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Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle

In 1831 twenty-two year-old Charles Darwin embarked on a five-year voyage on HMS Beagle as a companion to the captain. The purpose of the voyage was to chart the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, but Darwin also recorded his observations on the natural history of plants and animals in countries then little known to European naturalists. Darwin was not yet an evolutionist, but later he would say the trip "was the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career" (Brown and Neve 1989, 2).

The life-changing nature of this experience is ironic considering that only a few years earlier Darwin was studying theology at Cambridge with the intention of becoming a clergyman. Interestingly, several of Darwin's Beagle journal entries show Darwin pondering the notion of a Creator as "grand designer" of species. Here's an excerpt from Darwin's theological ruminations about the animals he encountered in Australia, including an antlion:

January 18th, 1836

I had been [. . .] reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared with the rest of the world. An unbeliever in every thing beyond his own reason might exclaim, 'Two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same, and certainly the end in each case is complete.' While thus thinking, I observed the hollow conical pitfall of the lion-ant: first a fly fell down the treacherous slope and immediately disappeared; then came a large but unwary ant; it struggles to escape being very violent, those curious little jets of sand [. . .] were promptly directed against the expected victim. But the ant enjoyed a better fate than the fly, and escaped the fatal jaws which lay concealed at the base of the conical hollow. There can be no doubt but that this predacious larva belongs to the same genus with the European kind, though to a different species. Now what would the sceptic say to this? Would any two workmen ever have hit upon so beautiful, so simple, and yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so: one Hand has surely worked throughtout the universe (Darwin 1989 [1839], 325).

In the 1830s the Church of England, corrupt and under attack, still controlled other cultural institutions, including academia: the science of life—biology—lay "ruined, prostituted, turned into a Creationist citadel by the clergy" (Desmond and Moore 1991, xvii). As Darwin's ideas about speciation grew more sophisticated, his earlier theism inevitably gave way to a guarded agnosticism—so that his youthful belief about antlions would necessarily be reversed.

In a letter to a colleague he complained about persistent Creationist views within the natural sciences: "we can allow satellites, planets, suns, universe, nay whole systems of universe[s,] to be governed by laws, but the smallest insect, we wish to be created at once by special act" (Desmond and Moore 1991, 218).

But Darwin was acutely aware that public challenges to Creationism were considered "heretical" and therefore potentially dangerous to his career and family. This revolutionary thinker spent a third of his life "doubled up, trembling, vomiting, and dowsing himself in icy water. He sat on his theory of evolution for twenty years, scarcely mooting his innermost thoughts about 'monkey-men' and apes evolving morality, castigating himself as a 'Devil's Chaplain.' Even in 1859 he had to be prodded into publishing the Origin of Species, and then he let it go with barely a hint about human origins" (Desmond and Moore 1991, xviii).


References

Darwin, Charles. 1989 [1839]. Voyage of the Beagle. [Originally published as Journal of Researches.] Edited with an introduction by Janet Browne and Michael Neve. London: Penguin Books.

Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. 1991. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. London: Michael Joseph Ltd.

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