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Formative Channel Crossings and World Circumnavigation

Becoming Charles Darwin: Travel Experiences, Personal Writings, and the Genesis of a Method

Charles Darwin en devenir : expériences de voyage, écrits personnels et genèse d’une méthode
Shadia Uteem


C’est en 1831 que Charles Darwin s’embarque pour un voyage à bord du Beagle qui façonnera à jamais sa science. Ces cinq années d’émerveillement témoignent de la genèse de son esprit scientifique. Confronté aux caprices et aux merveilles du monde, Darwin cultive ses pensées et puise sa force au cœur de ses expériences. Cet article montre la puissance formatrice du voyage sur le jeune aventurier, bientôt naturaliste visionnaire. Il importe de souligner la manière dont le voyage porte en lui les semences de sa méthodologie intime et ouvre la voie vers sa destination scientifique. Le cœur de l’étude réside dans les écrits personnels de Darwin. Ses mémoires, ses journaux intimes, ses observations de terrain et sa correspondance sont imprégnés de ses impressions et de sa sensibilité. Ces récits de première main illustrent les circonstances qui ont conduit à l’émergence de sa théorie révolutionnaire. Le premier argument évoque ses apprentissages à bord du navire. Il démontre l’importance d’initiatives simples qui s’avéreront fructueuses. Qu’il s’agisse des activités quotidiennes ou de l’acquisition de nouvelles compétences, sa circumnavigation a forgé l’originalité de sa vision darwinienne. Il s’agit ensuite de montrer le croisement entre son expérience de la liberté et la consolidation d’une méthodologie personnelle, voire intime. Les itinéraires insolites, les cadres naturels fascinants et le monde en changement constant ont accompagné son cheminement intellectuel et ont éveillé en lui l’audace d’imaginer une nouvelle science. Enfin, l’accent est mis sur sa rencontre avec les autres et l’ailleurs. Son ouverture au monde et ses interactions ont nourri ses aspirations. Ses impressions sur la diversité et la similitude de toutes les formes de vie ont façonné sa façon d’expliquer et de questionner la science. Dans l’ensemble, ses expériences du voyage à bord du Beagle, telles qu’elles sont relatées dans ses écrits personnels et ses souvenirs, contiennent l’essence de son approche personnelle et énigmatique, et ses pérégrinations ont accompagné la construction de son parcours méthodologique.

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1Charles Darwin’s five-year circumnavigation stands as a crucial point of reference in discussions about nineteenth-century voyages. His journey opened infinite horizons for him and charted the path to his theory. As he was preparing in 1831 to settle down for the tranquillity of country life, he was unaware of the adventure awaiting him. His expedition transcended spatial and temporal boundaries, marking the inception of what is now regarded as one of the most, if not the foremost, significant scientific voyages. With unwavering enthusiasm, he embarked on a journey that exceeded his expectations. It drove him not only to explore new worlds but also to search for new paths within the existing world. The voyage, Darwin said, ‘has been by far the most important event of my life and has determined my whole career’ (Barlow 77).

2Yet, as indicated by recent studies, Darwin’s expedition must be regarded without the imposition of defining epiphanic moments, even though some discoveries may be deemed revelatory (Chaffin 258‒59; Van Wyhe 185‒95). Darwin’s ideas evolved over time, with some pre-existing before the journey, others conceived and documented during the voyage, and many taking shape as he contemplated his notes. All these ideas reached their zenith years later when expressed in his books. Given the continuous flow in Darwin’s journey, it appears pertinent to examine the impact of the voyage not solely in terms of departure to destination but also in consideration of its entire trajectory.

3Thus, this study seeks to expand on the significance of his journeys in shaping his vision and in constructing his intimate and elusive approach to science. How is his methodological path to be understood in parallel to the ones physically taken during the voyage? How do the adventurous routes inform a continuity in his intellectual methodology? Although Darwin’s scientificity is not in doubt, his method reveals subjective threads that subtly guided his quest, and his personal experiences during the journey may enlighten this point. This article therefore attempts to bring new considerations to bear on the various dimensions of his method as well as on the impact of known aspects of his journey. At the crossroads of the history of ideas and intellectual biography, it explores the influence of personal and intimate aspects in the construction of a scientific approach.

