Observations of a travelling naturalist

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Charles Darwin's Zoology Notes & Specimen Lists from H.M.S. Beagle

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Cambridge University Press: 2000. 428 pp. £95, $150

Even though Charles Darwin's experiences during the Beagle voyage have been endlessly — and fascinatingly — explored, there is much still to discover. Whereas current biographies try to do justice to the full adventure, and specialist volumes pick through Darwin's key moments, it can come as something of a shock to realize that there are highly significant manuscripts still languishing virtually unread in the archives of Cambridge University Library.

Prime among these are Darwin's zoological notes, the record that he compiled day by day as he travelled around the world. The publication of his complete correspondence from that period provides stunning insight into the larger world of early-nineteenth-century travel and natural history. Darwin's notes described his observations and dissections of marine organisms, invertebrates, birds, reptiles and mammals. These notes were additional to his journal, and to the pocket-sized field notebooks that he carried with him on expeditions ashore, and the lists of specimens he made. The zoological notes contain the information about nature in the raw that he wanted to capture for posterity — the habitat descriptions, records of behaviour, specimens' stomach contents, animals' appearances in life, and observations under the microscope that would be essential when he arrived back in England.

These provided the real backbone to Darwin's understanding of the biological kingdom, and show that even on the voyage he was grappling with momentous questions about the definition of life, individuality, reproduction and taxonomic relationships. Darwin's zoological notes made during the Beagle voyage, in fact, reveal him as a true biologist, working and thinking at levels of intensity that were afterwards somewhat masked by the informal, self-deprecating style of his Journal of a Naturalist. But they would emerge in their most powerful form in the Origin of Species in 1859.

Richard Darwin Keynes provides biologists with a real treat by making these important manuscripts accessible for the first time. Darwin's writing style was vivid and accurate. Here and there he added the kind of impromptu sketch that a field naturalist would recognize immediately as the best means to jog the memory after a specimen has disappeared into its jar or travelling cask — the leading characteristics of a puzzling water flea, perhaps, or the internal anatomy of coralline algae, the organisms that first caught Darwin's imagination as a medical student working with his mentor Robert Grant on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Scotland.

One ghost that will be laid to rest is the extent to which Darwin might be thought to have been an amateur naturalist on this voyage. It is perfectly clear that he was a superbly skilled observer who intended making the most of the unrivalled opportunities presented to him. In his notes he carefully compared new organisms with descriptions of comparable species in the authoritative textbooks available to him — the comprehensive library on board the Beagle was a great asset to his researches. He was meticulous in dissecting under the microscope, performing small experiments and recording the necessary details. He recorded his questions and possible fields for future research when he returned to England. And it should be said that for many years after the Beagle's return Darwin planned to classify his invertebrate collection himself. Keynes has identified most, if not all, of the animals Darwin discusses, and these helpful identifications add greatly to the volume's value. Providing these identifications must have been an enormous undertaking.

The text is arranged in semi-facsimile, so that the sequence of Darwin's researches, and much of his excitement, is retained. The steps in his self-education in the biological sciences become much clearer. Nor did Darwin confine himself to strictly zoological observations. The phosphorescence of the sea, for example, transfixed him with its beauty, although he made sure also to strain a pint pot of the luminous water through fine gauze and put it under the microscope. “In the water were some minute Crustaceae of the genus Cyclops. I should not be surprised if these added to the effect.” Many of his descriptions of land and maritime scenery are very fine. After the Beagle returned, Darwin used a number of these passages to enhance his Journal of a Naturalist .

The volume includes a scholarly and sympathetic introduction, and transcripts of the relevant catalogues of species that Darwin made during the expedition. Keynes has previously rendered signal service to Darwinists of all persuasions with his account of the Beagle Record and by transcribing anew Darwin's Beagle Diary. Here is another distinguished contribution that will illuminate this special region of Darwin's heart.

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