Monday, April 16, 2018

Evolution's Captain

Evolution's Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping That Led to Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard the Beagle- Peter Nichols
Release Date: June 29, 2004


Synopsis: One of the great ironies of history is that the famous journey—wherein Charles Darwin consolidated the earth-rattling ‘origin of the species’ discoveries—was conceived by another man: Robert FitzRoy. It was FitzRoy who chose Darwin for the journey—not because of Darwin’s scientific expertise, but because he seemed a suitable companion to help FitzRoy fight back the mental illness that had plagued his family for generations. Darwin did not give FitzRoy solace; indeed, the clash between the two men’s opposing views, together with the ramifications of Darwin’s revelations, provided FitzRoy with the final unendurable torment that forced him to end his own life.


Evolution's Captain is a fascinating book following Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle and brilliant surveyor.  The book chronicles Fitzroy's two trips on the Beagle and his adventures surveying South America and Tierra del Fuego for the British admiralty.  Along the way Fitzroy becomes fascinated by the native Fuegians and ends up kidnapping three of them and bringing them back to England. His intention is typical of a man of his time: to educate the Fuegians in British manners, 'civilize' them as proper Englishmen (and one woman), convert them to Christianity and then return them to Tierra del Fuego to spread English Christian Civilization through the islands.  

As much as a modern reader cringes at the concept and thoughts expressed in many of the journals and diaries left by Fitzroy, Darwin, and others of the time period, there is no escaping that for a large part of the 1800s this was how England viewed the world and tried to change it in its image.  The trick for any historian is to try and explain to modern readers the culture of the time period- religious, political, and social- that led to this attitude and life approach.  In this Nichols does an excellent job.  The cultural background he explains makes for fascinating reading and helps us gain something of the perspective that Fitzroy was using during his exploits.  While you don't agree with him, at least you come to understand where he was coming from.  

The great temptation for a book like this would be to have all of the first expedition and Fitzroy's life leading up to Darwin's arrival on the Beagle for the second voyage be merely setting the stage for Darwin and allowing him to take over the rest of the book.  I liked that Nichols resists that temptation and makes Darwin another way for us to follow and understand Fitzroy instead of becoming the centerpiece himself. Darwin is also a symbol (or a symptom) of Fitzroy's thinking later in life.  The Victorian era was one of the greatest and fastest changing eras in terms of social and scientific thought until the creation of the internet.  Babbage's analytic machine, the steam engine, developments in geology and biology brought huge changes with them.  Fitzroy, originally something of an amateur scientist himself, becomes one of the reactionaries who take up the religious mania of the times and attempts to use literal readings of the Bible to argue against growing ideas of evolution and scientific change. The great irony of his life becomes his friendship with Darwin and his decision to bring Darwin on the second expedition as a companion, only to be haunted in later life by Darwin's ideas and the feeling that he was personally to blame for their development.  While Nichols ably proves that this was not the case, it haunted Fitzroy for the rest of his life.

My only complaint is one I often have with histories or biographies- Nichols tends to allow foreshadowing to creep into his writing (especially at the end of chapters). The common "if only they knew", "this would change everything" type of remarks always annoy me, although Nichols does it less than some biographies I've read.

A fascinating book, and a must read for people interested in Victorian England and its cultural/scientific/religious developments , sea exploration and adventure , and South America.

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