4To sustain this study, precedence will be accorded to the examination of Darwin’s private writings. To perpetuate his five-year journey, Darwin documented all his thoughts in field notebooks and letters. These Beagle records offer us his initial and immediate impressions, those which became the basis for a lifetime of progressive ideas. A consideration that is evident from Darwin’s own correspondence:

Remember however this, it is written solely to make me remember this voyage, & that it is not a record of facts but of my thoughts.—& in excuse recollect how tired I generally am when writing it . . .  it will [be] of considerable future interest as it [is] an exact record of all my first impressions, & such a set of vivid ones they have been, must make this period of my life always one of interest to myself. (‘Letter no. 166’ CD to Caroline Darwin, April 25th-26th, 1832)

5Far from being only scientific, his first-hand accounts invite us into his reflections. They testify to the decisive importance of the personal and singular aspects of the journey for his acquisition of knowledge.

6The first part is dedicated to his learning by adapting to the conditions of the boat. His living space, the official missions and the books are at the heart of a formative experience that forged his way of thinking. The second part focuses on his learning through movement. The interweaving patterns, his experience of freedom, and his intimate and emotional journey framed his particular conception. The final part turns to his learning through confrontation with otherness. By opening himself up to the world, Darwin established a system of knowledge, strengthened his guiding principles and found in his return home the promise of progress. The journey supported his way of thinking by giving meaning to the very facts of existence, which in return raised questions to be answered by his science. All of which, taken together, could demonstrate the role played by personal factors in shaping his scientific approach.

From Vessel to Design

The At-Hand System

7The Beagle, assigned to commercial and military undertakings, became for Darwin a space for learning. His presence on board was primarily meant for Captain Robert FitzRoy’s leisure. The latter, dreading loneliness and despair, chose a companion to dine and converse about natural history and, only incidentally, to collect specimens and observations (Desmond & Moore 1994, 101). Darwin, self-financed, enjoyed a special status on board, beyond subjection to the chain of command, with unique privileges and independence from duty. As such, the ship, the cradle of his journey, became a source of inspiration and observation. Darwin took advantage of his surroundings and fed his intellect with new ways of knowing and experiencing. The machine impressed his young mind and inspired his method.

  • 1 The Beagle Record (Keynes, 2011) depicts the voyage of the Beagle through the words of Darwin and F (...)

8Darwin believed the Beagle to be the ‘most perfect vessel’ as he recognised the improvement made in distance navigation and naval resources (Keynes 2011, 382).1 Even the initial impression of the narrowness of his cabin and his ‘absolute want of room’ swiftly evolved into comfort. Despite his seasickness, he soon found the ship an excellent place to work: ‘I find to my great surprise that a ship is singularly comfortable for all sorts of work.– Everything is so close at hand & being cramped makes one so methodical’ (‘Letter no. 158’ CD to Robert W. Darwin, February 8th–March 1st, 1832). As he spent more time on the boat, the crampedness turned into cosiness: ‘And what may appear quite paradoxical to you is that I literally find a ship (when I am not sick) nearly as comfortable as a house.– It is an excellent place for working & reading, & already I look forward to going to sea, as a place of rest, in short, my home’. (‘Letter no. 159’ CD to Robert W. Darwin, February 10th, 1832); a perception that remained with him, for, once in his home in Down, he sought to recreate the same environment. He kept his work spread out all around him, with the familiarity of his Beagle cabin, with plants and experimental subjects close at hand. Thus, the quietness and calmness of the narrow cabin proved rewarding. He later even lamented the disturbance of social calls: ‘My time was most grievously destroyed by visits to stupid people, who neither cared for me nor I for them.’ (‘Letter no. 327’ CD to William D. Fox, December 15th, 1836). The time he spent on the Beagle influenced his home-based scientific method.

From Skills to Vision

9At sea, Darwin eagerly embraced new knowledge, taking part in daily marine activities as much as his status or health permitted. Learning from fellow crewmates, he developed specific skills that contributed to his comprehensive vision.

10The Beagle’s official mission was the completion of a maritime survey of the South American southern coast. To achieve the task, the ship had, within its crew, hydrographers whose work consisted of raising the seafloor—‘Sounding the ground’. When the seabed was raised, so was the entire ecosystem. Darwin was offered an insight into the whole ecosystem of the seabed including marine zoology, mineralogy, geology, botany as well as atmospheric data. This unbiased and synthetic approach to sampled elements provided him with precious data about the seas and inspired him to look at the land with the same gaze. Eventually, with his understanding of hydrographic techniques, he was able to draw connections between marine and land specimens, thereby improving his geological theories on the gradual uplift of the continent and the subsidence of the ocean. Hence hydrography contributed to his way of looking from a holistic and inclusive perspective which in turn fed his deductive analogies between flora and fauna (Sponsel).

