Sunday, June 10, 2012

Once Conquered, A World To Discover: Charles Darwin's The Voyage Of The Beagle

Back in March, NASA announced a new satellite program:
[A] pair of satellites called GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment) will open a new window on that hidden realm. GRACE, slated for launch on March 16, will peer beneath the oceans by measuring tiny changes in gravity -- changes caused by moving water and ice. "We'll be able to monitor things like water moving around in ocean basins and changes in deep-sea currents," says Michael Watkins, project scientist for GRACE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "We'll even be able to weigh ice sheets from orbit."
The dry surface of the planet having been mapped so minutely, we are turning to satellites to peer through thousands of feet of water.

In 1831, the situation was very different. It was only fifteen years since the end of the Congress of Vienna, which sent Napoleon to St. Helena, tried to restore the ancien regime, and, by ignoring Great Britain, allowed it to become the dominant power for the next century. It didn't take long for the British to realize they were the masters of the planet. With their navy spread across the globe, territories acquired from the retreating French, and in need of far better intelligence on everything from longitudinal clocks to details on various naval moorings, the Admiralty had been, in the intervening years, sending out various expeditions to acquire as much information as possible on these matters. 

The British also needed information on territories they either had acquired, or might wish to acquire. There were a series of well-used stops for passage from Europe to South America - Cape Verde and Ascension - but the British also lay claim the the Falkland Is. and the South Georgia Is. In the Pacific, Tahiti, then the most remote of his majesty's possessions, while controlled by a small group of missionaries, was still an exotic question mark. In the mid-1820's a nephew of the great British foreign minister, Castlereagh, named Robert FitzRoy had been a Mate aboard a two-ship expedition to Tierra del Fuego that ended abruptly after the captain of the flagship, the Beagle, committed suicide. Still in his early 20's, FitzRoy took command and led the ships back to Portsmouth. The Admiralty had decided the time and expense of outfitting another such expedition outweighed any advantage that might be gained; FitzRoy, seeing little chance for naval advancement if aground, lobbied hard. After some more lobbying, rather than build a new ship, the Admiralty agreed to repair the Beagle, and set her two-year mission to achieve greater longitudinal clock accuracy, using Bahia Blanca in Brazil as both starting and ending point for a circumnavigation, with stops in between. Soundings and detailed mapping of the coasts and bays and, in particular, the Strait of Magellan, as well as Valparaiso in Chile, more detailed mapping of the Galapagos Is., and checks-in at Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, then around the Cape of Good Hope, and after a quick dash back to Bahia Blanca to check their longitudinal clock measurements, back to England.

Captains then were given much leeway and personal preference.  FitzRoy, a young man of privilege, longed to have someone accompany him on this long voyage that would be intelligent and entertaining, as he saw himself. The Captain also saw advantages, fancying himself a man of science, in having a schooled geologist along to examine in detail the physical and biological wonders they would encounter. After inquiring with several respected individuals, the invitation landed in the lap of a recent Cambridge University student of middling recorded abilities named Charles Darwin. Darwin accepted the appointment, sailing from Devon on December 27, 1831. He next saw England five years later.


Darwin's annotated journal is a marvelous document from a singular individual. Knowing full well both the uniqueness of the opportunity he was given, and the responsibility he felt toward the scientific establishment back in Britain that he fulfill their hopes for him, Darwin was a keen, knowledgeable observer on the geology, geography, flora, fauna (both living and extinct), and residents of the lands he visited, from Cape Verde through Chiloe and The Chocos to the Galapagos, Australia and Tasmania (which he called by its then given name, Van Diemen's Land), the Keening Atoll, back to Great Britain. Nothing was uninteresting to him, even if his recorded statements evince a disgust with the scenery, the paucity of a variety of life, or the conditions of life among the residents of Tierra del Fuego or the criminal element in Australia and Mauritius.

