This group portrait of the foundational theorists of evolution opens with the funeral of Charles Darwin, who, despite his wishes, was buried with much pomp in Westminster Abbey in 1882. Three of the men he had both influenced and admired most—botanist Joseph Hooker, biologist Thomas Huxley, and zoogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace—were among his pallbearers. This opening is a clever way of bringing together four men whose biggest adventures were taken independently and at an earlier point in their lives. And yet, it’s no mere artifice: the struggle to gain public acceptance for the idea of natural selection wove the separate strands of their lives together in the end.
Iain McCalman, a historian, and research professor at the University of Sydney has many books and honors to his name. But perhaps equally important to this project is his familiarity with southern latitudes—he was born in Africa and pursued an academic career in Australia. Darwin’s Armada (Norton, 2009) recounts four successive voyages in the South Seas, each with a different ambitious young man in, at least, the partial capacity of naturalist on board. Darwin’s five-year expedition on the Beagle was only the first and most famous one. It was followed a few years later by Hooker, who joined Captain James Clark Ross’s expedition to Antarctica aboard the Erebus, after which Huxley sailed with the Rattlesnake along the coasts of Australia and New Guinea. Wallace was not associated with one particular ship, but the sea played a decisive role in his travels to the Amazon and later to Indonesia as well.
McCalman lays a good deal of groundwork for exploring the early life and forces that led these young men to leave home and travel for long periods in conditions that could hardly be qualified as comfortable. All had to get used to life on a ship, with men who were largely indifferent to the explorers’ aims, though often there would be another officer or surgeon aboard who would share some similar passion for collecting. And though by necessity this was a masculine way of life, all of them were sustained by their correspondence with women, whether family or, as was particularly true in Huxley’s case, those with whom they had formed a romantic attachment. The delay in getting letters meant that momentous news of deaths, births, and marriages would be received a year later. And in Hooker’s case, where much of his future life depended on his success in gathering the right assortment of specimens, he lived for months keenly feeling his father’s apparent disappointment, and not knowing that the next collection he sent had been met with excited approval.
Though the stakes were higher or lower depending on each man’s circumstances, all went to validate themselves at sea. Darwin, for example, had failed to become the doctor his father wanted him to be, and his family feared that he would turn into an idle dilettante. Hooker, without an independent fortune like Darwin, needed to make a mark that would procure him a rarely paid university position. By chance, each successive voyager started from a lowlier and more perilous beginning and had to work even harder than the one before him, not just for prestige, but also to achieve some recognition within the British society. But even their scientific accomplishments did not always bring them security.
The naturalists’ mutual interest in travel, adventure, and collecting specimens had a literary foundation. A British publication called Boy’s Own Paper, which both Darwin and Hooker had read in childhood, sparked dreams of exploration and discovery. Darwin’s ambitions were kindled by the Personal Narrative of Alexander von Humboldt, which told of his adventures in Tenerife and South America. And all four read, or, at least, knew of, the geological studies of Charles Lyell, which impressed them with new ideas of how old the earth really was, and how its formation had been slowly affected during this “deep time.” Once Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle had come out, the younger naturalists had read it too. In fact, a shipboard life, with its long stretches of idleness, proved to be a good basis for a scientific education, especially when a library was available on board.
But McCalman’s book is not all about scholarly research. Life at sea also held many adventures, some of them harrowing. As he describes it, this mixture of scientific discovery and hardship, combined at times with great beauty, shaped the travelers’ disparate personalities to a common understanding of the natural world. Though coming as they did from very different social backgrounds, they were in the end united in their advocacy of Darwin’s central tenets.
The final section shows how a very deliberate campaign on the part of the group and their supporters sensitized the public to give credence to the theory of evolution, which was revolutionary in its implications. Darwin felt more comfortable about publishing his theory because Wallace had come to the same conclusion on his own. Some discussion of how Darwin dealt with his rival and whether he was fair to him does come up for review, but, in general, McCalman is more interested in the bonds that he formed with the other men. And after all, Wallace remained a faithful friend to Darwin till the latter’s death.
Although the structure of Darwin’s Armada might be seen as repetitive, the effect is cumulative and at times quite moving. We are now in a different age, but one wonders what dreams of discovery and adventure might yet be planted by McCalman’s retelling of these voyages.
Freelance writer residing in Santa Cruz, CA.