11Furthermore, an examination of one of the supplementary requirements of the expedition, namely the investigation of coral reefs, underscores the profound impact of hydrography on Darwin’s mind. Demonstrating an eagerness to the subject, Darwin voluntarily exceeded the stipulated requirements by initiating an independent investigation into the coral reefs of Mauritius, a pursuit not mandated by formal obligations. Assuming the role of a hydrographer, Darwin, accompanied by a few men, embarked on a mission to observe and document the maritime environment. An event that later helped him elaborate an entire theory on coral reefs, now mainly validated (Darwin, 1842).

12Darwin also acquired knowledge of meteorology that only reinforced his holistic approach. FitzRoy, the nascent meteorologist with a keen interest in storm formation and weather forecasting, encouraged Darwin to make observations on similar topics. He became concerned with air quality, lightning and climate variability. His speculations on the causes of South American drought placed him as one of the first to have discovered the El-Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon (Cerveny 1300). As Charles Lyell had said then, to be truly capable of theorising, one must be ‘an amphibious being’ (cited by Sponsel 8). Although it may not have been his intent, Darwin was the perfect candidate to fulfil such demands. Darwin learned, thanks to his experience on board, to consider nature as an ecosystem and it surely became a key aspect of his method henceforth. The circumstances on the boat and the learning of holistic sciences encouraged interdisciplinary thinking and transformed his mind by promoting a more interconnected and system-oriented approach to knowledge. It led to a more profound appreciation of the complex relationship governing the natural world but also influenced his personal growth and ethical consideration, which later on became very much part of his method.

Masters and Methods

13If circumstances aboard the ship shaped his mindset, Darwin made deliberate choices when it came to his reading. The Beagle carried a well-stocked library of 400 volumes. Darwin’s literary pursuits were not bound solely to scientific texts, as he deemed explorers’ narratives indispensable for his preparatory studies preceding the expedition. During his odyssey, Darwin travelled not only the geographic terrains depicted by these authors but also ventured into the intellectual landscapes they crafted. Among these literary figures, a few held particular significance, their words echoed his narrative and thus contributed substantially to the development of his intellectual perspective.

  • 2 See Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (2015) on Alexander Von Humboldt and his ecological appro (...)

14The profound impact of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative (1804) on the young Darwin led him to wholeheartedly embrace its influence. Darwin’s accounts bear a heavy imprint of Humboldt’s romantic tone and vivid descriptions. This influence is particularly evident, as noted by his sister, who observed a departure from the simplicity and directness characterising Darwin’s usual writing. Instead, he adopted Humboldt’s distinctive ‘phraseology’ and ‘poetical language’ (‘Letter no. 224’ CD to Caroline Darwin, October 28th, 1833). Humboldt’s enthusiastic depictions provided Darwin with a slight taste of what was awaiting him and gave him a license to pursue his investigations: ‘I spent a very pleasant afternoon lying on the sofa, either talking to the Captain or reading Humboldt’s glowing accounts of tropical scenery. Nothing could be better adapted for cheering the heart of a sea-sick man’ (Keynes 2001, 18). Moreover, Humboldt’s investigations spanned the ocean depths to the mountain summits, showcasing a comprehensive and ecosystem-based approach that integrated biology and geology in the study of the Earth. This approach greatly influenced Darwin’s scientific efforts, as he also adopted a holistic method in his exploration. It is with Humboldt’s poetic tone in mind that Darwin embarked on his scientific pursuits.2

  • 3 For further reading, refer to David Kohn’s article ‘Darwin’s Ambiguity: The Secularization of Biolo (...)

