Evolution's Captain
Peter Nichols
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Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World* online

Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World
Peter Nichols
352 pages
October 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Virginia Williams' take on Evolution's Captain.

Charting a path through the Americas brings Captain Robert FitzRoy ultimately into the orbit of the young Charles Darwin, an event that will affect the course of history and the direction of scientific study.

In 1829, Capt. FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle sails with Capt. Phillip Parker of the HMS Adventure on a survey that will enable Great Britain’s complete dominance of world trade. In Tierra del Fuego, FitzRoy first sights native Fuegians, repulsive to him in their primitive appearance. Later he brings four natives home to England, originally as hostages but kept as specimens of the wild lands of their birth. It is his intention to Christianize the savages by exposing them to the advantages of civilization and the godly ways of the English.

By 1831, their behavior has become an embarrassment and it is necessary to return the natives to Tierra de Fuego. Finagling a commission ostensibly to finish the survey of the Americas, FitzRoy plans to release the natives to their homeland along the way. Since this new commission involves an extended voyage navigating the globe, FitzRoy is concerned about spending years in isolation as he is not one to mix with those of lesser rank in his crew. In addition, with insanity in his family's genes, FitzRoy fears for his mental condition, daunted at the prospect of solitary years before a return to his home port.

Naturalist Charles Darwin is the perfect choice to accompany FitzRoy. Both men possess astute minds and spend hours discoursing on scientific principles, all God-centered in the manner of the day. As FitzRoy surveys the rugged coastline of Tierra del Fuego, Darwin takes advantage of this opportunity to roam the countryside gathering specimens which he catalogs and sends back to England along the route. Darwin notices FitzRoy’s occasional erratic moods and becomes concerned that the Captain is suffering under too much stress.

The voyage almost flounders, but FitzRoy rallies and is able to continue. By the time they reach the Falklands, Darwin is noting the aberrations in the species he observes on various islands, particularly the Galapagos Islands.

Once home, the two scientists prepare for publication. Their work is published in three volumes: King’s, FitzRoy’s and Darwin’s. Darwin’s most important work is published twenty-two years later, but in 1837, he avoids any divergence from accepted theology. At this point the two friends drift apart philosophically: “While Darwin was moving directly toward scientific enlightenment, FitzRoy was heading in the other direction.”

From the time of their return, Evolution's Captain Peter Nichols chronicles both men’s lives -- excellent prospects for Darwin, but uneven fortune for FitzRoy, leading to an inevitable clash of ideas: creationism versus evolutionism. The once friendly scientists are finally adversarial in their deepest beliefs. FitzRoy harbors noble aspirations, albeit fettered by his English class prejudice. He could never have imagined his name relegated to history as “the man who took Darwin around the world” on his great adventure. Although FitzRoy does make important contributions as a weather forecaster, he is never appreciated in his time, his fate sealed by the choice of a traveling companion and his own impending madness.

Nichols has written an utterly fascinating and readable journal of the remarkable voyage of Robert FitzRoy and Charles Darwin, bringing the seafaring world to life, the dangers, curiosities and human courage involved in so great an undertaking.

© 2003 by Luan Gaines for Curled Up With a Good Book

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