Thursday, 14 November 2013

Scientific Discovery in the Victorian Era: A Journey to the Galapagos Archipelago

The Voyage of The Beagle, 1831-1836

Portrait of Charles Darwin (1883)

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. The infamous works of Charles Darwin in terms of evolution, and natural selection, along with the bold statement above has resonances with the adaptations modern humans have undertaken in the world today.  If we look back to the years Darwin took a voyage to the perplexing Galapagos Islands, and unravelled its hidden treasures, we are faced with the reality of this. If you’re ready to take this journey with me, let us set sail onto a path of scientific discovery of the advancement of Darwin’s theory whilst taking a look at how his observations have made an impact on the scientific and literary world particularly in the Victorian era. 

September 15th 1835– Galapagos Archipelago
The marvels of evolution are highlighted in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle; his intrigue of fossil fuels and animals are especially highlighted in his arrival at the Galapagos Islands; he is meticulous in his findings and in his expression to the reader, perhaps it is the writing of a journal form which allows for an intimate look into his works.
With different beaks. From Charles Darwin's 'Journal of Researches'
Darwin’s finches, a group of around fifteen passerine birds, initiated controversy amongst the extremely Christian England of the time. He recognised that different species of finch consume different types of foods, for example seed eaters and fruit eaters. These species all differentiated slightly in terms of the shape of their bills which echoed Darwin’s grandfather’s conjecture about mutability of species, an ideology that was shunned in the period. His theory was met sceptically by the Victorians for it contradicted their religious beliefs about the creation of man.
Darwin’s work on the finches of the Galapagos Islands exhibited how animals react and interact with external stimuli and demands – in this instance, the obtaining of necessary nutrients via evolutionary changes of beaks for survival. 

Darwin’s first impressions of the island were not particularly good ones to say the least: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance” (269); he was keen on observing the behaviour of the plant and animal life that surrounded him. The four days that Darwin remained on the Island, saw him collecting many natural history specimens and his precise details in his description of both plant and animal life highlight his passion for science.
Darwin is particularly observant, and through a combination of both literary and scientific looking, it has allowed for a masterpiece creation that is the Voyage of the Beagle. Admittedly, this piece of text is not particularly easy to read or grasp your head around, but what does come across, is Darwin’s passion of science and perseverance in holding out to look find a scientific discovery. Presenting his ideas in the form of a journal, allows easy access to his most intimate findings. The difference between literary and scientific looking is that science is discovered, whereas literature is invented; I find that Darwin has been successful in translating his scientific discovery in a literary way. The juxtaposition of Darwin’s study of the physical world and the art of his written works is outstanding. 

 Illustration (p.397) from Charles Darwin's 'Journal of Researches, first illustrated edition' 1890.
Darwin was fascinated by such oddities as volcanic rocks and giant tortoises. He later wrote about approaching tortoises, which would retreat into their shells - this can be seen as a primal instinct; in that you would retreat from the unknown or what you are not familiar with. 
“I frequently got on their backs, and then, upon giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shell, they would rise up and walk away; but I found it very difficult to keep my balance” (278-279). If I do say so myself, I too would be intrigued of the immense size of the turtles, and would not be able to resist a ride on the turtles as Darwin did.

Fossil extraction became a love of Darwin’s; while on the Island, he collected all sorts of samples. One of the samples Darwin looked at was that of mockingbirds. His observations led him to believe that the birds were somewhat different on each island. His made him think that the birds had a common ancestor, but followed varying evolutionary paths once they separated.
An interesting link that arises between the scientific and literary world is through Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell who based one of her characters Roger Hamley on what most Victorian writers believe to be Charles Darwin. The character of Roger Hamley represents a new authority based on scientific research in the Victorian era yet is still relevant to the modern world. Both Gaskell and Darwin are able to transcend through their literary works a nature of scientific marvel.

