Why You Need to Read The Voyage of the Beagle Before You Die

In honor of Darwin’s Birthday, I lay out the case for The Voyage of the Beagle as great literature:

Sitting on a rickety homemade bookshelf in my living room are the fifty volumes of my Great-Grandfather’s Harvard Classics. Once a teenaged political refugee from the Russian revolutionary turmoil of 1905 and later an accomplished bacteriologist with Merck, my Great-Grandfather exemplified Harvard President Charles Eliot’s American middle class, “twentieth century idea of a cultivated man,” the kind of person for whom Eliot’s “five foot shelf of books” was intended. A respected Mr. among professional scientific peers of Drs., my Great-Grandfather was fiercely committed to self-education. I never met him, but I imagine that my Great-Grandfather would have subscribed to Eliot’s notion of individual and civilizational progress, progress that is the result of “man observing, recording, inventing, and imagining.” The Harvard Classics were selected to be a survey of how this process has played out over the millennia.

Eliot’s words, “observing, recording, inventing, and imagining,” describe several thousand years of human intellectual activity by invoking the process of science. This is appropriate because Eliot, and my Great-Grandfather, were living when the modern scientific view of the world was well on its way to world domination, becoming a new belief system with as much cultural heft as the major religions, and one whose conquest occurred even more rapidly than the spectacular rise from obscurity of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam over the last two thousand years. The modern scientific take on the world has not displaced religious views, just as Islam became a global player without displacing Christianity. But science has become as influential as any of its social competitors, with its chronicle of our earth’s history, of the creation of volcanic islands and the erosion of canyons, its story of the solar system with its central principle of gravitation that explains the shapes of the planets as well as their orbits around a central furnace of nuclear fusion, its tale of colliding atoms and molecules that make up the material world, and perhaps the most disturbing account of all, of our deep genetic history that connects without discontinuity into a pre-human, evolutionary past during which our modern DNA has been sculpted by the brutal work of natural selection.

The one volume among the entire Harvard Classics that most prophetically anticipates the coming cultural influence of scientific thought is Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. But too often the Voyage has been given second billing among collections of Great Books. Adam Kirsch, in an insightful essay on the Harvard Classics, gently chides Eliot for the excessive enthusiasm that led him to devote two of the fifty volumes to Darwin; Kirsch suggests that a modern edition of the Classics should “doubtless” keep On the Origin of Species and ditch the Voyage for James Watson’s Double Helix. Harold Bloom, whose selection of non-fiction for his Western Canon is unforgivably erratic and unprincipled, recommends Matthew Arnold’s essays and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and Autobiography, but nothing by Darwin. There is a common (and, let’s face it, usually correct) idea that great scientific writing is valuable for its intellectual importance, but of marginal literary value. Darwin’s Origin is often included in collections of great books by default, because it is one of the very few important primary scientific documents that can be read without specialized training. But the Origin is an argument for a specific scientific theory, while the Voyage is a much more general foreshadowing of science’s cultural force in the modern world. If you are going to read one book by Darwin before you die, or one Great Book on any of the sciences, it must be The Voyage of the Beagle, because this book is a genuinely great work of literature, a compelling account of a then-embryonic vision of the world that has now come into its own in modern society, told in an expressive and beautiful language which is exactly suited to its subject.

I. Observations

The Voyage of the Beagle is Darwin’s account of those five formative years abroad that transformed him into the scientist who would discover natural selection. The book is a hybrid, a scientific account fused to the ever-popular travel narrative, because Darwin was writing to explain his scientific findings, and to sell books to the reading public eager for accounts of the world that most would never visit. Darwin returned from his voyage in 1836, and his account was first published in 1839 as the most popular part of a multi-volume record of the Beagle’s exploits, and later in 1845 as the definitive edition that we read today.

What strikes you most immediately on reading the Voyage of the Beagle are Darwin’s remarkable powers of observation that would make Sherlock Holmes weep with shame. It is no wonder that Darwin came up with the idea of natural selection. His observations are fanatically precise and carefully filtered for emphasis, because like a good scientist, Darwin is using his observations to infer the story behind what he sees. To infer the story successfully, it is not sufficient to simply to collect vague impressions and general outlines; it is necessary to capture the small, but high-information details that allow you to rule out alternative narratives, to narrow the space of possible explanations so that you can be confident in the story you settle on.