15Yet Darwin’s poetic inclination did not exclusively originate from Humboldt’s influence. From an early age, Darwin had cultivated a keen artistic sensibility, evident in his practice of never disembarking without at least a volume of John Milton’s poetry: ‘Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite, and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton’ (Barlow 85). A statement which not only justifies Darwin’s epic portrayal of nature but also informs some of his views. As many studies suggest, one of the most ambiguous statements in The Origin of Species—in that it reintroduces a reminiscence of divine creation into a secular work—seems to have come from Milton’s pen3:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank . . .  these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us . . .  as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved. (Darwin 1872, 429) [Italics are mine]

16One of the understandings of the cryptic conclusion of the Origin of Species leads towards a justification of the existence of evil. There must be death and destruction, transformation, and divergence, for ‘the exacted object’—later on the highest moral being—to be born (Richards 537‒39). Darwin’s mirrors Milton’s following verses in Paradise Lost:

Now to the ascent of that steep savage hill
Satan had journeyed on, pensive and slow;
But further way found none, so thick entwined,
As one continued brake, the undergrowth
Of shrubs and tangling bushes had perplexed
All path of man or beast that passed that way . . . 
Thence up he flew, and on the tree of Life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant, yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived, not on the virtue thought
Of that life-giving plant, but only used
For prospect what, well-used, had been the pledge
Of Immortality. (Milton 110‒11)

17It is with Milton’s lyrics in mind that Darwin observed and viewed nature during the voyage (Beer 27‒32). The continuous impact of the poem on Darwin’s intellectual development persisted beyond his return, surviving successive editions. It is as if it came full circle, with Milton’s verses serving as both initial inspiration at the voyage’s outset and a concluding motif within the narrative of Darwin’s book.

18Darwin observed and lived his journey through the voices of Humboldt, Milton and many others. He saw the world through the eyes of poetic writers and their insights shaped his own vision; let alone the scientific ones, particularly Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, whose gradualist and uniformitarian approach brought Darwin’s understanding of geological features (Barlow 110). The literature he read was an important part of this journey which led him along many untold paths, until reaching his destination. The combination of science and poetry enhances the scientist’s emotional response and shapes how he perceives and interprets scientific phenomena. This blend introduces subjectivity into observations, leading to the frequent use of metaphors that reflect personal perspectives. It also explains how he structures observations, infusing his work with narrative and storytelling elements, and fostering a creative mindset. A comprehensive interdisciplinary approach introduces the subjectivity of alternative domains as well. Hence, Darwin’s presence on the ship exposed him to the very motions of the voyage. The circumstances and conditions on the Beagle resulted in him adapting to and learning from those around him, which is deeply significant for his formative methodology.

A Method on the Move

Freedom & Wild Patterns

19It was between a nascent freedom and a surging creativity that emerged yet another salient aspect of his elusive methodology. Having escaped from his ‘floating prison’, Darwin was awakened from a long-dreamed journey (Keynes 2001, 41). Set ashore, Darwin, now in sole command of his decisions, began his exploration, opting for different routes from his fellow travellers. Yet, the expedition does not follow a clear, linear structure. Instead, a sense of chaos and disorientation characterises Darwin’s travels, a direct result of his enthusiastic pursuit of discovery. It is what specifically provided him with legitimacy and autonomy for intellectual emancipation.

20Darwin, with his father’s funds, relished the freedom to pursue all sorts of activities. He moved in all directions, often without specific instructions. Through the forests and jungles, Darwin exposed himself to all sorts of dangers, the least of which was being bitten by unfriendly creatures. The explorations also entailed crossing desert plains and valleys with the possibility of unfortunate encounters. His routes extended over the hills as he always sought out impressive views with anticipation, only to be frustrated when they were denied. The distinctive features of Darwin’s travels are characterised by vertical and horizontal criss-crossings and intersections, or rather simply by the absence of any pattern. And it is exactly this kind of spatial openness that added another layer to his intellectual holistic approach as well as the confidence to stray from dogmas. His movements were unguided and free, reflecting his exploratory interests. Although he collected specimens in a very orderly way, the trajectory of his excursions remained unpredictable, characterised by frequent deviations into uncharted paths—he often took side roads. This may account for the diversity observed in his approach to information gathering, akin to a blank slate ready to accumulate elements indiscriminately before subsequently organising them. The discontinuity effect within the continuous journey reflects his later scientific endeavours, as they progress in a certain path—that of evolution—and yet are driven by a boundless range of topics. Without a precise plan and with an inordinate desire to visit and discover, Darwin deviated from the typical road to align with nature’s own.

