Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Charles Darwin, Victorian Polymath and Fossil Fancier!

Highlights from Fossils, Finches and Fuegians, an account of Charles Darwin’s travels on The Beagle by his great grandson, Richard Keynes.

Charlie as a student:

“No pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them and rarely compared their characters…I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw 2 rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so I popped the one I held in the right hand into my mouth. Alas,it ejected some intensely acrid fluid so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one.

I was very successful in collecting and invented 2 new methods: I employed a labourer to scrape moss off old trees and place it in a large bag and likewise to collect the rubbish at the bottom of barges in which reeds are bought from the fens, and thus I got some very rare species.

No poet ever felt more delight at seeing his first poem published than I did at seeing in Stephen’s ‘Illustrations of British Insects’, the magic words: ’captured by Charles Darwin, Esq’”

Resolutions at the start of the voyage:

“I am afraid I shall be quite overwhelmed with the number of subjects which I ought to take into hand. The principal objects are first collecting, observing and reading in all branches of Natural History that I can possibly manage. Observations in Meteorology, French and Spanish, Mathematics and a little Classics, perhaps not more than Greek testament on Sundays…how great and uncommon an opportunity of improving myself”


The untidy piles of fossils dumped by Charles on the spotless decks of the Beagle were wholly contrary to naval tradition: ”Wickham, the First Lieutenant -a very tidy man who liked to keep the decks so that you could eat your dinner off them - used to say, ’If I had my way, all your damn mess would be chucked overboard, and you after it, old flycatcher.’

While in the Falklands:

“I am quite charmed with Geology but, like the wise animal between two bundles of hay, I do not know which to like best, the old crystalline groups of rocks or the softer and fossiliferous beds. When puzzling about stratification etc... I feel inclined to cry a fig for your big oysters and your bigger Megatheriums. But, when digging out some fine bones I wonder how any man can tire his arms with hammering granite……

There is nothing like geology; the pleasure of the first day’s partridge shooting or first day’s hunting cannot be compared to finding a fine group of fossil bones, which tell their story of former times with almost a living tongue.”

Leaving Tahiti:

“In nothing have I been so much pleased as with the inhabitants - there is a mildness in the expression of their faces which at once banishes the idea of a savage -and an intelligence which shows they are advancing in civilization…in my opinion they are the finest men I have ever beheld.”

Leaving New Zealand:

“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand; it is not a pleasant place; amongst the natives there is absent the charming simplicity which is found at Tahiti, and of the English the greater part are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive.”

Leaving Australia:

“Farewell Australia, you are a rising infant and will doubtless some day reign a great princess in the south; but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect; I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”

About coming home:

“I am in high spirits about my geology and even aspire to the hope that my observations will be considered of some utility by real geologists. I see very clearly it will be necessary to live in London for a year, by which time, with hard work, the greater part of my materials will be exhausted. Will you tell Erasmus to put my name down to the Wyndham or any other club…or to turn in his mind for some lodgings with big rooms in some vulgar part of London.”

Shortly after coming home and years before working on, ‘The Origin of Species’, he read a paper to the Geological Society about the elevation of the coastline of Chile, followed by a paper entitled: ’On the connexion of certain volcanic phenomena in South America and the formation of mountain chains and volcanoes as an effect of the same power by which continents are elevated’.

This was received with polite respect and forgotten shortly afterwards. It was not until the 1960s, when the theory of plate tectonics caused a revolution in geological thought, that it could be appreciated how accurate Darwin’s theories had been.

May you live and prosper beyond the 22nd December and enjoy a good 2013. Simon Cohen.