Imagine yourself arriving at the chaotic scene of a severe earthquake, the city around you devastated, not a building left intact, an entire population’s wealth and physical security wiped out, misery coming at you from every direction. How do you make sense of this disorder? Here is Darwin, cool as an FAA investigator at a crash scene, discussing the 1835 earthquake that devastated the Chilean city of Concepcion. What he sees are the patterns in the surviving walls. He observes their orientation, down to the angles of the ornamental bricks, and infers the behavior of the earthquake:

The town of Concepcion was built in the usual Spanish fashion, with all the streets running at right angles to each other; one set ranging south-west by west, and the other set north-west by north. The walls in the former direction certainly stood better than those in the latter; the greater number of the masses of brickwork were thrown down towards the north-east. Both these circumstances perfectly agree with the general idea of the undulations having come from the south-west; in which quarter subterranean noises were also heard; for it is evident that the walls running south-west and north-east which presented their ends to the point whence the undulations came, would be much less likely to fall than those walls which, running north-west and south-east, must in their whole lengths have been at the same instant thrown out of the perpendicular…

The different resistance offered by the walls, according to their direction, was well exemplified in the case of the Cathedral. The side which fronted the north-east presented a grand pile of ruins… The side walls (running south-west and north-east), though exceedingly fractured, yet remained standing; but the vast buttresses (at right angles to them, and therefore parallel to the walls that fell) were in many cases cut clean off, as if by a chisel, and hurled to the ground. Some square ornaments on the coping of these same walls were moved by the earthquake into a diagonal position.

Darwin’s observations are focused and precise because his goal is not merely to record his feelings and impressions of a scene (although he does that too, as we’ll see); Darwin’s aim is to discover answers to questions that with hindsight might seem obvious, but which others had not even realized could be asked. How is it, for example, that wasps are able to subdue spiders without killing them, in order to serve them up as live food to their larvae?

I was much interested one day by watching a deadly contest between a Pepsis and a large spider of the genus Lycosa. The wasp made a sudden dash at its prey, and then flew away: the spider was evidently wounded, for, trying to escape, it rolled down a little slope, but had still strength sufficient to crawl into a thick tuft of grass. The wasp soon returned, and seemed surprised at not immediately finding its victim. It then commenced as regular a hunt as ever hound did after fox; making short semicircular casts, and all the time rapidly vibrating its wings and antennae. The spider, though well concealed, was soon discovered, and the wasp, evidently still afraid of its adversary’s jaws, after much manoeuvring, inflicted two stings on the under side of its thorax. At last, carefully examining with its antennae the now motionless spider, it proceeded to drag away the body. But I stopped both tyrant and prey.

Darwin has counted the number of times the spider has been stung, where it has been stung, and has noted the method behind the wasp’s motion that others (such as myself) would have taken to be a random walk. Behind Darwin’s focus is a belief that the world has an underlying rationale, one that can be inferred if we look closely enough. The behavior of wasps and spiders is not unfathomable; it is the result of a careful survival strategy. Earthquakes don’t just randomly knock down walls; they travel in waves and exert forces on buildings at particular angles. Darwin’s observations are precise because the world is precise, locked into very tight constraints of cause and effect, and therefore we use the tools of reason and observation to understand why the world behaves the way it does.

Many find this approach to the world puzzling, or maybe just exhausting, both in 19th century Chile and the 21st century United States. Darwin often had difficulty convincing people that he didn’t have some less ethereal reason for his efforts, that he wasn’t secretly prospecting for valuable ores:

I found the most ready way of explaining my employment was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos?–why some springs were hot and others cold?–why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains.

Science depends upon a restlessness, an intellectual dissatisfaction that leads to questions that probe not only the conventional wisdom but one’s own clever or deeply held ideas. It was this dissatisfaction that drove Darwin to brave thousands of miles of discomforts, seasickness, earthquakes, severe thirst, cold nights on beds of rocks, vile food, and even violent political upheaval with an energy that would have put Crocodile Hunter Steve Erwin to shame. You can feel the fierceness of this drive behind Darwin’s keen observations, in their rigor and their relentless grasping towards the story behind Nature’s surfaces.

