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 Luan Gaines' take on Evolution's Captain.

Evolution’s Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World, by Peter Nichols, tells the other story of the voyage of the Beagle -- known in history and science classrooms everywhere as the ship on which Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution. Author Nichols details the events that led to Darwin’s voyage and the role the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, played in the journey.

Nichols begins the narrative with a brief history of the Beagle’s first captain, Pringle Stokes. Stokes has been sent to survey and map the coast of South America, in particular the dangerous coast of Tierra del Fuego. Though beginning the story in this way left this reader feeling somewhat impatient for the FitzRoy/Darwin story, this section foreshadows the end of the tale and accurately describes the cultural and colonial imperialism of Great Britain at the time. Britain was in the midst of the Victorian Era and the nation was the most powerful on earth, with territorial holdings across the globe.

After Pringle Stokes commits suicide, the leadership of the Beagle is appointed to Robert FitzRoy, who is ordered to finish surveying the South American coastline. Nichols describes FitzRoy as a “highly strung aristocrat” who believed in phrenology (that an individual’s character and mental abilities could be determined by studying the shape and size of the head) and who had an inherited tendency to mental instability. On this first trip he kidnaps several natives of Tierra del Fuego and takes them back to England to see if he can “civilize” them. This experiment fails terribly within a year, and his second trip on the Beagle is made in part to repatriate the natives to Tierra del Fuego, as well as finish the mapping survey. FitzRoy’s second trip on the Beagle is the one on which Darwin sails.

The fact of FitzRoy’s family history of madness is important, as it is the reason Darwin makes the trip that changes his life, and science, for all time: FitzRoy, fearing that the long (it will last five years) and difficult journey may be too much for his emotional stability, puts out a request for a companion, someone educated with a scientific bent who may wish to do a survey of the flora, fauna and geology of unexplored lands. His ulterior motive is to have someone of equal intellectual and social standing to talk with, to help keep him from succumbing to depression and meeting the same end as the unfortunate Pringle Stokes. It is a matter of fate and luck that Darwin – an otherwise directionless young man of means studying (without great enthusiasm) to be a clergyman – applies for, and is given, the position aboard the Beagle.

And so Darwin’s journey into history begins. Nichols is adept at portraying the cultural and colonial imperialism of British society at the time, though he lapses into some interesting but arguably irrelevant asides (he briefly chronicles the history of Post Office Bay in the Galapagos Islands up to 1946). At the same time, however, some of this background material serves to remind the reader of the point of the book: FitzRoy himself played a significant role in British and naval history in many ways – through mapping the South American coast, serving as a Member of Parliament and later governor of New Zealand, and beginning the first true weather forecasting system in Great Britain – and should be recognized for his role in history.

This book is worthwhile reading for anyone with an interest in history, but may appeal more to those with a scientific background. Nichols brings to life the story of one man forever overshadowed by Charles Darwin while examining perhaps the single most important scientific theory of all time, which changed the world of science and religion forever.

© 2003 by Virginia Williams for Curled Up With a Good Book

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