This account of Darwin’s 5-year journey around the world is armchair traveling at its finest–every page offering the reader a shameless escape to foreign landscapes and civilisations. The author’s scientific observations are communicated in prose that is both sensible and sensitive. The occasional dry sections are more than compensated for by the few places where Darwin allows himself a poetical description or insightful commentary beyond what is strictly necessary or scientifically relevant.
In much the same way that reading the Seven Pillars of Wisdom completely shattered my unfavourable preconceptions of T.E. Lawrence, this book changed my opinion of Charles Darwin. As a Christian with deeply skeptical tendencies (especially inflamed by scientists’ general attitude of infallibility), I’ve always had an ominous, hazy view of Darwin as some sort of Antichrist of Science. The Darwin of this book was not so. Not only was he a total badass, braving extreme weather, forbidding terrain and a multitude of terrifying insects that I would not feel comfortable viewing in a zoo, much less in my sleeping bag; he was also open to the spiritual aspects of human existence and respectful (even approving) of Christianity. He shows a childlike eagerness to “fill up the wide gaps of knowledge” so obvious to his questioning mind, and a thoughtful humility when identifying any “inaccurate and superficial hypotheses” he might have created in travel-induced haste and enthusiasm. While the book’s focus is mostly on geology, zoology and botany, Darwin does provide information about the human component of his trip, displaying compassion toward the less-fortunate and a marvelling thankfulness toward the helpful. All of which leads me to feel great respect for him, both as a man and a scientist.
A note on the book edition (Bantam Classic, 1958): it is sparsely illustrated and altogether missing a map of any kind. I found myself in the unusual position of needing a map and not finding one, instead of the more usual scenario: seeing an unnecessary map at the beginning of the book and then feeling guilty through the rest for not referring back to it even once. Given the geographical nature of the content and Darwin’s penchant for referring to unfamiliar animals by their Latin names only, I would suggest reading a heavily annotated version of this book, accompanied by as many illustrations and maps as possible.
[Why I read it: saw it in the thrift store for 99¢ and decided it might be a relatively painless way to challenge my preconceptions about Darwin. I hoped it would focus more on travel observations (which it did) than on complicated scientific theories that might put me in the unenviable situation of doubting, but not being knowledgeable enough to refute.]