II. People

It would be wrong to assume that Darwin’s scientific instincts make him a passionless observer of the world. In fact, much of the power of the Voyage comes from Darwin’s ability to find emotional resonance in the targets of his scrutiny. His knack for seeing precisely works with his sense of humanity to make Darwin particularly skilled at rendering people, and describing their poignant and ironic moments as they respond to their natural and social environments. These results do not come without tension as Darwin relates after his description of the aftermath of the quake at Concepcion:

I have not attempted to give any detailed description of the appearance of Concepcion, for I feel that it is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings which I experienced. Several of the officers visited it before me, but their strongest language failed to give a just idea of the scene of desolation. It is a bitter and humiliating thing to see works, which have cost man so much time and labour, overthrown in one minute; yet compassion for the inhabitants was almost instantly banished, by the surprise in seeing a state of things produced in a moment of time, which one was accustomed to attribute to a succession of ages. In my opinion, we have scarcely beheld, since leaving England, any sight so deeply interesting.

But Darwin’s affinity for the interesting strengthens the humane accounts of the people he describes. This is because the sharp, lucid descriptions of behaviors, appearances, and environments naturally reveal the underlying human story, largely free of Darwin’s authorial impositions. Instead of imputing thoughts and reinventing forgotten dialogue, Darwin largely describes people’s actions. He steps out of the way and pulls off the classic writer’s trick of bringing characters to life by showing, not telling. He generally observes people in much the same way he observes animals, usually without moral judgment or condemnation, and driven by a desire to understand.

This is perhaps most vividly seen in Darwin’s account of his encounters with the natives at the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego. The crew of the Beagle, on a previous voyage, had more or less kidnapped several Fuegians, and now the Beagle’s captain wanted to bring them back home. One of these natives was purchased as a boy for the price of a pearl button. Now a young man, Jemmy Button (as he is affectionately, or maybe cruelly known) is about to return to his stone age culture, after having spent three years within one of the world’s most technologically sophisticated civilizations. He hardly remembers his native language and speaks broken English, but, like any teenager, is very impressed with the fact that he can make himself look sophisticated:

He was of a patriotic disposition; and he liked to praise his own tribe and country, in which he truly said there were “plenty of trees,” and he abused all the other tribes: he stoutly declared that there was no Devil in his land. Jemmy was short, thick, and fat, but vain of his personal appearance; he used always to wear gloves, his hair was neatly cut, and he was distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied. He was fond of admiring himself in a looking glass; and a merry-faced little Indian boy from the Rio Negro, whom we had for some months on board, soon perceived this, and used to mock him: Jemmy, who was always rather jealous of the attention paid to this little boy, did not at all like this, and used to say, with rather a contemptuous twist of his head, “Too much skylark.”

Clearly Jemmy is struggling with acutely ambiguous feelings about his background; he is defensive of his people, yet he wants to prove that despite his family roots, he can be at least as civilized as any of his British shipmates. Even worse, he’s about to be unceremoniously dropped back among his naked kinfolk. In the mid-nineteenth century, many probably thought nothing of treating Jemmy like this; there was a natural order to things, and Jemmy was best off in his place. But Darwin manages, almost inadvertently, to poignantly render the ambiguity of Jemmy’s reunion with his family:

We had already perceived that Jemmy had almost forgotten his own language. I should think there was scarcely another human being with so small a stock of language, for his English was very imperfect. It was laughable, but almost pitiable, to hear him speak to his wild brother in English, and then ask him in Spanish (“no sabe?”) whether he did not understand him.

Some time later, when the Beagle briefly returns to the region before leaving for good, Jemmy turns up again in a canoe, unclothed, scrawny, and long-haired. His first action is to turn his back on his former shipmates in embarrassment.

The chapter on the Fuegians is unforgettable because Darwin appears to have been more unsettled by his encounters with these people than with any others during his five year voyage. He is honest about his rattled feelings and the difficulty he has making sense of what appear to be lives of unnecessary misery:

A woman, who was suckling a recently-born child, came one day alongside the vessel, and remained there out of mere curiosity, whilst the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom, and on the skin of her naked baby! These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked with respect to these barbarians! At night five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day, they must rise to pick shellfish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi.