21The sense of freedom surrounding Darwin was so pronounced that it incited jealousy among some of his shipmates, notably the surgeon. Even the Captain, in describing Darwin as a ‘good pedestrian’, deplored his own situation by highlighting the limitations imposed by his hydrographic duties in comparison to Darwin’s geographical explorations: ‘While I am about pottering in the water, measuring depths and fixing positions, he wanders over the land, and frequently makes long excursions where I cannot go, because my duty is Hydro- not Geo-graphy’ (Browne 223). Hence, the multidirectional, or rather, non-patterned nature of Darwin’s explorations, imbued with a heightened sense of freedom, not only provided the young naturalist with the autonomy to discover new meanings of natural history but also with the opportunity to create an encompassing system. The physical path he followed on his journey and the free, personal way in which he observed the world were later reflected in his scientific method.

Travelling with Nature

22Darwin ventured into the unknown filled with hope and motivation, unaware that his journey would take him into the heart of nature’s journey. Immersed in an ever-changing natural world, Darwin learned to think along these motions and it formed an essential aspect of his intellectual path.

23The discovery of rocks with seashell fossils in the mountains taught him of the continuous movement of the earth and its occupants. He might have settled for theorising about the elevation and subsidence of the earth’s crust but witnessing the travelling of vibrations during an earthquake in Chile made his speculations more tangible. As Darwin was lying down in the forest, he felt the movement to his core: ‘It came on suddenly and lasted two minutes (but appeared much longer) . . . . An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid’ (Keynes 2001, 292). Darwin connected with the earth on a deeper level and glimpsed at the journey of time and time, as he felt, dilated. This impression was recurrent as he often felt out of time when engulfed by tropical scenes: ‘During the first week every object was new & full of uncommon interest, & as Humboldt remarks, the vividness of an impression gives it the effect of duration; in consequence of this, those few days appear to me a much longer interval than the whole three weeks does now’ (Keynes 2001, 34). Although Darwin was not yet Lyellian in many respects, his experiences with nature were already leading him to think of the world through forces of change and continuity. The motions he experienced as he travelled to new places led him to transcend the physical voyage into one whose meaning far outweighed the instant.

24Besides being carried away by the earthly vibrations, he also encountered different species who, like him, were travellers (Costa De Beauregard 91‒94). Darwin described the migrations of the reptiles and birds of the Galapagos, the voyage of seeds and algae, the displacement of minerals and fossils, and, of course, the activities of coral reefs. He even crossed paths with the same whale twice. In classifying and describing species, Darwin observed the confluence of temporal and dynamic processes, concurrently experiencing and documenting them. This testimony remained an enduring aspect of his life. The Beagle writings captured the dynamism he encountered and comprehended within nature. The movement of living organisms and minerals became an essential, even inevitable, theme of his experiments. To understand the movements, it seems one must be part of it.

  • 4 For more on Darwin’s sandwalk and how walking helps us to think, see Jeremy DeSilva’s First Steps ( (...)

25A statement that echoes his later life. When residing in Down, away from the motions of city life and enjoying the quietness and intimacy to ponder, as in his cabin, he still needed to marvel during his daily sandwalk—his ‘thinking path’—in the surrounding nature as if he could only think about nature by connecting with it.4 His capacity for contemplation about nature was intertwined with direct engagement. The emotional and personal connection to nature provided him with insights that enhanced his understanding as it initially served as motivation for his scientific exploration. He continued to wander through nature again to bring thoughts to life. It was along agitated paths that he could truly reflect. The quietness could not become stillness. The commotions of his journey thus formed the pillars of his thinking method.

Emotional Mapping

26The legacy of this tumultuous journey is further amplified by the emotions it aroused in the naturalist. David Kohn considers how he carried out his adventures by adopting the standards of romantic science: ‘Darwin self-consciously incorporated affect and imagination in his early science’ (Kohn 1996, 15). It is in the pivotal place of emotions that we find the most intrinsic and intimate part of his methodology.

27Considering the voices of his fellow writers, scientists and poets, Darwin expressed his impressions through emotions. Sometimes sceneries brought out feelings of desolation and melancholy such as in those along the western coast of Chile: ‘the sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about death, peril & shipwreck’ (Keynes 2001, 244). Other times, he was consumed by the effects of sublimity, as when in Rio, when ‘higher feelings . . .  are excited; wonder, astonishment and sublime devotion fill & elevate the mind’ (Keynes 2001, 59). As the fascinating landscapes stimulated his creativity and artistic spirit, he depicted the scenes with a sense of romance and intimacy. It had such a power over his mind that he experienced moments of overwhelming emotions, leading to a restless state of mind. Such was the case when in the Brazilian rainforest in 1832, as delight from the grandeur of the tropical scene made him frantic.

