D.K. Powell's Reviews > The Voyage of the Beagle

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
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I've had the classic book on my shelf for a very long time and - as both an historian and psychologist who believes very much in the influence of evolution - I felt it was about time I read the 'prequel', if you will, of the great work which was to change everything.

In this book we read of the five years a young Charles Darwin spent exploring the world. In his diary, Darwin talks, as you might expect, a considerable amount about nature and the numerous creatures he encounters. But he also talks about the people and communities he meets along the way and gives his views on a variety of subjects.

I was excited to see into the mind of this great thinker and scientist, the man who I probably refer to (indirectly usually) more than any other when I am teaching or giving talks. Evolution, in my mind, holds the key to understanding almost everything going on in the world around us today. Would I be able to glean the beginnings of that revolutionary theory, churning over in Darwin's mind even back then?

Alas, although there are elements of this throughout, I found Darwin's diary failed miserably on two accounts:

Firstly, it is interminably boring. That sounds possibly a little silly, considering the age and nature of the book, I know. But I like books which go into detail which others find boring. I find them fascinating - but not Darwin's. This is a guy who had no gift at teaching or writing, in any kind of modern sense anyway. He meanders on about various plants, fauna or creatures he finds but fails to tell us anything that's actually of interest about any of them. I appreciate that this book was written in that mid 1800s and wouldn't exactly be up-to-date for the modern reader, but when I think of diaries such as by Samuel Pepys among others, I find plenty which do give fascinating insights. Darwin just doesn't cut it.

Secondly, Darwin's view of humans is borderline repugnant. He does have some things in his favour; he abhors the mistreatment of slaves, for instance. But this quickly proves to be a condescension at best. Darwin firmly believes in Empire values, that the British are, by far, the very best people and, most chillingly, that they are more superior than, in particular, 'savages'. This is the world of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' except this is real life Darwin talks of, not fiction.

There's no escaping Darwin's prejudices as you read the book but, in the final pages, his concluding words bring them to the fore again, just in case you missed it. Here's just one example:

"...perhaps nothing is more certain to create astonishment than the first sight in his native haunt of a barbarian - of a man in his lowest and most savage state. One's mind hurries back over past centuries, and then asks, could our progenitors have been men like these? - men, whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals..."

Interestingly, at this point, Darwin is still a champion of Christian thinking (though he was never as anti-religious as people often like to think him to be, despite falling foul of the church in later years). He sees the "march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea" to be so evident that it "stands by itself in the records of history" and he puts this 'improvement' down to "the philanthropic spirit of the British nation."

There is much to be said for reading a book within the context of the time in which it was written and, of course, this is an important principle. But I think there is also room to assess writers with modern eyes and ask 'are they still worthy of our reverence'? Darwin's 'Voyage of the Beagle' still remains in many 'must read' lists and the man himself takes on an ironically almost god-like stature in many academic circles. This, perhaps, needs to change.

Was it a waste of time reading 'The Voyage of the Beagle'? No, of course not - but I might not bother with 'Origin of the Species'! Was it a dreadful book? No, again, of course not. But it was disappointing to see a man who was so far ahead of his time, able to break loose of current thinking, and who rightly felt appalled at the mistreatment of slaves, still have such blinkered and indefensible views. I looked for a hero and found someone instead I wouldn't share a drink with in a pub.
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Finished Reading
March 21, 2020 – Shelved

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