31 May 2008

Steve Jones reviews Voyage of the Beagle (yes, the book)

Today in that newly Murdochian rag, the Wall Street Journal....
Darwin's Joyful Journey of Discovery

'The Voyage of the Beagle' shows us a young man intoxicated with the tropics and careless of the risks

May 31, 2008

Ryan Inzana

Next year is Darwin year: the bicentennial of the great man's birth and the 150th anniversary of "The Origin of Species." The book is not the easiest of reads, but it is less of a trudge than Charles Darwin's four volumes on barnacles or his 15 works on topics as distinct as climbing plants and the formation of mold by earthworms. They tell, in plain and sometimes pedestrian prose, the tale of a life of observation and experiment that founded modern biology.

"The Voyage of the Beagle," in contrast, sings. Its language is that of a young man intoxicated by the tropics ("To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again") and careless of the risks ("Upon landing I found that I was to a certain degree a prisoner . . . a traveller has no protection beside his fire-arms"). The youthful Darwin was a master of unadorned English. He took with him more than geology textbooks: "Milton's Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton."

The joy of the journey was that it had a point. Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux have each written great travel books about South America -- but why, in the end, did they bother? The smell of the agent, the contract and the advance hangs around their pages, but for Darwin (who was in no need of money) every paragraph exudes instead the heady scent of discovery.

Knowledge was mightily advanced on the expedition, but quite how it influenced his thinking is often misinterpreted. Darwin spent only five weeks of the five-year adventure in the Galapagos, with just half that time on visits to islands. He scarcely noticed the finches and lumped their corpses together into a jumbled mass. In fact, the local tortoises were more important. On the island of James he "lived entirely on tortoise meat . . . the young tortoises make excellent soup." In those lumbering creatures, Darwin saw, without realizing it at the time, his first hint of evolution, for animals from James were subtly distinct from those on Indefatigable and Albemarle nearby. In a rare conjunction of taxonomy with gastronomy, he noted that the James specimens were "rounder, blacker, and had a better taste when cooked" -- which at the time seemed little more than a curiosity but was in fact his introduction to the biology of change.

Much of his work was not on animals but on rocks; and in a few short weeks in the Andes (and a few days on the tiny island of Cocos-Keeling) he worked out how coral atolls were the product of small creatures that labor to stay near the surface while their basalt foundations sink beneath. The idea was dismissed as absurd until the drills of the military during the H-bomb tests on Bikini revealed the hidden foundations predicted a century before.

The Beagle book was the first step to our understanding why the world is how it is. Its last few pages have a strikingly modern resonance, for they predict what our native planet may soon become. A few months before returning home, the ship dropped anchor at St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, one of the most isolated islands in the world. Darwin was delighted by the place: Its volcanic mountain rose "like a huge black castle from the ocean." He admired the "English, or rather Welsh, character of the scenery" and noted to his surprise that the vegetation, too, was decidedly British, with gorse, blackberries, willows and other imports. On his first day, Darwin found the dead shells of nine species of "land-shells of a very peculiar form" (one of few mentions of snails in his entire writings) and noted that specimens collected from one location "differ as a marked variety" from others picked up a few miles away -- another hint of evolution. All apart from one were extinct and had been replaced by the common brown snail of English -- and American -- gardens.

Now things on St. Helena have gotten worse. The island has 49 unique species of flowering plant, and 13 of fern, all found only there. At least seven have been driven out since the arrival of men five centuries ago, two survive only in cultivation, and many more are on the edge. The last St. Helena Olive died of mold in 1994, and of the ebony thickets only two small bushes remain. Its giant earwig (at three inches, the world's largest), giant ground beetle and St. Helena dragonfly, all common in Darwin's time, have not been seen for many years. The snail seen by Darwin is now reduced to a population of about 600. The St. Helena Petrel is extinct, and just one endemic winged creature, the Wire Bird, is left, and that too is threatened.

Darwin looked back in his attempts to understand the present. He scarcely considered what the future might bring, for in his view evolution was so slow, and life so stable, that no great shifts were to be expected. A glance forward on the 200th anniversary of his birth shows how wrong he was. The world is already a far less interesting place than it was when he set forth on his circumnavigation and will soon become even less so: and no future explorer will ever write a book so full of the joy of unspoiled nature as is "The Voyage of the Beagle."

Mr. [sic!] Jones is professor of genetics at University College, London.
The above is quoted in its entirety from WSJ.com.

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