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Darwin and the Beagle Hardcover – 1 May 1983
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It is a must to be read before embarking on reading Darwin's The Origin of the Species as it helps the reader understand the background to this important book. Too often people writing about Darwin tell his story from their point of view and not from his. Alan Moorehead is excellent in telling it in such a fashion that Darwin would have considered correct.He tells the facts as they were - tough and unusual.His descriptions of the environments that Darwin enters, the people he meets and the problems he confronts are of great interest to all of us.
Whether one wishes to learn about Darwin and the Beagle as a scientist or just for general educational purposes - this is the best account that I know from my years of being a Professor of Zoology and author of scientific works and novels.
Darwin's life is full of ironies, which are nicely developed in this book. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a well-known physician who espoused some elementary ideas about biological evolution. Is finding evolution a heritable trait?
Charles Darwin had been a poor student, and seemed only competent to become a country curate.
The position of naturalist on the Beagle was cooked up because the captain was subject to mental illness, and hoped the companionship of another educated person would help him keep his senses.
Darwin initially turned the job down because his father was opposed, and was only able to persuade his father to let him pursue this when a relative aggressively intervened.
Darwin's main qualification for the position was that his family could afford the 500 pounds it would cost to be on the voyage while conducting this unpaid position.
Also, Darwin got horribly sea sick, which meant that he sought out opportunities to be on land as much as possible (this was fortunate for the future of biology).
Finally, Darwin was a believer in strict creationism when he started the voyage. He saw his job, in part, as finding evidence for Noah's flood.
The voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, and involved circumnavigating the globe. The primary purpose of the Beagle's trip was to map coastlines for the admiralty.
Most people know about Darwin's finches (whose beaks developed in different ways in various islands in the Galapagos to reflect the local food supplies), but do not realize that he only spent a few days in the Galapagos.
He had many other important experiences in South America and on other Pacific islands that led him to appreciate how geological processes of mountain building and ocean depressing impacted species. The fossils he found in Uraguay and Argentina of extinct animals began to undermine his belief in the literal meaning of the Bible on these points. Finding other fossils from ocean creatures at 12,000 feet high in the Andes further stretched his mind. Seeing extreme volcanic action and the effects of tidal waves in Chile added to the picture.
This material would be ideal for a young person trying to find what interests them. It will encourage the idea of being open to new experiences, and learning from what you observe. Many young people would like scientific careers if they ever tried one. High school and college science classes give an incomplete and poor impression of what working in science is all about. This book nicely captures the excitement of field work and trying to figure out what the data mean.
I graded the book down for being too popularized and a little too repetitive. Readers can absorb more substantive information than Mr. Moorehead included here.
A good way to apply what you learn in this book is to observe a group of animals over time. Take notes on what you see. Find a way to determine patterns from your notes. Then consider reasons why these behaviors could be beneficial to the animals. Then ask yourself what genetic and behavioral influences may bear on this behavior. You have now created a hypothesis. How can it be tested?
An excellent book about our modern understanding of Darwin's work can be found in The Beak of the Finch, which is the first published work on how natural selection works in practice from observing many generations of Darwin's finches.
Be open to all that is around you . . . to get the most out of life!
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