[T]he rare union of poetry with science . . .  with all this falls short of the truth. The delight one experiences in such times bewilders the mind,—if the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butter-fly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect one forgets it in the stranger flower it is crawling over,—if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight out of which a world of future & more quiet pleasure will arise. (Keynes 2001, 42)

28Feelings are essential to Darwin’s intellectual process as he himself admitted in retrospect: ‘as Sir J. Herschel remarks, a man experiences [want and craving] although every corporeal sense be fully satisfied. The excitement from the novelty of objects, and the chance of success, stimulate him to increased activity’ (Keynes 2011, 385). He was sometimes overwhelmed by the accumulation of details as he felt ‘at a loss either how to begin or end a sentence’ (‘Letter no. 164’ CD to Caroline Darwin, April 2nd–6th, 1832). There is no comparison between reading about scenes and living them. He frequently struggled to write accurate descriptions: ‘whilst viewing such scenes, one feels the impossibility that any description should come near the mark, much less be overdrawn’ (‘Letter no. 158’ CD to Robert W. Darwin, February 8th–March 1st, 1832). Even Humboldt’s magical descriptions would fall ‘far short of the truth’ (Keynes 2001, 42). The sublime feelings inspired by nature affected his narrative and his experience. Thus, Darwin’s intellectual journey is intertwined with and rooted in emotions.

29While the Beagle was charting the waters, Darwin documented landscape growth and measured distances. But further from mere description of the earth and its inhabitants, Darwin’s accounts convey sentiments, emotions, and sensory impressions such as sounds, tastes, sights, and scent. His experience and its recollection connected time, place, and sensory experience (Owen 401). His massive collection of data, as he noted, animated his mappings: ‘There are several other sources of enjoyment in a long voyage, which are of a more reasonable nature. The map of the world ceases to be blank; it becomes a picture full of the most varied and animated figures’ (Keynes 2011, 385). With the fusion of his vast accumulation of knowledge, his free and intimate experience of nature, and his all-encompassing vision, Darwin offers us his vision in all its variants and tumults. It is not surprising that when it came to defining his status as a naturalist, he was called ‘a man that knows everything’ (FitzRoy 104). With his interests constantly diverging and expanding in all directions, such a title was fitting.

Meeting Others & Modus Operandi

The Armchair Traveller

30To identify the way Darwin conceived his thoughts and approached his discoveries, it is necessary to consider his approach to Otherness and Elsewhereness. As a traveller, Darwin was enthralled by the sights of the world. Faced with a multitude of ideas, he was sometimes diverted from himself. Paradoxically, this decentration guided his ways of thinking and reasoning while making him more insightful.

31Once inland, Darwin immersed himself in the culture of the locals, having even learnt Spanish and Portuguese. Moving from town and country led him to live differently, to meet and converse with all sorts of people on their own paths. With only his male servant as a companion, he had to find ways to fend for himself. In doing so, he relied on the benevolence of the locals, whether they be natives, missionaries, settlers, even slaveowners. In retrospect, he considered the moral elevation he gained from trusting others:

In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humored patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the time he will discover, how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he may never had, or even again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance. (Keynes 2011, 386)

  • 5 The great interaction with others was enhanced by his excessive amiability. Darwin was well liked b (...)

32The confidence in and even dependence on others, particularly on the advancement of his intellect, is later materialised through his correspondences, which accrued over time. While working on his theory, Darwin built up a remarkable network of correspondents from various countries and professions who accompanied him in his endeavours. This openness to holistic learning, retained from his voyage, allowed him to broaden his discussions on fundamental and diverse issues. In reaching out for knowledge elsewhere, Darwin became an armchair traveller. The pattern of gathering all surrounding knowledge is yet another testament to his inclusive but unique method.5

A Moralist’s Method

33The experience and discovery of otherness made him more aware of the multifariousness, yet commonness of all humans. In a way, looking at others strengthened his own identity. As the journey unfolds, a centripetal movement emerged episodically until the fourth year when the erratic centrifugal movement of the onset faded. One of the most subtle characteristics of the Darwinian method is embedded in its moralistic dimension. Even if the latter was not formed by the journey, it was certainly affected by it.