It would be easy to chalk up Darwin’s discomfort and his comments about savages to the sensibility of his less-enlightened era, but this is not really fair. I can imagine myself, removed from my wired-up home, my laptop, Trader Joe’s, running water and flush toilets, and dropped into the midst of a stone age culture that somehow manages to contemporaneously exist on the same planet as the Large Hadron Collider. Even free from racial prejudices, value judgements of alternative lifestyles, and so forth, who would not be uncomfortable, if not deeply disturbed? Confronted with such beings who are thoroughly alien, but nonetheless clearly human, in their intelligence, their desires, and their needs, how would we react? Darwin is honest about his discomfort and his opinions, and his method of observing and then inferring the story serves him well, because he does not try to fit the Fuegians into some morality tale. Instead, recognizing them as fully human, he attempts to understand how it could be that they exist in such an apparently miserable condition.

Whilst beholding these savages, one asks, Whence have they come? What could have tempted, or what change compelled, a tribe of men, to leave the fine regions of the north, to travel down the Cordillera or backbone of America, to invent and build canoes, which are not used by the tribes of Chile, Peru, and Brazil, and then to enter on one of the most inhospitable countries within the limits of the globe? Although such reflections must at first seize on the mind, yet we may feel sure that they are partly erroneous. There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number; therefore we must suppose that they enjoy a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having. Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.

III. Language

One of the primary reasons you should read the Voyage is for its style. In this book, more so than in the Origin, Darwin is a scientific stylist, using language matched to the pursuit of his scientific aims while simultaneously creating a work of expressive power. The result is compelling because the practice of science is not an impersonal, algorithmic process, but is instead a human act of imagination. Despite Francis Bacon’s fussy admonition not to substitute the dreams of our imaginations for patterns in the world, scientific theories, however mind-bogglingly well-constrained by observations and experiments, are mental constructs. Richard Feynman described the process of creating these constructs as putting your imagination in a straightjacket, which is not a constricting process, but one that becomes a scaffold for science’s imaginative successes. Darwin’s style in the Voyage is powerful because it exhibits, at the fine level of sentences and paragraphs, a scientific imagination churning away, observing, sifting, and finally inferring the story of nature’s driving forces. As Darwin puts it, “The limit of man’s knowledge in any subject possesses a high interest, which is perhaps increased by its close neighbourhood to the realms of imagination.”

Here is how this method plays out in a slapstick scene relating Darwin’s attempt to understand why Galapagos marine iguanas are sometimes afraid of the water. Preceding the inferred storyline are the observations, along with some experiments that today would require an institutionally approved vertebrate animal protocol:

When frightened it will not enter the water. Hence it is easy to drive these lizards down to any little point overhanging the sea, where they will sooner allow a person to catch hold of their tails than jump into the water… I threw one several times as far as I could, into a deep pool left by the retiring tide; but it invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood… I several times caught this same lizard, by driving it down to a point, and though possessed of such perfect powers of diving and swimming, nothing would induce it to enter the water; and as often as I threw it in, it returned in the manner above described. Perhaps this singular piece of apparent stupidity may be accounted for by the circumstance that this reptile has no enemy whatever on shore, whereas at sea it must often fall a prey to the numerous sharks. Hence, probably, urged by a fixed and hereditary instinct that the shore is its place of safety, whatever the emergency may be, it there takes refuge.

Darwin happened to be one of the great 19th century travel writers, a skilled renderer of vivid images in the days before photography. In this respect, Darwin compares favorably with another first-rate travel writer, Herman Melville. Both Darwin and Melville cut their writerly teeth producing best-selling accounts of their voyages to the exotic Southern hemisphere (in Melville’s case the accounts were lightly fictionalized), and both knew what features would sell with the travel-narrative-reading public.

Melville’s imagery is impressionistic and improvisational, as in this description of the Galapagos from The Encantadas:

In many places the coast is rock-bound, or, more properly, clinker-bound; tumbled masses of blackish or greenish stuff like the dross of an iron-furnace, forming dark clefts and caves here and there, into which a ceaseless sea pours a fury of foam; overhanging them with a swirl of gray, haggard mist, amidst which sail screaming flights of unearthly birds heightening the dismal din. However calm the sea without, there is no rest for these swells and those rocks; they lash and are lashed, even when the outer ocean is most at peace with, itself. On the oppressive, clouded days, such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.

