Well, after 21 chapters, an immense reading binge and an awful lot of sleep, I have now finished Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and can honestly say that I found it really interesting. It’s very dense and quite heavy going but reading it has opened my eyes to just how little we really understood Darwin’s thinking.
Over two thirds of the book detail the ship’s travels around the coast of South America – and Darwin’s frequent excursions through the inland – and only one chapter deals with the Galapagos Islands, yet it is these with which he is synonymous. And that is all because of the finches! Yet the analyses and conjectures Darwin raised in his writings in the early part of the book – especially around the coast of Brazil – probably did as much damage as the adaptations to a bird’s beak to the idea of a Divine Creator. He collected fossils and gathered geological samples, noting that it was the rise and fall of the earth’s crust which allowed him to collect shells up mountainsides and trees to become hardened crystal.
The sections in Chile, where Darwin (and the crew of the Beagle) experienced a huge earthquake and saw the damage it caused were very moving. Darwin tries to retain the scientist’s objective mind, but he frequently fails and is often moved by the plight of people forced from their homes by the sheer power of the Earth.
Although Darwin was a naturalist – and from what I can see, a very good one – it is his geological conjectures that fascinated me, and I don’t doubt he referred to Lyell’s Principles of Geology a good many times during his voyage. The descriptions are wonderful and I found it very easy to picture the scenes. He would have been a wonderful travel writer if he hadn’t decided to change the world.
So, would I recommend the Voyage of the Beagle? Yes, very much, but with the caveat that it is a detailed book, so take it slowly and enjoy. Not sure I fancy The Origin of Species, but at least I can say I’ve read what he had to say for himself!