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Posted by on Nov 16, 2011

Darwin, the Beagle, and that first job after finishing university: the seeds of revolutionary thought

I am reposting this here as I thought it a fun exploration on scientific discovery and idea leading onto idea. And now the impressionable, inquisitive, and very dedicated among us can change the course of society almost single-handedly. I am referring to Charles Darwin and his very first job after finishing university, a spot on the Beagle and a five year voyage to South America. 

History reminds us this way that some are destined for greatness because of their own greatness (combination of intellect, inquisitiveness, and perseverence) and the confluence of time and oppotunity. For some, this leads to remembrance (Darwin); for others (FitzRoy), this leads to success, then dismal failure, and then posthumous recognition. We don’t always control history, but given enough time, we can be redeemed by it. The post begins below, but can be found in its original spot here


(Grammitis poeppigiana (Mett.) Pic.Serm. (family GRAMMITIDACEAE) collected by Charles Darwin in the Straits of Tiera del Fuego as part of the Beagle Expedition.)

Most of the following post is cobbled together from a few different sources, including the new Collectors’ List from the Natural History Museum, London  but the majority of it comes from the following article:

I had always known that JSTOR Plant Science had specimens collected by Charles Darwin graciously contributed by GPI partner the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh (E). Incidentally, Darwin was a student (of medicine) at the University of Edinburgh before neglecting his medical education to pursue biology at Cambridge University. When he finished, he managed within a few months to get a position aboard the Beagle. A young 22 year old fresh from school. So, JSTOR Plant Science has these amazing specimens collected by Darwin in places such as Chile, Brazil, and even the Falkland Islands. After all this time, I had failed to notice the dates they were collected. To see the specimens, click here. First, The Beagle. The following is text by Swab, which I found no reason to change as it reads so well, but the links are mine:

The Beagle, a Navy vessel, 90 feet long and 24 feet wide, was carrying 75 people. This, the Beagle’s second voyage, under the command of Robert FitzRoy, only 4 years older than Darwin, was given two missions: (1) to complete an earlier survey of the southern coasts of South America, especially as much of the Pacific coast as possible; and (2) to obtain more accurate fixes of longitudes by using new instruments that had recently become available. (These instruments can be seen at Greenwich, England, today.) The required readings determined the Beagle’s destinations. Also, this was the first time that the Beaufort wind scale was used, giving a consistent and accurate comparison of wind speeds as it sailed.

FitzRoy’s is an interesting life as well, revolutionizing as he did the field of meteorology; he invented many meteorological practices still in use today. He eventually became Admiral and was even the Governor of New Zealand for a short spell. Darwin helped get him elected to the Academy of Sciences before dying by, his own hand, penniless in 1865. I generally appreciate history for it allows us to remember people as they were, at their zenith. And so I choose to remember FitzRoy talking about his voyages to Central and South America in his own words.

  • FitzRoy, R. (1853). Further Considerations on the Great Isthmus of Central America. Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London , Vol. 23, (1853), pp. 171-190. Retrieved from [Free Article].

How did Darwin come to FitzRoy’s attention?

So, Darwin’s botany professor, John S. Henslow (1796-1861), asked by FitzRoy to recommend a suitable companion for him during a planned two-to-three-year voyage to “Terra del Fuego and home by the East Indies” (Burkhardt et al., 1983–1994), suggested Darwin. Students continue to be surprised that Darwin had no official position on the ship and that his father paid his way. The official naturalist on ship was Robert McCormick, surgeon, who left the ship while it was docked in Rio de Janeiro in April 1832, less than 4 months after leaving England. Darwin became the de facto naturalist after this. Because he paid his way, the collections he made belonged to him, to do with as he pleased. Darwin joined the voyage because this teacher had confidence that he would benefit from the experience. Henslow consequently received thousands of collections Darwin sent back, wrote to him with suggestions of how to improve packing, distributed specimens to experts for study, and even made Darwin’s work known to the scientific world while Darwin was still away.

Since Darwin paid his way, the collections were his. FitzRoy had him collect on land, both plant, geological, and zoological samples, while FitzRoy mapped and charted the coastal areas. Darwin suffered greatly from seasickness (and homesickness), but even more from the sight of slavery in Brazil. He collected specimens and sent everything back, at intervals, to Cambridge. His ideas about the origin of species were hatched by the time he returned home. And return he did, already famous as a scientist, and just 27 years old. Darwin returned to Cambridge and gave Henslow the botanical collections as he preferred to work on the zoological ones (and pragmatically, Darwin had no hope of finishing taxonomic work on all the specimens himself). So the specimens in JSTOR Plant Science were indeed collected on this journey of the Beagle as they are dated from 1831-1835 and are collected in South America. They are like most of the other specimens as Darwin did an admirable job of plant collecting (having not been trained to do it before the journey). But they are history as well as they are the seeds of a revolutionary idea that shook the foundations of Western society forever. It was these pieces that eventually formed a pattern that eventually led to that momentous discovery.  

(Darwin had nice handwriting. Isolectotype of Leptinella acaenoides Hook. & Arn. Collected December 30, 1834 in Cabo Tres Montes, Chile.)

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