16 November 2008

Fitzroy's mockingbird

WHAT? In scientific and literary salons all over the world cups of tea shatter on the floor in reckless confusion. At the entrance to the Darwin's Big Idea exhibition in the Natural History Museum the first thing you see is a pair of dead birds reverentially displayed on a purple cushion.

In terms of evolutionary theory, stuff your finches (and there are 12 stuffed finches later in the exhibition), the Mockingbirds are what made Darwin intellectually jump out of the bath. In 1835, heading back to Britain, Darwin wrote that differences between mockingbirds on neighbouring Galapagos islands might 'undermine the stability of species'. If there is a recognizable eureka moment of evolutionary thought, this is it.

Of course, the the story is slightly more complicated. One of the birds was collected by Captain Robert Fitzroy, who to a sailor is the Banquo's ghost at this exhibition. To Darwin the academic plaudits, but Fitzroy did the heavy lifting, fitting Beagle out to the highest standards and skippering her safely round the world. And, as we have seen, playing more than a bit part in procuring the specimens that set Darwin on his path to the Linnean Society in 1858 and The Origin in 1859.

2009 is all about Darwin and the Origin, but Fitzroy was no mean observer and scientist himself, as anyone who has read his neglected account of the voyage will see. His attempt to reconcile what he saw with Genesis and the Flood, his vitriolic opposition to Darwin's theory of natural selection and melancholy suicide should not detract from that.

And of course there is still more: the story of the Floreana mocking birds is not over yet. Now kindly biff off and donate some money to stop 'em going extinct.


Karen James said...

As a scientist, not a skipper, I couldn't agree more. Like Darwin, Fitzroy was a meticulous observer and recorder - as evidence by the fact that he (not Darwin) had the presence of mind to note from which island he collected each of his Galapagos finch specimens.

And nice photo - gloomy and evocative.

Sam Dixon said...

I love the photo. Darwin led a truly tragic life following his epiphanies.

Next February there'll be a
BBC series on him at the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Should be a good one.