He discovered an enormous fossil bed, containing many complete skeletons of extinct megafauna from South America's prehistory. He discerned the feeding habits of the giant ground sloth Megatherium from the size of the hind-quarters and tail, ending a long debate on how an animal the size of an elephant yet known to eat only the leaves of trees, accomplished such a feat. Assisting Capt. FitzRoy in returning to their home three natives from Tierra del Fuego, Darwin exposes his familiarity with European racism, ignorance of and contempt for native populations, all the while on occasion noting that it might well be possible his judgments are completely wrong. While crossing the Andes, he finds a horse, frozen to an ice pinnacle, standing upright on its head. From this he deduces it had fallen in to what had been a crevasse from an overlying ice field that had since retreated, exposing the corpse, preserved well above 16,000 feet, in eternal ice. While in Chiloe, he experienced a massive earthquake that devastated not only that island, but parts of the Chilean mainland as well. Observing the way the earthquake created a massive uplift along the Pacific coast of South America, he wondered aloud concerning the possibility that such events might well demonstrate, in graphic, dramatic moments, what was the otherwise gradual, unnoticed uplifting of at least parts of the land from the ocean. Observing the structure of the surrounding geography, he noted that it showed the effects both of long-exposure to tidal pressures as well as occasional moments of faster uplift, creating step or terraced patterns. These observations went a long way toward confirming Lyell's theories about geology, then still much in debate and discussion.

It was in the Galapagos, however, that Darwin found himself confronted by a series of anomalies that would, in time, percolate toward a complete revision of then-existing theories of evolution by acquired characteristics. After visiting Mauritius, toward the end of his journey, he notes the many places he visited had been ravaged by introduced species, both floral and faunal. Unique, perhaps, of the places he visited, the Galapagos had not yet suffered the ravages of rats, mice, goats, pigs, or gorse. Much taken with the distribution and uniqueness of several species of finches and large tortoises, these curious features would move him toward understanding the change and development of life not as a result of acquiring certain habits or attributes; rather, external pressure in the struggle for survival toward procreation would create opportunities for specific advantages to emerge, branching the tree of life over time. There are hints, even within the editions of his journal, that Darwin is moving in this direction.

Yet, he spends far more time attempting to settle the question of the creation of atolls than the creation of new species. Arriving at Keening Atoll in the Indian Ocean, having seen The Low Archipelago in the Pacific from a distance, he offers a theory of island subsidence as an alternative to the view that the atolls are created above existing, extinct, volcanic calderas. Not conversant on the details of current understandings, I found his arguments, the wealth of detail as well as personal experience (the Pacific earthquake through which he lived was an object lesson in the way the land rises and subsides over time) to be a marvelous example of how to persuade others in a scientific community.

Finally, while Darwin's voice shines through each and every line, it is precisely so that reminds readers that he was not anything other than a man of his time and place and class. The prejudices and presumptions of his time and place and station are glaring, sometimes with a light that exposes some real ugliness. We should take care in our judgments, however. For all that Darwin could no more escape his time, neither can we. How many of us, putting our views on the Internet, available for generations of our posterity to read, would feel secure that we are free from the worst of our own bigotries, no matter how hard we try to imagine we are enlightened? Darwin was not a person of any other age; he was, along with Dickens and Tennyson and Gladstone, representative of a kind of high-minded moralism so typical of mid-Victorian Britain. That he could be so a generation before that period actually began (roughly speaking, the year both that he published The Origin of Species and the year that marked the death of Prince Albert, 1859) only demonstrates how deep that particular vein ran through the British bourgeoisie.

A marvelous work, filled simultaneously with wide-eyed wonder and a species of hautuer common enough among those who fancy themselves the rulers of the world, a world whose exact proportions and details were yet to be discovered, Darwin's work is of a kind that cannot ever be written again. With detailed satellite photographs of the land surface of the earth available at our fingertips; with NASA about to map the floor of the ocean as well as underwater currents, there just aren't any blank spaces on the map at which one might wonder he or she is seeing that which no one has ever seen. It is, perhaps, a glimpse in to a world that will be forever lost.

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