Image sourced from The Natural History Museum, London
Darwin’s work has allowed for important collections of his work to be showcased around the UK. During a trip I took to the Natural History Museum, I came across the fossil of a Toxodon. This is positioned even before one enters the main entrance into the museum. If one is not observant, one will miss this artefact. This particular piece is positioned as you enter the door, and I feel it is a sign that arguably portrays the idea that the start of the scientific world begins with one of the findings from Charles Darwin on his expedition. There are signs of evolution all around us in today’s modern world, all one has to do is be observant and it’ll be staring right in front of you.

 “The first Toxodon fossils were discovered by Charles Darwin while visiting Patagonia on his voyage in the Beagle. He wondered at its strange appearance – it seems to share features with both rodents and large ungulates like rhinos. Today Toxodon is seems as distinct from both and is classified in a separate group.” 

Illustration (p.134) from Charles Darwin's 'Journal of Researches, first illustrated edition' 1890.
"judging from the portion of the skeleton preserved, the Toxodon, as far as dental characters have weight, must be referred to the rodont order” (142)

“it is interesting to observe this species is the largest, while at the same time peculiar to the continent in which the remains of the gigantic Toxodon  were discovered.” (142)

Image sourced from The Natural History Museum, London

 At my visit to the Natural History Museum, I came across this image of fossil of primates. This is a primary example of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Just as it says in the caption in the image, we as humans have been given the ability to become more flexible with the tools that we call hand and feet. There is a more distinguished and defined thumb as a result of evolutionary processes. 

Looking back to the quote at the beginning, more specifically at the words, "It is the one that is most adaptable to change"; I believe this highlights the essence of the evolution of Science in the Victorian period. Although the nature of science had and still has its complications, it has taken man on a transcendental journey of wonder and progression. Though the Victorians had their doubts in the belief of the scientific world due to the imbalance it placed with their religious beliefs; it holds through the words of Darwin that adapting to change is what can overcome such anxieties in becoming a stronger species. There will always be the age old argument of Science vs Religion, but it is the one who is able to overcome certain age old views that will be able to evolve physically, mentally, and spiritually regardless of fitness and intelligence.

Take an interactive voyage of your own: Click on the link to experience the voyage for yourself:

Watercolour by HMS Beagle's draughtsman, Conrad Martens

Works Cited:

Darwin,C. Voyage of the Beagle. London: Penguin Classics,1989

The Natural History Expedition,2012


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  2. I remember how confused I felt in the lesson about reading Darwin and his works - I think it is very brave that you tackled what I myself considered a difficult subject to talk about and understand. I agree with you on the point that although the voyage of the Beagle is complex text, it does manage to show us how willing Darwin is to understand the world we live in and how it came to be. When I was reading it to myself I kept thinking, he must be crazy but you have written in your blog that he is passionate about science instead, which makes much more sense. I can see also, his eager and eccentric behaviour of questioning the world around him – would certainly make people in his time question themselves, or even doubt their faith as discussed in last week's lecture – from what I gather change for the Victorians is seen as something that threatens them.

  3. I'm glad you were able to muster an idea of what I was trying to communicate. I must admit, I did question as to why I chose to write about Darwin, however it was that confusion I found in not understanding the text that pushed me to delve further and try to grasp some sort of basic understanding. Darwin's passion for science is prominent and explicit in the text and like you said, it is the eccentric within him. I did find interesting how science came to evolve in the Victorian period however for the Victorians, it was something that they were threatened by as it had the ability to put their faith into question similar to Tennyson's poem 'In Memoriam'. I find that sometimes the art of science can get lost in translation which is why I admire the fact that the text is presented in journal form as for me it made it a little easier to get through the chapters.

  4. I love your bravery for tackling Darwin, although The Voyage of the Beagle was an impossible read for me, this blog has made me view Darwin in a different light as he offered people a different view away from what society enforces, fearless from any consequences of his beliefs for the love of science.

  5. I think you were very brave to take on Darwin, it appears to be something that we all greatly struggled with. I found this so engaging! Darwin's love for science is completely fascinating and I think you do very well to show people just how fearless Darwin was to take on the challenges that he did.