Tech UPTechnologyYoung Darwin: this is how he embarked on the...

Young Darwin: this is how he embarked on the journey that would change biology

One of the most important and controversial books ever written appeared more than 150 years ago. The first edition consisted of 1,250 copies at 15 shillings each and sold out the next day. The book unleashed a strong controversy and was the object of harsh attacks and insults towards its author. It was not a book on politics, philosophy or religion, although it has had a fundamental influence on all of them. It was a science book; more specifically about biology. Its full title, On the origin of species through natural selection, or the preservation of the favored races in the struggle for life . Its author, an English naturalist born in 1809 who was going to be a doctor but who graduated in theology from Cambridge: Charles Darwin.

This naturalist without any science degree revolutionized the world of science much more profoundly than Copernicus or Galileo . He learned the secrets of the trade from the hands of two greats of his time: the botanist John Stevens Henslow and the geologist Adam Sedgwick. He was what his Uncle Joshiah called “a man of boundless curiosity.” No one who knew him from his school days could have imagined him as the founding father of biology. In Darwin’s own words in his Autobiography , “When I left school I was neither very bright nor very dull for my age; I think my teachers and my father considered me a normal boy, perhaps below the average intellectual level”.

darwin at university

Seeking to continue the family tradition, his father Robert sent him to study medicine in Edinburgh in the fall of 1825, when Charles was 16 years old. However, he was not about to succeed his father in the profession, who was then 61 years old. Charles had been in Edinburgh for two years, dedicating himself to such non-medical pursuits as zoology, geology or taxidermy, when his father found out that he did not want to be a doctor… through the mouth of his sisters. And while Charles was trying not to spend the holidays at home, traveling with his uncle Josiah to Scotland, Ireland, London and Paris, his father decided that he should become a clergyman . And nothing better than Cambridge for it.

“During the three years that I spent in Cambridge, from the point of view of my academic studies, I wasted my time as regrettably as in Edinburgh and at school,” Darwin himself would write at the end of his days. “I know I should feel ashamed of the days and evenings spent in this way,” he wrote, acknowledging his failure…and his passion for hunting. In the end, with good grades in geometry and the classics, he got the title.

In the spring of 1831 Darwin left Cambridge and afternoons of botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy and zoology with Henslow (his fellow students at the university knew him as “the man who walks with Henslow”) and that summer his friend and mentor he informed him of the post of naturalist on the Beagle . Charles was in a certain way predisposed because he had just read his Journey to the equinoctial regions of the New Continent , which had aroused his interest in traveling to Tenerife, to the point that he dedicated himself to looking for ships that would take him there and began to study Spanish. .

A captain looks for a naturalist

The turning point in Darwin’s life came on August 24, 1831, when Henslow informed him of the offer by the captain of HMS Beagle to “give part of his own cabin to a young man who volunteers to accompany him, without compensation.” , as a naturalist, during the voyage of the Beagle ”. The job was to collect, observe and write down everything possible about the animals and plants that were found during their journey. In fact , the real reason was to provide Fitzroy with someone other than a subordinate with whom he could talk . Because of the iron discipline of the English navy, whoever held command of a ship of His Graceful Majesty was always accompanied by a deep and, at times, unbearable sense of loneliness. Suicides were not strange currency among captains.

The greatest disadvantage of a sailing ship like the Beagle was the small crew that had to live in close contact for a long time, to which must be added its captain, a rude sailor, an illegitimate descendant of Charles II, with an unbearable character, especially in the early hours of the morning, and prone to depressions named Robert Fitzroy . He rose through the ranks during a reconnaissance mission to South America in 1828. Captain Pringle Stokes committed suicide while they were still in Tierra del Fuego and the Admiralty Office in the city of Rio de Janeiro decided to put the young lieutenant, 23, in command of the ship.

The journey that would change biology

Fitzroy’s second voyage of the Beagle was initially intended to measure “accurately the lengths of numerous oceanic islands and continents ” in South America, but was eventually expanded to a five-year voyage around the world. FitzRoy paid out of pocket for nearly all the repairs and upgrades that this 100-foot-long ship needed.

Darwin was enthusiastic about the offer and asked his father’s permission , but he refused. Only through the intercession of his maternal uncle Josiah Wedgwood, who traveled to defend Charles personally, was he able to embark on December 27. For 5 years he lived away from civilization, except for the few letters that came from home, influenced only by the things he saw and his shipmates. Scientifically, he was totally alone : “The main objects are these,” he wrote while waiting for the day of departure in Devonport, “to collect, observe and read all that I can, related to any of the branches of natural history. Weather observations, French and Spanish, math, a bit of the classics, maybe just the Greek Testament on Sundays.” Strange traveling companions, no doubt. Two of the books he took with him on a voyage where his portion of the cabin didn’t leave room for much were Humboldt’s Voyage and Milton’s Paradise Lost .


Darwin, C. (2019), Autobiography, Nordic Books

Van Wyhe, J. (2018), Darwin, Anaya

Milner, R. (1990) The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity’s Search for Its Origins, ‎Facts on File

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