Darwin, while also drawing a comparison with iron-foundries, does not make vague observations about “blackish and greenish stuff.” His approach to imagery depends, of course, on observational precision and tight organization of his thoughts. This strategy can be just as successful as Melville’s more consciously literary style. Darwin’s words, while not always technical, are usually specific, and descriptions are often given in geometrical terms of symmetries, regularities, lines, and circles. Here is Darwin on the Galapagos, on Chatham Island:

The entire surface of this part of the island seems to have been permeated, like a sieve, by the subterranean vapours: here and there the lava, whilst soft, has been blown into great bubbles; and in other parts, the tops of caverns similarly formed have fallen in, leaving circular pits with steep sides. From the regular form of the many craters, they gave to the country an artificial appearance, which vividly reminded me of those parts of Staffordshire where the great iron-foundries are most numerous. The day was glowing hot, and the scrambling over the rough surface and through the intricate thickets was very fatiguing; but I was well repaid by the strange Cyclopean scene. As I was walking along I met two large tortoises, each of which must have weighed at least two hundred pounds: one was eating a piece of cactus, and as I approached, it stared at me and slowly walked away; the other gave a deep hiss, and drew in its head. These huge reptiles, surrounded by the black lava, the leafless shrubs, and large cacti, seemed to my fancy like some antediluvian animals.

Another strategy that Darwin uses to powerful effect is the shocking contrast between violence and beauty so commonly found in nature. In this case, the murder of a sea captain intrudes on a serene moment in the Galapagos:

The water is only three or four inches deep and rests on a layer of beautifully crystallised, white salt. The lake is quite circular, and is fringed with a border of bright green succulent plants; the almost precipitous walls of the crater are clothed with wood, so that the scene was altogether both picturesque and curious. A few years since the sailors belonging to a sealing-vessel murdered their captain in this quiet spot; and we saw his skull lying among the bushes.

Note that the lake is not fringed with generic green plants, but green succulent plants. The walls of the crater are “almost precipitous”; here precipitous means literally perpendicular, forming a 90 degree angle with the surface. And contrasting with this very specific, orderly scene is a messy reminder of human conflict.

Finally, there are the thick, nineteenth-century technical terms that have their own grand beauty, words like marl, calcareous, fissured, scoriae, concretions. The sounds of these word resonate with the processes and scenes they describe. The precise application of such terms, the constant movement of sentences towards arguments, inferences, and conclusions, and the knack for exotic and startling imagery aimed at armchair-bound, would-be explorers back on the home island, these features together would put Darwin’s Voyage in the Great Books Hall of Fame even if Darwin hadn’t later upended millennia of biological thinking with his discovery of natural selection.

IV. God

As you read the Voyage, and become absorbed its imagery its grand scope, it is easy to miss what is absent. Darwin, in all of his arguments, inferences, hypotheses, and narratives of natural history, quietly refuses to ever invoke God as an explanation. The geographical distribution of animals, the causes of extinctions, the composition of the rock on mountain ranges, the layout of the vast plains of the South American Pampas, are all explained exclusively in terms of natural processes. What is remarkable about these explanations is that they operate on vast scales of space and time, and therefore the actual stories of natural history themselves are not directly observable. They are inferred from the evidence that we can observe – raised beds of fossilized sea shells, thousands of miles from any ocean; folded layers of various types of rock exposed in the great mountains of the Cordillera; the resemblance of the skeletons of long-extinct, gigantic quadrupeds to those of living species. Wielding the method of observation and inference, Darwin and his fellow scientists infer majestic stories of our origin and that of the world around us, stories that have now largely supplanted the competing stories of other major belief systems in our society.

Here is Darwin inferring the thoroughly materialistic creation story of the tremendous mountain ranges of the Cordillera:

As the beds of the conglomerate have been thrown off at an angle of 45 degrees by the red Portillo granite (with the underlying sandstone baked by it), we may feel sure that the greater part of the injection and upheaval of the already partially formed Portillo line took place after the accumulation of the conglomerate, and long after the elevation of the Peuquenes ridge. So that the Portillo, the loftiest line in this part of the Cordillera, is not so old as the less lofty line of the Peuquenes. Evidence derived from an inclined stream of lava at the eastern base of the Portillo might be adduced to show that it owes part of its great height to elevations of a still later date. Looking to its earliest origin, the red granite seems to have been injected on an ancient pre-existing line of white granite and mica-slate.

