern coast of South America and then later on the western coast he would frequently take to the land and meet the Beagle at its next port of call further south or north. He would travel the land hiring gauchos or other guides and horses and mules so that he could study the geology and the flora and fauna. The hardships and dangers he encountered and survived would in some ways put Indiana Jones to shame. In Patagonia amidst the constant gaucho and Indian wars, rife with wanton bloodshed and a kind of genocidal determinism, Darwin rode on horseback and slept on the ground and ate mostly animal flesh of all kinds, including mare's flesh. In Tierra del Fuego the cold and barren lands were enormously forbidding, the inhabitants savage and the dangers very real. One senses in the young Charles Darwin a determination to be the kind of naturalist who leaves no stone unturned, no ridge unclimbed and no species uncollected.

What most surprised me was how well and vibrantly he described the many people he met. Here he speaks of the governor of St. Fe: his "favourite occupation is hunting Indians: a short time since he slaughtered forty-eight, and sold the children at the rate of three or four pounds apiece" (from the entry of Oct 3 and 4, 1832). And here is his description of Queen Pomarre of Tahiti: "The queen is a large awkward woman, without any beauty, grace or dignity. She has only one royal attribute: a perfect immovability of expression under all circumstances" (entry of November 25, 1835). Darwin was quite taken with the Tahitians lauding their sobriety (thanks to the temperance movement of the missionaries) while at the same time bringing a flask of spirits on his travels there. He seemed unaware of any inconsistency.

I was also surprised by Darwin's vigor. I had thought that he was prone to being sickly, and indeed at times, he reports that he was confined to his quarters and that he suffered from seasickness and even homesickness; but when one considers all the miles he travelled on foot, on horseback, and all the mountain peaks he obtained, and the deserts he crossed, the many insects bites he endured, and the hard, cold and wet ground on which he often slept, one has to applaud his strength of body and character. Another surprise was the amount of time he devoted to geology and speculations about the how the land came to be the way he found it. When he spoke of how the land had risen and the mountains formed I had the sense of how thrilled he would have been to have had the modern understanding of plate tectonics.

At a couple of points in the narrative, Darwin speaks of how the most luxurious vegetation does not support the greatest number of animals, or the largest. He compares the plains of Africa and Patagonia with the Brazilian rainforest and speculates on why this should be. At no point does he use the term "grasslands," and so I think we can conclude that he didn't have the knowledge we have today about how fertile grasslands can be, nor did he realize that most of the nutrients in the rain forest are contained within the living plants and organisms above ground leaving the soil relatively poor compared to grassland soil. In the entry for September 15, 1832, he writes: "In grassy plains unoccupied by the larger ruminating quadrupeds, it seems necessary to remove the superfluous vegetation by fire, so as to render the new year's growth serviceable."

Another bit of modern knowledge that would have pleased him to know is that the marine iguanas of the Galapagos Islands cannot just jump into the very cold water that exists there but must warm themselves first, and even then can only stand the water for a limited period of time (an hour or two, I believe). Darwin kept tossing one of the lizards into the water only to watch it return inexplicably again and again to the land.

I was looking for hints that Darwin was already thinking about natural selection, but the text contains nothing that I could find that is directly specific although at one point he refers to the origin of species as that "mystery of mysteries."

The book was written (and obviously rewritten and polished many times over) after Darwin returned to England after comparing notes with other naturalists. The advantage of this approach is the scientific rigor with which he is able to describe and evaluate his experiences. As a professional scientist, Darwin wanted to get all the scientific names right and avoid errors. One would expect through this approach that some immediacy would be lost, but if anything I suspect his journal gained in vividness and was made all the more intriguing for the precision of expression. It is, after all these years, still a most engaging and readable account of a most remarkable adventure--one of the best I've ever read, and I am surprised that it took me so many years to get to it!

The Voyage of the Beagle is also a book that will stay in print for many decades if not centuries to come, partly because it is so well written, and partly because Darwin is Darwin, but also because he was so precise in his descriptions of the animals and the people and the lands that he visited. By reading this we and future generations can learn of the changes that have taken place.

In short I was thoroughly dazzled at Darwin's enormously wide range of knowledge. But I shouldn't have been. In just reading this journal, one can easily see that young Mr. Darwin was already a superb naturalist and a brilliant thinker and observer.
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