Moth Eyes

Navigating a demon-haunted world

On the Origin of Species

Today is the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s masterpiece, the first edition of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. It’s been a while since I last read it, and my view of evolution has changed several times since – so I’m not going to try and review it. I will say that it’s well worth a read 🙂

I had originally hoped to finish The Voyage of the Beagle well before this date, but my unexpectedly starting an honour’s degree got somewhat in the way of that: thus the now 6-month delay on that! As soon as I get this thesis finished (I will finish it… I will finish it… I will finish it…) I’ll get back on it.

November 24, 2009 at 10:48 pm Comment (1)

Chapter 09 – Santa Cruz, Patagonia and the Falkland Islands

Another 3 week delay between chapters! I’m not very good at this…

On April 13, 1834, the Beagle anchors at the mouth of the Santa Cruz, a long river running much of the way through South America. The previous voyage of the Beagle explored a short distance of this river and FitzRoy is determined to explore more of it. As such, he sends out an expedition consisting of himself, Darwin and 23 crewmen in three whale boats. They will travel inland 140 miles, reaching a point just 60 miles from the Pacific Ocean.
The Santa Cruz

Often the current is too strong to row against, and in these cases a few men are left with the boats while the rest of the party continues on foot. There are signs of Indian activity in the area, and the party feels that they have been reconnoitered.


May 17, 2009 at 12:41 am Comments (0)

Chapter 08 – Banda Oriental and Patagonia

This is a fairly long chapter, and much of it is a journal, from commentary on religious tolerance to the scientific education of the population (there are locals who express astonishment to learn that the world is round). And, then, suddenly, in the last couple of pages, we’re suddenly hit with biogeography, natural history, and the economy of nature. But more on that when we get there.

Having been delayed by the rebellion in Las Conchas for some time, Darwin rides to catch the Beagle before it leaves Monte Video. When he gets there, however, he discovers that the Beagle isn’t sailing for a couple of weeks, and so decides to travel across the plains of Patagonia.

A local breed of cattle, called the niata, differ from normal cattle. There’s an inkling of natural selection here: common cattle are able to browse on trees, but the niata are less able – and so die sooner during a drought. Darwin comments that this sort of thing has implications on the extinction of species – it is determined often by irregular, but nonetheless natural, events.


April 23, 2009 at 10:21 pm Comments (0)

Chapter 7 – Buenos Aires and St Fé

First off, the other day I mentioned that I would say something about my honour’s work sooner or later. I will, and, considering how excited I am about the upcoming Paul Nelson day, I’ll post something about it tomorrow*.

This is also a pretty significant chapter: there is a tremendous discussion of the biogeography of both extant and extinct species, and several instances of what are probably sexual selection, though the utility is in neither case apparent to Darwin.

Darwin first discusses bizcacha a rodent similar to an agouti. Bizcachas have never been seen east of the Uruguay River, even though the vegetation there would be well suited to their tastes. They have a habit of gathering hard objects and placing them near their burrows, but not in a way that might be employed for self-defense. He compares this to an Australian bowerbird, Chlamydera maculata. The purpose of even the bowerbird’s collections have not yet been identified: “…the Calodera maculata, which makes an elegant vaulted passage of twigs for playing in, and which collects near the spot, land and sea shells, bones and the feathers of birds, especially brightly coloured ones.” Darwin does not attempt to speculate as to the bizcacha’s purpose in accumulating these objects. The locals in both locations will, when they lose some item, will begin their searches near the nests of these creatures – often quite successfully.

April 7, 2009 at 12:50 am Comments (0)

Chapter 6 – Bahia Blanca to Buenos Aires

I’m not going to say very much about this chapter – mostly, it’s a diary of a mostly uneventful trip across the plains, via a series of military outposts. I’m only planning on bringing up a few interesting anecdotes.

Darwin passes a high mountain, unexplored by any Europeans. Naturally, therefore, there were a lot of rumours. “Hence we heard of beds of coal, of gold and silver, of caves, and of forests, all of which inflamed my curiosity, only to disappoint.”

