Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world


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Le voyage de Darwin


27 December 1831
Plymouth, HMS Beagle, FitzRoy

Plymouth, on the south-west coast of England. After being prevented from leaving the port for over a month by bad weather, a 240-ton sailing ship chartered by the British Admiralty was at last able to leave harbor. The ship was called HMS Beagle, and on board there were 76 crew and passengers, one of whom was to radically change our view of the living world. But for the moment, Charles Darwin was just an enthusiastic and completely inexperienced young man of 22. He was the expedition's naturalist, and his job was to collect samples throughout the voyage. Robert FitzRoy, a captain in the Royal Navy and four years his senior, was the man in charge of this round-the-world journey. The expedition's main aim was not to study plants, animals and fossils. It was to make mapping surveys and chronometer readings already begun during the Beagle's first voyage from 1826 to 1830. There were also three very unusual passengers on board. They were 'savages' from Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America, who had been kidnapped on the previous expedition. Having received a smattering of English education, they were now to be sent back home.

It was really only by accident that Darwin, or the "philosopher" as he was quickly nicknamed by the sailors on board, had landed on board the Beagle. Fresh out of Cambridge, where he had studied to be a cleric, and also taken courses in botany and geology, the invitation to join the expedition had not been addressed to him. But the naturalist initially chosen had declined the offer, giving Darwin an exceptional opportunity.

The son and grandson of doctors, he had first started to read medicine, but, being of an overly sensitive nature, had given it up. However his liking for nature, biology and geology had remained intact. These were interests that he apparently shared with his grandfather, who had written a book, Zoonomia, in which the very first rudiments of evolutionary theory can be detected. In 1831, the theory according to which species evolve by adapting to their environment was already in the air, thanks to the work of scientists like Maupertuis, Buffon and Lamarck. But for the moment, this was nothing more than speculation for the scientific community of the time. The voyage of the Beagle was therefore to prove decisive. For this single experience was to culminate, 28 years later, in the publication of his great work 'The Origin of Species', in which Darwin laid bare the mechanism of evolution through natural selection. The book was to cause a huge uproar by overturning the current religious dogma according to which all living species had been created by God and had been unchanging ever since. It's ironic to know that Captain FitzRoy had nearly turned the young Darwin away on the grounds that the shape of his nose didn't appear to indicate the kind of energy and determination required for such an expedition!

But late in this month of December, Darwin was far from imagining the revolution that he was to bring about. The young naturalist and explorer might have been something of an amateur, but he had a keen eye for detail. As they set off on the first leg of their journey, he was ready to note down everything he saw in his little yellow notebook. The expedition headed for the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Morocco.

CNRS    sagascience