Despite our arguments over whether to teach creationism in schools, and regardless of the fact that large majorities in all modern societies believe in God, the scientific stories of the world are what we overwhelmingly teach, what we research, and on these stories we base our businesses, our medical practice and our technologies. This was not the case in Darwin’s day, which is one reason why the Voyage is a prophetic document of the coming cultural consensus.

The Voyage makes it clear that scientists’ refusal to invoke Divine agency as a causal explanation does not arise from a desire to stand against religion or to promote atheism. At issue is what suffices as an explanation. Darwin refuses to settle for vagueness, and rightly considers statements like ‘it was born in nature’, or ‘God made it’ to be no better (or perhaps worse) than saying ‘I don’t know.’ This refusal to accept the unfathomable as an explanation is the first step in the scientific process, and it clears the ground for observation, hypothesis, inference, and experiment to operate. It is based on faith that the world, unlike God, is not inscrutable, and that our minds can comprehend the detailed links of cause and effect behind the scenes of the Universe. (This bedrock faith in causality is the source of much anguish among scientists over the potential breakdown of causality at nature’s smallest and largest scales.) And so, what you read in the Voyage is an almost fanatical demand for precision and rigor, a curmudgeonly insistence that we don’t fill in our stories with what scientists call ‘hand waving.’ Again and again Darwin rejects content-free explanations. Of petrified trees:

How surprising it is that every atom of the woody matter in this great cylinder should have been removed and replaced by silex so perfectly that each vessel and pore is preserved! These trees flourished at about the period of our lower chalk; they all belonged to the fir-tribe. It was amusing to hear the inhabitants discussing the nature of the fossil shells which I collected, almost in the same terms as were used a century ago in Europe,–namely, whether or not they had been thus “born by nature.”

Boiling water:

At the place where we slept water necessarily boiled, from the diminished pressure of the atmosphere, at a lower temperature than it does in a less lofty country; the case being the converse of that of a Papin’s digester. Hence the potatoes, after remaining for some hours in the boiling water, were nearly as hard as ever. The pot was left on the fire all night, and next morning it was boiled again, but yet the potatoes were not cooked. I found out this by overhearing my two companions discussing the cause, they had come to the simple conclusion “that the cursed pot (which was a new one) did not choose to boil potatoes.”

All scientists hand-wave, of course, but it’s supposed to be a temporary stop-gap. Often scientists are wrong (the batting average of new scientific ideas would probably not be competitive in professional baseball), but successful science begins not by stumbling on a correct idea, but as an attitude and a method, which over time enables us to bootstrap our way to successful explanations that succeed like no others. Its method has made science the game to beat. Intelligent design, herbal remedies, fad diets, ESP, basically any ideas that make a go at competing on science’s materialistic home turf, all of them end up measured in our public arguments by science’s standard. This is why pseudo-science exists: you have to dress your ideas in a lab coat, complete with pocket-protector and protective eyewear, if you want people to believe your ideas about the physical world.

It may have taken a few hundred years to get there, but, let’s face it, the eventual cultural success of science has been inevitable ever since Galileo, Newton, and their important predecessors hit upon the method to explain the material world that succeeds like no other. Beginning with explanations of the motions of the stars, and moving on to falling bodies closer to home, there should have been no reason to expect that the scope of science should stop there. By the time of the Voyage, science was making serious inroads into matter and earth’s history, and it was about crack open biology in a spectacular way. We don’t like to argue with success, and, one hundred seventy years after the publication of the Voyage, science’s influence within modern culture (and within those cultures that we today consider in the process of modernizing) rivals that of the major religions. Just as major religions coexist in our societies (with occasional discomfort), science has not displaced religion as a cultural influence. It has, however become an overwhelming presence in the stories we tell about our material world, a relentless current in our society that can be compared with the streams that Darwin observed in the Chilean Cordillera:

As often as I have seen beds of mud, sand, and shingle, accumulated to the thickness of many thousand feet, I have felt inclined to exclaim that causes, such as the present rivers and the present beaches, could never have ground down and produced such masses. But, on the other hand, when listening to the rattling noise of these torrents, and calling to mind that whole races of animals have passed away from the face of the earth, and that during this whole period, night and day, these stones have gone rattling onwards in their course, I have thought to myself, can any mountains, any continent, withstand such waste?

Pick up your own free, electronic copy of The Voyage of the Beagle over at Project Gutenberg.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

3 thoughts on “Why You Need to Read The Voyage of the Beagle Before You Die”

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