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86 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charles Darwin as Indiana Jones, September 27, 2004
This review is from: The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches (Penguin Classics) (Paperback)
We all know Charles Darwin as a scholarly bearded old English gentleman, and like Leonardo da Vinci, Darwin has this image defining him for all future generations. Even though most everyone knows Darwin spent five years traveling the oceans on the HMS Beagle, the image of a young dynamic Darwin never takes over. Reading this book will change this.

Darwin sailed on the Beagle, a small three-mast sailing ship, and circumnavigated the globe. Over five years, he visited numerous islands in the Atlantic and Pacific and extensively surveyed the east and west coasts of South America. He hiked up and down mountains, traveled on horseback across the arid Argentinean plains, crossed the lonely Peruvian desert, and trekked the grandiose Chilean Cordilleras. He thought nothing of packing a train of mules for a two-month overland journey across the Andes going from Chile to Argentina and back again. On all his land expeditions he hired local guides, from Gauchos in Argentina to South Pacific islanders in Tahiti. Darwin's accounts of his expeditions are not only interesting adventures, they are also good portraits of the people he met. These include Latin American governors and generals, Argentinean ranchers, very primitive natives on Tierra del Fuego, and so on.

The journal begins with an account of Cape de Verd islands, then most of the book is spent on Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, and we have to wait until Chapter 17 before we get to what all Darwin fans really want to read, namely the account of his visit to the Galapagos. Though short, the account does not disappoint. We read of Darwin's finches, of two allied species of lizards, and of the giant turtles. Darwin also presents his great insight: that geographical isolation contributes to speciation. He came by this insight when it was pointed out to him that nearly identical species were seldom found on the same island. Another insight was that the fauna and flora an island depends more on that of the nearby mainland than on latitude. For example the plants of the Galapagos Islands were similar to those of the American west coast, while those of Cape de Verd, at the same latitude but in the Atlantic, resembled plants found in Africa. Darwin then continues with accounts of Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia, where we read how he thought coral reef islands were formed.

In the last chapter Darwin tells us of his visit to St-Helena and he does in fact mention its most famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte. Though the French Emperor had already died, his remains had not yet been moved to Les Invalides in Paris. Darwin writes of the grave only in passing and is explicitly careful not too make too much of it. Apparently visitors in those days had a habit of overdoing their descriptions of Napoleon's rather simple headstone.

Travel notes like these and the descriptions of the people he met, were for me the most charming aspect of the book. The portraits Darwin paints are invariably sympathetic to human nature. Certainly Darwin was a man of his times and valued civilization very highly, but he was no racist and believed that all men could find happiness and enlightenment, and that all men had a right to be free. He despised slavery, and wrote eloquent passages attacking the prevalent institution. From this journal, we come to know a dynamic, adventurous young man, and a thoughtful liberal one who would only later shake our view of our place in the world.
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