34Engulfed in sublime scenery, Darwin felt a sense of ascendancy that was sometimes compromised by harsher situations. Witnessing the institution of slavery in Brazil, the blissful sentiments transformed into abhorrence, as evidenced by his statement: ‘for I bear them no good will—a land also of slavery, and therefore of moral debasement’ (Darwin 1839, 592). His abolitionist convictions, inherited from his family, stood as an essential element of his judgments (Desmond & Moore 2009). He judged the countries according to the state of morals that prevailed there. Such experiences of the world in turn fortified his identity: ‘but I thank my better fortune he has not made me a renegade to Whig principles: I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian Nations, Slavery’ (‘Letter no. 171’ CD to John S. Henslow, May 18th–June 16th, 1832). He felt his moral principles elevated and realised why his father opposed the voyage at first.

Hitherto the voyage has answered admirably to me, & yet I am now more fully aware of your wisdom in throwing cold water on the whole scheme: the chances are so numerous of it turning out quite the reverse. To such an extent do I feel this that if my advice was asked by any person on a similar occasion, I should be very cautious in encouraging him. (‘Letter no. 158’ CD to Robert W. Darwin, February 8th–March 1st, 1832)

35This sentiment was affirmed during the visit to Australia. Young Australia, as Darwin noted, was on the rise as it bore witness to English progress. The ‘Empress of the South’ had ‘given [him] a grand idea of the power & efficiency of the English nation’ (‘Letter no. 299’ CD to William D. Fox, February 15th, 1836). But when he saw the harsh treatment of the Indigenous Australians, the success of the convict work and the overall ‘detestable’ state of morality, he was left with a sense of deception. His underlying moralistic approach guided his vision and opinion on the country: ‘Farewell Australia, you are a rising infant & doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South; but you are too great & ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect; I leave your shores without sorrow or regret’ (Keynes 2001, 413). The mother country should have acted more morally in this nascent nation given Britain’s civilizational superiority. A moral factor sometimes merges with his observations and initial impressions. It alludes to the subjectivist aspect of his reasoning process. Beyond the emotional approach, a moralistic thread enlivens his thinking and is reinforced by the very testimony of immorality.

The Return Forward

36After his fourth year onboard, Darwin’s journey was given new dynamism prompted by the return journey. Now his perspective was oriented towards the future. His methodology is to be read in conjunction with the way back, the closing of the circle, the retrospection.

37Returning is once again multidimensional: it is a movement backward, going back home, but also, for Darwin, a movement forward. This ambivalence is tangible when comparing the reverse journeys of the three Fuegians onboard and that of Darwin. The three Fuegians returned to their native land and to their primitive state. Although they were able to improve morally according to Darwin, their return showed a backward movement, a kind of devolution. This is why Darwin considered them to be lower down the civilizational ladder, for they very soon readapted to their less ‘civilised’ society.

38Darwin’s journey however directed him towards England, towards his future, towards what he considered a superior civilization. This is accompanied by a nostalgic desire to return. The tone of the descriptions becomes more critical as he leaves the Americas, since what matters most is heading for home. Overwhelmed by this idea, his way of thinking is turned towards England. He seemed to be looking for reminders of home and comparisons with his country pervade his narratives: ‘Certainly I never was intended for a traveller; my thoughts are always rambling over past or future scenes; I cannot enjoy the present happiness, for anticipating the future; which is about as foolish as the dog who dropt the real bone for its shadow’ (‘Letter no. 295’ CD to John S. Henslow, January 28th–29th, 1836). He even anticipated a less tumultuous life as he had begun considering his future marriage in Mauritius (‘Letter no. 299’ CD to William D. Fox, February 15th, 1836). As Janet Browne explains, such words are signs of his growth in maturity: ‘All these finer emotions signified something of Darwin’s imperceptible shift into being a different kind of man—a man deliberately leaving behind the rough maritime life as he gradually neared his home country, deliberately prepared to allow his more sensitive feelings to take over’ (Browne 327). In the scope of the return emerges also that of reaping the benefits of his journey and that of perpetually taking advantage of it. Once home, Darwin reflected on the voyage, weighing the rewards and drawbacks. He realised that the effects of the journey were continuous, and its fruits would be harvested only in the course of time: ‘No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of Mankind, but the pleasures gained at time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected’ (Keynes 2011, 382). Among his retrospections is also the excess of displacement that was injurious to the mind, a point which inevitably imposed a return. From then on, the true resting place of the journey was his mind, and his writings. As such, Darwin never really stopped hitting the road.


