If I think about it, I can’t believe Charles Darwin was only 22 years old when he embarked on what would be a five year circumnavigation of the globe aboard a British survey ship named after a dog breed. When the HMS Beagle embarked on her second voyage, she left Plymouth, England two days after Christmas in 1831, and Darwin was on board as ship’s naturalist. Darwin and the Beagle would return some 40,000 nautical miles later, with over 5,000 collected specimens from as far away as South America and Australia. This was almost two centuries ago, I remind myself. No GPS. No helicopter rescues. Five years. No refrigeration and no iPods playing Taylor Swift. Just hardtack and scurvy and horse latitudes. Hardcore and survey and new attitudes.
Of his sea voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin said that it was “by far the most important event in my life.” He felt it had determined his entire career. Not surprising. He traveled for three years and three months on land, and eighteen months at sea. He saw more along the coasts of South America alone than most of us will see in a lifetime. This was boots-on-the-ground science; Darwin catalogued the workings of nature in all her forms firsthand. He rode with gauchos on the Pampas, witnessed the 1835 Mount Osorno volanic eruption and a devastating earthquake in Concepción, Chile, and predicted the eventual exctinction of the foxlike warrah in the Falkland Islands.
Don’t misunderstand me though – Darwin wasn’t the first on the scene talkin’ ’bout evolution. He finally nailed the how – natural selection. But I’m not forgetting Thomas Malthus, or Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, or Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace too, decided to travel abroad in his twenties, leaving for South America in 1848 and ending up in the Malay Archipelago in 1854. His independent writings about island biogeography and evolution were the kick in the pants Darwin needed to publish The Origin of Species in 1859, but not without giving Wallace his due (well, that’s what I heard – more on this later).
And there’s Charles Lyell, James Hutton, Stephen Jay Gould, and all the scientists who’ve helped us understand the timescales of Earth’s geology and paleontology. Like James McPhee, whose books – however bedrocky they may be – about North American geology inspire my own poems about Wyoming. Darwin and his predecessors didn’t leap to the evolution conclusion on a whim. They worked for it. They put in years of effort, observation, and questioning. They doubted, they tested, they scrutinized evidence, and they suffered setbacks.
The truth of 4.55 billion years is as big as the planet.
“Voyage of the Beagle” by © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons
“HMS Beagle in Straits of Magellan” by illustrations by R. T. Pritchett 1828-1907 – http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/d/darwin/charles/beagle/ – Text and illustrations derived from the John Murray edition of 1913 titled A Naturalist’s Voyage Round the World. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens” by Conrad Martens (1801 – 21 August 1878) – English Wikipedia (13:42, 15 October 2005. User:Dave souza 1235×821 (73563 bytes) (HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, painting by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), from The Illustrated Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, abridged and illustrated by Richard Leakey ). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Beagle Chronometer” By Graeme Bartlett (self made photograph) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons