Brief Book Review: “Darwin Slept Here”

| 23 Comments

I know this is brief, but I’m pressed for time and I liked the book and wanted to say something about it here.

Eric Simons, a graduate of UC Berkeley’s graduate program in environmental and science writing, recently published Darwin Slept Here. In contrast to the plethora of books on Darwin marking the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species, which tend to focus on the development of the science and the mature man, Simons’ book asked ‘What was it like for Charles Darwin, a young guy just out of college, to visit all those places that were so foreign to him and the culture in which he had been raised?’ Could a 21st century Californian, not much older than Darwin’s age at the time, recapture some of the feelings Darwin recorded himself as having in his Beagle Diary if he trekked up as far as he could toward the headwaters of the Rio Santa Cruz, as Darwin, Fitzroy, and some crewmen of the Beagle did? Would Tierra del Fuego elicit the same feelings of revulsion and fascination? Is the inland of Patagonia really that barren? And was that really Charles Darwin, aboard the Beagle called “Philosopher,” traveling overland on horseback for weeks with a party of gauchos, sleeping rough every night with a saddle for a pillow, meeting a revolutionary general and talking his way through hostile lines to get into town? Who is that cowboy anyway?

And did anyone in those places Darwin visited know that he was there?

Simons didn’t track Darwin’s travels slavishly, but in separate trips to the east and west coasts of South America visited a number of the places and repeated a number of the inland trips Darwin recorded in his Beagle diary (linked above). Simons climbed some of the peaks Darwin climbed, seeing (more or less) the same views that impressed Darwin, and followed some of the rivers Darwin followed inland.

Throughout the book Simons notices the changes – and in some cases the lack of changes – from Darwin’s day. He tries to find the witch cave on Chiloe, a legend that Darwin had missed, but only experiences the island’s miserable winter weather of which Darwin remarked “We were all glad to leave Chiloe; at the time of year nothing but an amphibious animal could tolerate the climate.”

I will skip over Simons’ description of “The Adventure of the Beagle,” a musical in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. You have to read it yourself, or perhaps imagine it with your Monty Python goggles on. I’ll reproduce just the chorus from one song sung by the crew:


We’ll fight the roaring seas
We shall face no defeat
All across the Seven Seas
The Beagle will succeed.

Simons climbs the highest peak of Ceros Tres Picos alone, a peak spotted from 50 miles away by Captain Fitzroy aboard the Beagle, whereas Darwin, also climbing alone, took a wrong turning due to an informant’s bad instructions and failed to reach the top of the highest of the three peaks. Simons got better instructions from a local physical education instructor, but he sympathizes with Darwin’s clear frustration at failing to make the highest peak, as recorded in his diary.

Following the course of the Rio Santa Cruz in a rental car, Simons sees essentially the same environment Darwin saw, but Simons has an advantage: He knows that the river that had turned frustratingly tortuous for Darwin and Fitzroy would straighten soon. They didn’t know that, and running low on rations and energy from laboring upstream for three weeks, all hands toiling along the river’s bank hauling their boats upstream with towropes, the Beagle expedition turned back and didn’t reach the headwaters of the river. Both Fitzroy and Darwin were disappointed.

Late in the book. describing a scene along the Rio Claro near where Darwin sought its confluence with the Rio Elque, Simons wrote what I think is the best short summary of Darwin the man that I’ve read. He wrote

There’s a danger in labeling someone a genius; it makes them inaccessible. Darwin the Genius is beyond the reach of sympathy. But Darwin the person–the one who stood and watched the sunset over this same river, the one who would happily join in with Josh and I in skipping rocks–well, he was a lot like us. He was us. His career-crowning idea of evolution by natural selection is a triumph of human achievement that sprang from the perfectly achievable endeavors of careful observation, meticulous note-taking, and joyous, boundless curiosity. (p 224)

This is not a heavy book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, but it nevertheless brings into clearer view what it must have been like for Darwin the young English man to see exotic sights he could never have imagined when he was Oxford, Alexander von Humboldt’s travel narrative notwithstanding. Darwin read von Humboldt, but he lived the voyage of the Beagle and Simons gives us a flavor of what that must have been like.

Added in edit: Simons has a photo essay about his travels on the Web for Seed Magazine.

23 Comments

Excellent - thanks for taking the time to write this - I’ll check out the book - down from the pedestal it’s easier to appreciate and appreciate fully what some men accomplish - up on the pedestal is too stuffy and way to easy of a target. I pity those that deny science because of dogma. God - the creator whatever you want to call him gave us all our faculties to use them. Science is the understanding of creation and creation is the only evidence of a god or creative force. They easily co-exist and are not mutually co-exclusive.

Paul Author-Journey Home

There is a creationist video “Where Darwin Went Wrong” on YouTube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dar[…]ture=related

It features YEC geologist Steve Austin on the Rio Santa Cruz.

Clinical mind numbing by alchololic berverages recommended prior to watching.

Gary Hurd said:

There is a creationist video “Where Darwin Went Wrong” on YouTube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dar[…]ture=related

It features YEC geologist Steve Austin on the Rio Santa Cruz.

Clinical mind numbing by alchololic berverages recommended prior to watching.

Why did I think it would be good to watch the video? Isn’t YEC and geologist an oxymoron. Steve Austin failed geography, history and science in his video.

When I have time I would love to read this book.

Anthony said:

Why did I think it would be good to watch the video? Isn’t YEC and geologist an oxymoron. Steve Austin failed geography, history and science in his video.

A bit like the Steve Austin bionic man TV character who failed physics.

Imagine having some powerful spring-loaded legs that are supposed to propel you to the top of a building. The impulse would drive the entire mechanism up through your pelvis and into your guts before your body could even start moving.

It’s another good metaphor for where ID propels one who straps it on.

Anthony said:

Why did I think it would be good to watch the video?

I cannot stand to watch such crank videos any longer. On paper their musings can be skimmed, but on video one must go at their pace and tolerate the self-seriousness of the pitch.

Some find this sort of thing amusing, but I wanted humor I would prefer to listen to somebody being clever at it. An overly earnest demonstration of incompetence is not all that amusing the first time around, and after the tenth time around it’s tiresome. I watch such videos for about ten seconds and then by reflex kill the video.

MrG http://www.vectorsite.net

This Darwin-graced billboard (in Wichita, KS, no less) will warm your hearts.

http://www.kwch.com/global/story.asp?s=10065612

I work in Wichita, and it just tickles me to no end.….

Scott S. said:

This Darwin-graced billboard (in Wichita, KS, no less) will warm your hearts.

All I could think was: “Oh no, here comes the DARWINISM IS REALLY A RELIGION sniping again.”

MrG http://www.vectorsite.net

They’re praising the capital of the Northern Territory of Australia? I don’t get it. :p

From your description of it, it could be titled “Darwin Schlepped Here”. :-)

It sounds like a very interesting book. I will have to look for it. I’ve read accounts of Darwin’s voyage, but this seems like a different, more personal account of his experiences.

Thanks for the review.

Mike Elzinga: That sort of thing used to bother me about The Six-Million Dollar Man, too, though I hadn’t thought of that specific example. I’m perfectly happy to accept the One Miracle as long as the rest hangs together, so why couldn’t they give Austin a super-spine to keep his back from snapping when he used his super limbs to throw cars around? It’s fiction; they can make up what they need to make sense. And why do I hear Dr. Evil’s voice in my head when I think of the title?

The thing that bugged me about the $6x106 Man was that he had (if I remember correctly) one bionic and one live arm. When he pulled apart ropes, locks, chains, etc. with both hands, wouldn’t the bionic arm just pull the other one along? So he needed two bionic arms, plus bionic shoulder blades, etc.

CJColucci said:

Mike Elzinga: That sort of thing used to bother me about The Six-Million Dollar Man, too, though I hadn’t thought of that specific example. I’m perfectly happy to accept the One Miracle as long as the rest hangs together, so why couldn’t they give Austin a super-spine to keep his back from snapping when he used his super limbs to throw cars around? It’s fiction; they can make up what they need to make sense. And why do I hear Dr. Evil’s voice in my head when I think of the title?

GvlGeologist, FCD said:

The thing that bugged me about the $6x106 Man was that he had (if I remember correctly) one bionic and one live arm. When he pulled apart ropes, locks, chains, etc. with both hands, wouldn’t the bionic arm just pull the other one along? So he needed two bionic arms, plus bionic shoulder blades, etc.

I had this idea years ago of having a “let’s mock pseudo-physics” day in my introductory physics classes; and the Six Megabucks Man was one of the possible targets.

There would be scenes from the TV show, immediately followed by a cartoon scene of what would really happen.

So, when Steve Austin pulls a large pipe off the wall with his bionic arm, the cartoon would show him being lifted off the ground and slammed against the pipe. The leaping up to the roof of a building would be followed with that gory scene with his legs implanting into the ground and snapping into his guts, and him oozing down around his bionic legs into a puddle on the ground.

Much later, when the Happy Tree Friends cartoons came out, the ideas really started flowing.

But I never had the time or resources to follow through. Sigh.

Another possible target would be movies in which people get shrunk without taking self contained environmental gear with them. (My guess is that it would be like doing a space walk without a space suit.)

Henry

Henry J said:

Another possible target would be movies in which people get shrunk without taking self contained environmental gear with them. (My guess is that it would be like doing a space walk without a space suit.)

Henry

:-)

Yeah; everything is now out of scale with the environment. Air molecules coming into the lungs are like breathing golf balls. Hemoglobin couldn’t bind with oxygen.

Hearing would be detuned because the cochlea and the bones in the ear would not respond to the frequencies of the rest of the universe. Air molecules banging on the eardrums would give you brain damage. And more. It would be torture.

Another movie was Journey to the Center of the Earth. Hee hee. Tunneling through a molten iron core; yeah right. I also calculated the amount of air that would be required to fill the tunnel and what the pressure would be (I estimated using an ideas gas; it is worse with real gases which liquefy.)

If the gas stayed at the temperature of the surface of the Earth, the pressure at the center would be about 10159 atmospheres and would require about 10168 times the mass of the entire atmosphere to fill it. If the air got heated to the temperature of the core, the pressure at the center would be about 1057 atmospheres and would require about 1065 times the mass of the atmosphere to fill it.

There is a lot of fun to be had with using pseudo-science to contrast with real physics. I’ve been wondering if the pseudo-biology of the ID/Creationists could be used in a similar manner. The biologists might have some good ideas here. Humor works.

Actually, I don’t think it was Journey to the Center of the Earth; it was The Core. Extremely funny.

It also reminds me a lot of my old submariner days. All the boats coming in from ops would try to get in ahead of the others in order to get up to the base recreational facility and checkout the submarine movies first. And the Roadrunner cartoons also. Both good for a laugh. In fact, the submarine veterans, meeting at their national conventions, still have a special session devoted to showing these old movies and cartoons.

Mike Elzinga said:

Actually, I don’t think it was Journey to the Center of the Earth; it was The Core. Extremely funny.

It also reminds me a lot of my old submariner days.

Did you do Polaris nukes?

RBH said:

Mike Elzinga said:

Actually, I don’t think it was Journey to the Center of the Earth; it was The Core. Extremely funny.

It also reminds me a lot of my old submariner days.

Did you do Polaris nukes?

Diesels. (Sewer pipe sailor).

The nuclear navy was just getting started and not being used for secret ops yet. The Nautilus and Seawolf were just too noisy to risk. They could outrun a torpedo, but could be easily tracked and targeted by aircraft.

Ah. I did Polaris R&D in the Navy at the Cape in the early 1960s, and we served as comm and range liaison for the nukes when they came down to check out their launch systems. I thought I might have had a beer with you on the pier sometime at the only single-ship EM club in the Navy. :)

RBH said:

Ah. I did Polaris R&D in the Navy at the Cape in the early 1960s, and we served as comm and range liaison for the nukes when they came down to check out their launch systems. I thought I might have had a beer with you on the pier sometime at the only single-ship EM club in the Navy. :)

That would have been great! But I got out in 1961.

We prowled around in the Western Pacific.

We had one set of operations with the Nautilus around Hawaii. I was stunned to listen to her on sonar. The turbine whine was distinctive and stuck out above everything in the ocean. That was before all the noise abatement technology was developed and installed on the nukes. The diesels were the quietest we had at the time; so they still carried the load.

A nice review that makes me want to read the book.

QED it’s not too short.

Just got the book and it pulled me right in. He’s a good writer.

Anthony said -

Why did I think it would be good to watch the video?

Wow. That’s a serious question. It reminds me of questions like “why did I think it would be good to go on a cocaine-fueled gambling spree?”

However, of course, there is one reason why it’s good to watch such things once or twice in a lifetime (personally, I’ve seen my share, and have better use for my clinically mind numbing alcoholic beverages, so I’ll pass on that one). To see what level of delusionality and/or dishonesty we are dealing with. Don’t forget to appreciate the tragic superficial sincerity, maintained by a wall of ego defenses which not only cannot, but actually probably should not, be broken down, except in a psychiatric facility well-equipped to deal with dissociative crises.

Once you’ve seen one or two you’ve seen ‘em all.

This book sounds interesting. I heard of this other book coming out next month called The Darwin Myth that’s supposed to take a similar approach, examining Darwin on a more personal level, as a man rather than a bold figure, either heroic or otherwise. I think it would probably make a good counterpoint to this book.

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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on March 30, 2009 7:22 PM.

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