Grave, sober Darwin. The melancholic Santa, staring out at us as if we were vandalizing his sleigh. This is the Darwin we remember: the tired revolutionary, the Devil’s Chaplin, a man so afflicted by ailments that he was a prisoner of Down House where he lived. Yet Darwin’s story — and the revolution he set off — grows out of his experiences as a youthful explorer, a roving naturalist aboard HMS Beagle.
HMS Beagle by John Chancellor
We already know about the Galapagos Islands, an iconic place in the story of evolution. But the voyage of the Beagle offered Darwin many experiences that raised questions: why did the giant fossil remains of South America resemble species still living there? Why would God create two separate species of flightless birds, the Rhea and the Ostrich, on separate continents instead of just one? So much has been said about Darwin (and some of it, especially by Janet Browne, has been said so well) that I don’t feel like saying more.
Except that there is a website that every student of exploration should know about: The Complete Works of Charles Darwin Online. It is not simply that you can read virtually every published word that spilled from His Most Worthy Naturalist’s pen (and most of the unpublished words too), but also that you can see how Darwin’s life and work were closely linked to the work of other scientist-explorers. Here are hundreds of notes, letters, and references to Alexander von Humboldt (South America), Joseph Dalton Hooker (Himalayas), Thomas Huxley (New Guinea and Australia), and Alfred Russell Wallace (Malay Archipelago). If you find yourself moved, (perhaps mutated) by the experience, your next click should be on The Dispersal of Darwin, a blog for fans, scholars, and committed Darwinistas.
The 20th century biological revolution which was ushered in by Watson and Crick (and, it should be remembered, Rosiland Franklin) have given us a new image of the biologist as lab scientist, complete with black rimmed glasses and pocket protector.
Watson and Crick: Smart, Not Outdoorsy
Let us not forget that the 19th century revolutionaries were a stunningly itinerant bunch, surveying species and ecosystems all over the globe. Darwin, in particular, was not afraid to get his boots dirty. We should remember this when we see images of the shuffling grand old man of science.
See also Darwin in Four Minutes
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