Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle

What really made Darwin a scientist was an unpaid, five-year internship on a naval vessel.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at
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So much that could be said about this topic, but so little time and space to say it. I’d love to have some questions and comments.


The article is helpful in providing background details… but I was immediately “tantalized” by what was left un-said about Lyell’s book Principles of Geology !

I was also interested in this little nugget of commentary . . . seemingly identifying the very smallest of inspirations Darwin had … leading him to his work on Evolution! He had retrieved mockingbirds (presumably dead?) from the Galapagos Islands … and originally thought they were different varieties of the known species. But over time, the most subtle of ideas appeared to Darwin: what if these varieties actually represented separate species? One article reads: ". . . could [they] be [different] species, a possibility which would “undermine the stability of Species”.

And so begins the bizarre story of Darwin’s mentor, Henslow (Priest, Botanist and Geologist) encouraging Darwin to read Lyell’s book asserting the ancient age of the Earth - - and yet also pressing Darwin not to be convinced by the book by any means!

The book (in 3 volumes) argues for a very old earth. But at the same time insists that the origins of life are not that old at all … and that each species could not possibly change/evolve into different species.

In the end, Darwin rejects the Young Earth position of his mentor, and the anti-evolution position of Lyell !!! How Darwin avoided a knock on his head in some dark alley is almost impossible to guess! He must have been a likeable fellow!

About Principles we can read:
[Geologists were the First to See Old Earth]
“Lyell’s interpretation of geologic change as the steady accumulation of minute changes over enormously long spans of time was also a central theme in the Principles, and a powerful influence on the 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who was given Volume 1 of the first edition by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, just before they set out on the voyage of the Beagle. On their first stop ashore at St Jago, Darwin found rock formations which -seen “through Lyell’s eyes”- gave him a revolutionary insight into the geological history of the island, an insight he applied throughout his travels.”

[Lyell Says Earth is Old, but Rejects Speciation]
“While in South America, Darwin received Volume 2, which rejected the idea of organic evolution, proposing “Centres of Creation” to explain diversity and territory of species. Darwin’s ideas gradually moved beyond this, but in geology he was very much Lyell’s disciple and sent home extensive evidence and theorising supporting Lyell’s uniformitarianism…”

But the article inspired me to locate this discussion, which I think ironically suggests a possible answer for Darwin that would be particularly appreciated here. Darwin felt strongly about the completeness of the answer that natural laws provided for the natural world.

@TedDavis, would you offer your opinion on why (or if?) Darwin could have accepted the idea of God’s design - - if he God had “front loaded” the creation of the cosmos with all the particulars to create evolution just as he intended?

Here is the narrative that leads me to that question:

"On page 30 of the Curtis Johnson(s) book, “Darwin’s Dice: The Idea of Chance in the Thought of Charles Darwin”, we read:

"In brief, Darwin’s theory was that most facts of geographical distribution could better be explained by transport than by separate creation. Put differently, the theory of separate centers of creation begged too many questions, all of which boil down to, "why this particular pattern of distribution?’ [This ties in well with my strong interest in the unusual pattern of mammals we find in Australia and New Zealand!.]

“To say, “the Creator so decided it” was for Darwin no answer at all. It amounted to saying that organisms are distributed as they are because that is how they are distributed. Darwin regarded such answers as non-answers, empty verbiage. Besides, he believed, a better answer was available: the pattern of distribution could be explained by thinking about the possibilities and difficulties of transport or organisms from one particular center of first appearance to their eventual dispersal to various far-flung regions of the globe.” [This was an idea he borrowed from Lyell.]

On page 32 we read: "… the second question that Lyell’s discussion raised: are the various transportals of plants and animals “designed,” or are they rather “accidental”? Lyell did in fact used the expression “accidental transport” (or equivalents) in several passages of the [book] Principles.

And then, ultimately, on page 154 we read something that I had always wondered about myself:

“Gray also answered yet again a question about design that had always puzzled Darwin, as much as any other: how can the universe both be governed by fixed laws and yet still have room for contingency (or “volition,” as it is also called)?” Gray affirmed his belief that these two seemingly opposite factors “play their mingled parts” in nature. Darwin, perceiving contradiction, could n ot go along. As he replied to Gray’s letter, if stones fallen off a precipice were not specially designed to suit the architect’s needs, and if pigeons had not been specially designed to give room for the play of man’s fancy, then no more should we believe that any variations in nature are specially designed. Fixed laws explain all, contingency (or volition) nothing."

I wonder how Darwin got along with the ordinary seamen on the voyage. The rampant class consciousness of the time would have set up barriers between the men. The crew would have to assume that Darwin was a spy for the captain.
I don’t know if I would have accepted Darwin’s assignment to have just one companion for several years in such isolation. What would happen if they had a falling-out?

That might not be completely hypothetical. From Bill Bryson I read that Capt. Fitzroy had a passion for … promoting creationism of all things! (of the sort that set itself quite against Darwin’s developing ruminations.) So maybe they were careful what they talked about given the need to be each other’s captive company for such an extended time.

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They argued about slavery quite a lot. Fitzroy was in favor of slavery but the whole Darwin/Wedgewood clan was staunchly abolitionist.

Only today, upon reading this post, have I realized the relevance of your Forum name to the topic of evolution…



I appreciate your sharing this series, as I do all your contributions on BioLogos. I knew the name of FitzRoy from the mountain on the Argentina-Chile border that is named for him, but I did not know that he served as captain of HMS Beagle. And since I predictably turned my attention from the article to related maps, I was delighted to discover that the strait separating Tierra del Fuego from the islands to its south is named the Beagle Channel.

While I don’t have a substantive comment on the content of this article, I do want to note an error in spelling in the caption dealing with the grave marker for Captain Stokes. The geographical term “strait”, as in Strait of Magellan, is properly spelled without a ‘g’. You likely knew this, but I expect it’s a common mistake. This error doesn’t leave me in dire straits, but in the interest of helping us all keep straight the distinction between strait and straight, I hope you will correct this straightaway.



I’m going to spend a Posting Chip to say the exact same thing, Casper! I had forgotten about the name of the ship the entire time … until this thread…

Wedgwood not Wedgewood (one ‘e’ only for that branch of the family, the initial post also got this wrong). Darwin also spent a fair time away from the Beagle such as exploring parts of South America while the Beagle mapped the coastline so they didn’t spend all 5 years together… Fitzroy later made his reputation in meteorology. Darwin in his autobiography gives an extended description of Fitzroy including

He was extremely kind to me, but was a man very
difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed
from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin. We had several
quarrels; for when out of temper he was utterly unreasonable. For
instance, early in the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised
slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a
great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them
whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all
answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he
thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was
worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I
doubted his word, we could not live any longer together. I thought that
I should have been compelled to leave the ship; but as soon as the news
spread, which it did quickly, as the captain sent for the first
lieutenant to assuage his anger by abusing me, I was deeply gratified
by receiving an invitation from all the gun-room officers to mess with
them. But after a few hours Fitz-Roy showed his usual magnanimity by
sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would
continue to live with him.

The library on board might be of interest. The list as far as can be recreated is at Darwin Online - The Beagle Library Darwin’s own book on voyage, written well before Origin of Species, is quite easy reading


Appreciate the corrections about “strait” and Wedgwood. We’ll get 'em fixed. I actually have the latter correct in drafts of upcoming columns, so I’m not sure why I missed it earlier. As for “strait,” the egg is definitely sticking to my face. :wink:

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