Science represents not only a body of knowledge, but processes and practices that enable one to go beyond currently established knowledge. Darwin’s passage aboard the HMS Beagle provided the impetus of thought needed to surpass the body of knowledge he had already assimilated. While one reads of Darwin’s discoveries, it is easy to presume that his place aboard the Beagle was never in doubt. In fact, given his youthful age and lack of professional experience, is it not more of a surprise that one who had never left the shores of England was entrusted with such a positon? How in fact did such a thing occur?
Darwin’s place aboard ship was not earned from years of professional study, but rather from good fortune, recommendations from his mentors, and the fact that others had already turned down the invitation. While Darwin’s greatest insights and theories came long after the voyage, it provided a most important opportunity and Darwin was quick to see how such a voyage would expand his way of knowing. The process leading to his selection as ship’s naturalist demonstrates Darwin’s immediate pursuit of such an opportunity, even though there would be numerous obstacles to face in gaining approval. Here was a chance to pursue earlier dreams of exploring the tropical world, but to do so required him pursuing each of many steps needed to secure passage.
The remarkable opportunity to serve aboard ship as a naturalist and companion for the HMS Beagle’s Captain, Robert FitzRoy, began with a letter from Steven Henslow informing Darwin of the Admiralty’s interest in securing a qualified individual to serve aboard the Beagle. Upon seeking his father’s approval, Doctor Robert Darwin made it clear that he would never allow his son to depart on such a dangerous voyage, especially one offering no future employment.
However, Darwin’s Uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, was willing to speak to Darwin’s father on the matter, and succeeded in convincing Darwin’s father to put aside his reluctance, and grant his son this opportunity. This was no little commitment, for aside from being concerned with his son’s safety, Robert Darwin had to finance his son’s passage for a five-year mission. At that moment, Darwin’s fate had depended upon his Uncle’s willingness to travel to the family home in Shrewsbury and confront this mighty man on behalf of his son. If Uncle Josiah had failed to persuade the Doctor, his son would have never been aboard ship when it sailed.
As Darwin later recorded, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career; yet it depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done, and on such a trifle as the shape of my nose.” (Darwin 1958).
Upon gaining his father’s approval, Darwin’s next challenge was to have an interview with Captain FitzRoy and seek his approval. In addition to being an able seaman, FitzRoy was a self-made expert in phrenology, using observations of the skull’s shape to indicate strengths or weakness of different faculties. As their interview ended, the Captain reflected on Darwin’s facial features. He thought they indicated a lack of resolution. The Captain “… doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage (Browne 1995).
However, FitzRoy recanted, and finally his place onboard was secured with the support of his father, and the approval of the Admiralty. Darwin’s eagerness and lack of other concerns led to an adventure that others were unable to pursue, and that would change his life and scientific career forever.
Way of knowing
When the HMS Beagle left England in 1831, its primary mission was to chart the South American coastline. Darwin’s appointment as the ship’s naturalist enabled his study and observation of all things natural wherever ship dropped anchor. This included geological formations, coral reefs, living species, fossils, and the people and cultures he encountered. Like other naturalists of his time (Hemming 2015), the social and local knowledge accumulated for each species collected expanded their way of thiking. Summarily, Darwin’s experiences with diverse cultures opened another avenue of learning, with recollections of extreme anger and disgust over slavery, understanding the use of species in local diets, and picking up on observations he missed, but obtained from local citizens.
Darwin brought books aboard ship containing the most recent knowledge of geology, exploration, and observations of the dense, tropical forests he would encounter. These books, along with those of the Beagle’s library, helped build a foundation for considering nature’s diversity, his collecting experiences, and as he began to theorize on all that he was finding. As his confidence grew, he found himself able to “refine, elaborate, revise, and extend this knowledge,” (NGSS 2013). Darwin’s observations guided him to new theories which were astounding at the time, and have remained influential to the present day. As such, the voyage led to a way of knowing that surpassed what he could have accomplished if he had remained in England. The following examples illustrate this fact.
Imagine you were cast back in time to a land of giant mammals stretched across the southeastern shores of South America. Then, you were rushed forward to the year of Darwin’s excursions in 1833. Now, all you could find were smaller, diminutive forms of the giants you saw previously. Some of Darwin’s most remarkable discoveries were the fossil remains of those giant mammals. As he would remark, “The most important result of this discovery, is the confirmation of the law that existing animals have a close relation in form with extinct species,” (Darwin 1839).
Using this new understanding, Darwin was able to “refine and revise” the state of knowledge for these towering animals. For example, he could relate the nine feet long fossilized form of a Toxodon to the living form of the capybara, the Megatherium to the three-toed sloth, and the Macrauchenia to the ever present guanaco. From these specimens, Darwin realized that fossils of extinct animals can closely resemble living species within the same geographical region and that modern forms can be derived from those of long ago.
Fauna of the Galápagos Islands
In the fall of 1835, the Beagle sailed to and around the Galápagos Islands. After visiting four islands, Darwin observed that native to each one were tortoises, mockingbirds, and the finches. He established similarities in climate and geologic formation among the islands, and yet, noticed that they supported animals of close relation, but differing substantially in structure and eating habits.
Darwin encountered finch populations on the islands, but most species collected came from two islands: Charles (Floreana) and James (Santiago) (Sulloway 1982a, b). However, while collecting these birds, Darwin neglected to tag each finch by island, perhaps due to his enthusiasm for the moment. While Darwin was well versed in labelling coleopterans, he was still far more familiar with geology. Consequently, most of his time was spent “geologizing” on the Galápagos, not as a well-trained ornithologist. Upon return to the Beagle, he did his best to classify the birds, mistakenly identifying them as finches, warblers, American blackbirds, wrens and grosbeaks.
Summary and extension
Aboard the Beagle, Darwin’s opportunities for learning increased dramatically. Two particular examples of how Darwin learned from his experiences were given: unearthing fossils from South America and encounters with animals on the Galápagos Islands. Extension: Compare and contrast these two examples of what Darwin learned and the type of knowledge gained that would later to advance his theories evolution.