Big Bug Theory

Voyaging; Volume 1 of a Biography
By Janet Browne
Princeton University Press, 632 pp.

When Charles Darwin was a young man, he wasn’t important enough to have his portrait painted, and daguerreotypes had only just been invented. So the likenesses we have of him are of the older Darwin, a bald, heavy-set Dickensian figure, with great mutton chops and a heavy brow. He looks exactly like what he became: a stalwart Victorian patriarch.

Hard to imagine that he was once, for his time, the very model of that postmodern phenomenon, the aimless, disaffected Gen-Xer.

Like young people today, Darwin came of age in an era of rapid technological change and fractious intellectual division. Like many young people today, he had been badly served by his formal schooling. His family was moneyed and respectable, and Darwin was expected to maintain that station, but he had no clear idea of what the world held for him or even what he wanted from it.

His father, a country physician who had invested wisely, favoured careers in medicine for both his sons. For lack of an alternative, the elder, Erasmus, complied, but Charles balked, drifting from pre-med at the University of Edinburgh to general arts at Cambridge, where he thought he might study for the Anglican priesthood. But like many Gen-Xers, he was disconnected from his studies, largely because (quite rightly) he couldn’t believe in them. Medicine in the early 1800s was brutish at best, and theology was fast becoming a hidebound rearguard action against the new natural philosophy. Darwin spent most of his undergraduate days killing time and wildlife in the idle pleasures of the privileged – riding, shooting and dining.

His problem wasn’t that he lacked passion. It was that his passion was his hobby, and no one around him thought he could make a career out of it. As it happened, he was in on the ground floor of a meteoric stock.

Even as schoolboys, Erasmus and Charles had been mad for natural history. They collected specimens, conducted experiments and spent the bulk of their pocket money on equipment for their homemade lab. What computers are to youths today, glassware was to Darwin. Perfectly well adjusted, he was one of the original science geeks.

Luckily, at Cambridge he fell in with a good crowd – especially professors who recognized his promise and encouraged his thoughts. Still, by the time he graduated he was little more than a gentleman amateur. Then, out of the blue, an opportunity presented itself. Darwin did what generations of young people have done in similar circumstances: He postponed matters by going abroad, and in doing so found his calling.

Through his Cambridge connections, he received an invitation to join the round-the-world voyage of HMS Beagle. He would sail as the ship’s titular naturalist, but he was really on board as the companion of the young, patrician captain, Fitzroy. It wasn’t even a paying proposition. For five full years, Darwin drew heavily on the Bank of Dad.

Among the many merits of this rich and stately biography is the detailed portrait it offers of a young mind in formation. The aim is straightforward enough – to trace the circumstances that would lead to the publication in 1859 of On the Origin of Species. But Janet Browne has charted more than the genesis of a theory. This is an account of an historical turning point – a moment when a new science overhauled what an entire culture would believe – focusing on the young man whose later work would be instrumental in that revolution. It is a history of the end of an era.

Browne all but apologizes in her introduction that a biography of Darwin is necessarily the life of an unspectacular man who just happened to hit upon spectacular ideas. In fact, however, his youth was a great adventure, especially the years on the Beagle. He trekked through the Andes, rode an elephant on Mauritius, galloped and shot with the gauchos on the pampas (his idle undergraduate pursuits coming in handy), saw icebergs and volcanoes, marched with the ship’s marines to put down a local mutiny in Montevideo, encountered wild tribes of naked men, and everywhere collected specimens of everything he could lay his hands on.

It was his account of his travels aboard the Beagle and his observations that established him as a man of science upon his return. The most learned and progressive of English natural historians fell upon the crates of specimens he brought back. His diary of the voyage made him famous; it was one of the first in a new genre of bestsellers – the travel journal of the educated observer. Other, more scientific works on zoology and geology gave him a reputation within intellectual circles and set his mind to thinking about how species came to be.

Although it ends just as he’s about to embark on his masterwork, this first volume is crucial to understanding what Darwin became. Curiously, what he became was one of the first of a short-lived species: the independent gentleman scientist, unaffiliated with any institution, living off the royalties from his publications and free to pursue whatever interests he chose. Not long after his death, scientific research became the exclusive preserve of industry and universities. It’s hard, then, not to look at his life the way he looked at his South American fossils – as an excellent specimen of a breed now

  • Globe and Mail March 23, 1995