He discusses invasive species:

Near the Guardia we find the southern limit of two European plants, now become extraordinarily common. The fennel in great profusion covers the ditch-banks in the neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, Monte Video, and other towns. But the cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) has a far wider range: it occurs in these latitudes on both sides of the, Cordillera [mountain range along a coastline], across the continent. I saw it in unfrequented spots in Chile, Entre Rios, Banda Oriental. In the latter country alone, very many (probably several hundred) square miles are covered by one mass of these prickly plants, and are impenetrable by man or beat. Over the undulating plains, where these greats beds occur, nothing else can now live. Before their introduction, however, the surface must have supported, as in other parts, a rank herbage. I doubt whether any case is on record of an invasion on so grand a scale of one plant over the aborigines.

March 26, 2009 at 8:26 pm Comments (0)

Chapter 05 – Bahia Blanca

So, uh, a three week delay. This was a really dense chapter? That’s true, certainly, but perhaps more relevantly, I completely unexpectedly started an honours degree (I didn’t actually finish the application, and wasn’t exactly planning on doing so this year anyway, but they accepted me anyway). More on that later, but let’s return to the narrative.

… I observed a fact, which seems to me very curious and instructive, as showing how every character, even though it may be in some degree independent of structure, has a tendency to vary by small degrees.
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

After the Beagle sails from Bahia Blanca, Darwin remains on land to ride to Buenos Aires. In this chapter, Darwin discusses paleontology, ecology, the animals he finds in the area, and the war against the Indians. It’s also a rich source for fascinating insights into Darwin’s thinking, and I’ve taken the liberty of bringing out quite a few interesting quotes. Again, we can see how many observations Darwin made that led him to developing his theory.

Nearer the coast there are some plains formed from the wreck of the upper plain, and from mud, gravel, and sand thrown up by the sea during the slow elevation of the land, of which we have evidence in upraised beds of recent shells, and in rounded pebbles of pumice scattered over the country. At Punta Alta we have a section of one of these later-formed little plains, which is highly interesting from the number and extraordinary character of the remains of gigantic land-animals embedded in it.


March 24, 2009 at 1:10 am Comments (0)

Chapter 04 – Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca

Thus we have a little living world within itself adapted to these inland lakes of brine.
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

On April 3, 1833, the Beagle arrives at the mouth of the Rio Negro. Darwin begins by commenting on the geography: sandstone strata, with a layer of pumice (volcanic) pebbles – did these travel all the way (400 miles) from the Andes? The surface is largely gravel, with even brackish water scarce. The small colony, called El Carmen (or Patagones), is small and at risk from attack by Indians, and stories of several such attacks are related to Darwin.

March 1, 2009 at 12:21 pm Comments (6)

Chapter 03 – Maldonado

Lamarck would have been delighted with this fact…
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

July 5, 1832 – The Beagle sails from Rio de Janeiro to Maldonado, a small town of little trade (now a town of some 55,000 people in Uruguay). Darwin spends 10 weeks here, exploring the region and collecting specimens. The people here had had very little contact with the outside world, and had never seen a compass, or a map, or even a match. Their world geography was a little confused – some of them thought that England was a large village in London, or that London, England, and North America were different names for the same place. As Darwin’s party ride west across the plains, Darwin tries using a “lazo” (lasso) and bolas (weighted balls tied to a rope, which, when thrown, entangle the target’s legs), and manages to accidentally catch his own horse with the bolas (the horse, unlike Darwin’s pride, was not injured).


February 18, 2009 at 12:14 am Comments (4)

Chapter 02 – Rio de Janeiro

One of the recurring themes of this chapter is Darwin’s opposition to slavery. Darwin does not only oppose slavery on an intellectual level, but also as someone who has witnessed the cruelties and horror of a slave country with his own eyes.

It is also becoming increasingly obvious that it is not true, as often supposed, that Darwin had a sudden “Eureka!” moment, perhaps whilst whilst observing the Galapagos finches or some such. Instead, Darwin came to his great idea thanks to the accumulation of vast observational experience, and the some of the first inklings of evidence for his theory can be easily found in this chapter.

February 14, 2009 at 9:34 pm Comments (0)

Chapter 01 – St Jargo to Cape de Verd Island

The Beagle may have been delayed initially, first by unhelpful winds and then fears that the ship was carrying cholera, but Darwin nonetheless gets straight into the action, describing the geology of the first stop at Porto Praya (Jan 16, 1832). The rains only come a few times a year, and the wanton destruction of the island’s original covering of trees has caused “almost entire sterility”. He also describes a kingfisher, and contrasts it with a European kingfisher.

February 12, 2009 at 9:42 pm Comment (1)