The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
It's often said that Thomas Jefferson took scissors to his copy of the Gospels, excising all elements of the supernatural and leaving behind only Jesus' ethical philosophy. This, for him, was the real Jesus, one who ended just where everyone else's Jesus began. Several times this week, I thought of doing a similar cut-up job on Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle. My version of the book would leave out all extended observations about plant life, about animals, about geological features -- everything that suggests that the book was written by the most important scientist since Newton. If this seems short-sighted to you, I would be more than happy to send you my scraps, which will be filled with passages like this:
The carnivorous beetles, or Carabidae, appear in extremely few numbers within the tropics: this is the more remarkable when compared to the case of the carnivorous quadrupeds, which are so abundant in hot countries. I was struck with this observation both on entering Brazil, and when I saw the many elegant and active forms of the Harpalidae re-appearing on the temperate plains of La Plata. Do the very numerous spiders and rapacious Hymenoptera supply the place of the carnivorous beetles? The carrion-feeders and Brachelytra are very uncommon; on the other hand, the Rhyncophora and Chrysomelidae, all of which depend on the vegetable world for subsistence, are present in astonishing numbers.
This business goes on unbroken for some time, which means the
cutting job would be fairly straightforward. Once all the important
science is removed, I would be left with my Voyage of the Beagle,
a travel narrative worthy of Conrad. In it, an English naturalist, a
skeptic and a rationalist, spends several years travelling through the
wilds of South America and the Pacific Islands. He rides through the
Argentine planes with Gauchos, who teach him to throw a laso. He stays
for some time as the guest of a despotic Spanish general. On the shore
of Tahiti he is met by the tattooed faces of the natives. His trip is
occasionally slowed by the overthrow of local governments. Some locals
think he possesses magic powers because of his compass and similar
modern gadgets; others seem as worldly as a London gentleman. Our hero
sees some areas untouched by the
West and others where
colonialism and slavery have done their worst. The same powers of
observation he applies to fossil remains, he also applies to these
diverse human societies. He finds most of them welcoming and hospitable
and yet a little unnerving nonetheless. Only a page or two before the
above passage about the Carabidae and the Harpalidae would have been,
will be the following passage, typical of the book my cut-up job would
An old Portuguese priest ... took me out to hunt with him. The sport consisted in turning into the cover a few dogs, and then patiently waiting to fire at any animal which might appear. We were accompanied by the son of a neighbouring farmer -- a good specimen of a wild Brazilian youth. He was dressed in a tattered old shirt and trousers, and had his head uncovered: he carried an old-fashioned gun and a large knife. The habit of carrying the knife is universal; and in traversing a thick wood it is almost necessary, on account of the creeping plants. The frequent occurrence of murder may be partly attributed to this habit.
In my Voyage, as in a Conrad novel, the well meaning
Western narrator can't wholly be trusted. A bit of unease creeps in for
me as I read those words
wild applied to
this Brazilian boy. At first this naturalist's habit of classification
seems charming, but two curious facts about our scientist-narrator
slowly emerge. The first is that this student of the natural order
greatly prefers the
civilized to the wild. The second is that
he is quick to make judgments -- about animals, about climate, and
about people -- that seem strikingly subjective and unscientific. And
so we get the following description of the inhabitants of Tierra del
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 one�s self 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!
The relationship between Darwin's theories and some of the last century's more chilling ideas about human progress remains a matter of great intellectual debate. I wouldn't attempt to wade into those waters, especially since I've already admitted to skimming all of the Origin of Species and large chunks of this book. Regardless, it should be said first of all that Darwin abhorred slavery and was shocked by the Spanish treatment of the South American natives. It should also be said that he was equally shocked by the natives treatment of their horses. Lastly, one can't avoid the fact that for Darwin British colonialism was a very different matter.
It is impossible not to look forward with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity throughout the South Sea, probably stands by itself in the records of history... these changes have now been effected by the philanthropic spirit of the British nation... It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag, seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.
There may be no meaningful connection between Darwin's ideas about evolution and his ideas about the
march of (human) improvement.
And either way it's not always fair to read historical documents
through the lens of the present. But as I read this passage, I thought
of the current state of some of the areas that have flown the British
flag: Iraq, Pakistan, Zimbabwe. The curdling irony here is one of the
most interesting features of
my Voyage of the Beagle.
--CRB, September 5, 2007