Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Voyage on the Beagle: Darwin Almost Said No

On this date (August 24) in 1831, John Stevens Henslow wrote a letter to Charles Darwin telling him that Henslow had recommended him to serve as naturalist aboard the Beagle.  The British Admiralty had authorized this as a surveying trip around the world that would concentrate on the coastline of South America. 

Henslow told him that he had recommended him as "the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation," and "I state this not on the supposition of your being a finished Naturalist, but as amply  qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History."

Darwin responded by saying that he would not go without the consent of his father, and his father initially rejected this as not appropriate for someone who was preparing to become an Anglican parson.  Charles had promised his father that he would return to Cambridge in October for the studies necessary to prepare him for entering the Church.  Eventually, his uncle Josiah Wedgwood persuaded his father to change his mind.  A few months later, on December 7, 1831, Darwin sailed on the Beagle.  And what was expected to be a two-year voyage lasted for almost five years, returning to England on December 7, 1836. 

As a consequence, of course, he became a life-long naturalist rather than a clergyman, and his scientific studies as a naturalist overturned a two-thousand-year Biblical doctrine that all forms of life were specially created by God rather than natural law.

There are at least three notable points here.

First, one can see here the importance of Henslow for Darwin's career.  Darwin's only formal instruction in natural science at Cambridge University was his courses in botany taught by Henslow, who became Darwin's mentor and friend.  In recent years, David Kohn has been studying the influence of Henslow's botany on Darwin, and some of this work was published in his fascinating article "What Henslow Taught Darwin" in Nature, 436 (4 August, 2005): 643-45.  Although Henslow was a devout Anglican, and he accepted the creationist idea that species can vary only within limits, he emphasized natural variation within plant species in a way that prepared Darwin's mind to see how difficult it was to distinguish varieties and species.  As I indicated in an earlier post, Kohn's lecture at the Mont Pelerin Society conference in the Galapagos stressed the importance of Darwin's botanical studies in the Galapagos in showing variation across the islands.  This shows how simply recognizing natural variation threatens to subvert any belief in eternally fixed species and leads one to consider evolutionary alternatives to the theory of special creation.

Second, one can also see here the importance of the British Empire and the British Navy in providing the conditions for global travel and study that supported the advancement of modern science.  Once Darwin returned to England, he never left England for the rest of his life.  But once he settled into his house in Down, he continued his global scientific research through the correspondence made possible by the British postal system, which allowed him to learn of discoveries made by people around the world.

Finally, this illustrates the importance of global networks of communication for modern science and liberalism.  Francis Bacon rightly identified the European discovery of America as one of the great turning points in the history of science and politics.  The Bible shows no awareness of the world between Europe and Asia.  So when Europeans discovered this new world inhabited by human beings, it raised questions about the adequacy of Biblical history.  When they discovered species endemic to the New World found no where else in the world, they had to wonder when, how, and why God had specially created these species, but without revealing this in the Bible.

European travel to the New World was important for early modern liberalism because it opened up the possibility that the life of the indigenous people there represented the original state of nature for human beings, which threw into doubt the Biblical history of human origins as starting from the Garden of Eden and the Fall.  As Locke said, "in the beginning, all the world was America."  And that's why Darwin was so interested in the primitive life of the people at Tierra de Fuego as possibly revealing what the first human ancestors looked like.

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