39Darwin’s voyage was an initiatory journey. Being multifaceted, it engulfed all kinds of peregrinations, through places, but also science, identity, knowledge, and fame. He took on an unexpected path after encountering exotic cultures and strange civilizations and embarked on a journey through nature. The intertwining of the physical and emotional aspects of the voyage can profoundly influence the way his methodology operates. The emotional responses and personal connections and experiences infuse depth and nuance into the scientific process. It is this delicate balance between the tangible and the emotional that shapes the methodology, yielding a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of the subjects at hand.

40Darwin’s adventures onboard the ship, oftentimes overlooked by critics, endowed him with a unique set of talents that enabled him to shed a new light on nature. The books he read guided him into a romantic promenade within the gardens of the unknown and heightened his sensitivity to nature’s mysteries. With hydrography and meteorology in mind, he built up his holistic approach, while his experience within his cabin reinforced his work method. His inland explorations gave rise to his sense of freedom, while the erratic patterns of his explorations liberated him from the confines of established thought patterns, facilitating the creation of his unique vision. Mirroring his excursions, his ideas went in every direction, and along the way, he uncovered passions and nurtured obsessions that afforded him a significant advantage for his scientific discoveries. In feeling and travelling with the movements of nature, he became intimate with it. The encounter with the unknown and with diversity helped him value the importance of others and strengthened his sense of self. Once out of the frame, he could enter his own. Through his return, Darwin saw only the rise of his intellectual path: the ride ended while the road to evolution was ongoing, though he was not entirely there yet: ‘When I was on board the Beagle, I believed in the permanence of Species, but, as far as I can remember, vague doubts occasionally flitted across my mind. . . . But I did not become convinced that species were mutable until, I think, two or three years had elapsed’ (‘Letter no. 10863’ CD to Otto Zacharias, February 24th, 1877).

41Darwin’s visions, scientific or personal, evolved following the circumstances and moments of his life. His scientific trajectory consisted of personal impressions and experiences serving as decisive factors in his ways of knowing. But one thing is certain: his journey never came to an end. He spent the rest of his life reliving the motions and sensory dynamics of his explorations. The circumstances, movements and sensations of the voyage of the Beagle constantly shaped his path to knowledge and guided him on his endless odyssey of nature.

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1 The Beagle Record (Keynes, 2011) depicts the voyage of the Beagle through the words of Darwin and FitzRoy and the illustrations of the artists on board.

2 See Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (2015) on Alexander Von Humboldt and his ecological approach to nature.

3 For further reading, refer to David Kohn’s article ‘Darwin’s Ambiguity: The Secularization of Biological Meaning’ (1989).

4 For more on Darwin’s sandwalk and how walking helps us to think, see Jeremy DeSilva’s First Steps (2022).

5 The great interaction with others was enhanced by his excessive amiability. Darwin was well liked by the entire crew, despite a few scuffles with the captain who confessed how ‘everyone respects and likes him’. One of the admirals on board, Arthur Mellersh, said ‘I think he was the only man I ever know against whom I never heard a word said; and as people when shut up in a ship for five years are apt to get cross with each other, that is saying a good deal’ (Keynes 2011, 42)

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Shadia Uteem, « Becoming Charles Darwin: Travel Experiences, Personal Writings, and the Genesis of a Method »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 99 Printemps | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2024, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL :

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Shadia Uteem

Shadia Uteem is currently preparing her dissertation on Charles Darwin’s personal writings at the University of Paris-Est Créteil. The topic of her research is the value of biographical and subjective elements as the central framework in Charles Darwin’s intellectual evolution and theory construction. She addresses her subject from a cultural and philosophical approach.
Shadia Uteem prépare une thèse sur les écrits personnels de Charles Darwin à l’université de Paris-Est Créteil. Sa thèse porte sur l’importance des éléments biographiques et subjectifs dans l’évolution intellectuelle de Darwin et la construction de la théorie darwinienne. Son approche est à la croisée de la civilisation britannique et de la philosophie.

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