Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

Edited by Gordon Chancellor and John Van Wyhe

CUP, 650pp, £85.00

ISBN 13 9780521517577

Published July 2009

Review originally published in the Times Higher 22nd October 2009

Whisper it quietly: 2009 has been something of a bad year for Darwin.  The Bicentennial celebrations surrounding his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species has lead to an explosion of all manner of Darwin-related books with increasingly tangential and surreal connections to the man and his work.  Darwin himself would have been profoundly embarrassed and amazed by all the excitement.  That said it does provide a ready excuse to revisit the great man’s work in its original form and that is what lies at the heart of the CUPs continuing effort to publish the definitive works of Darwin in their original form.

‘Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage of the Beagle’ edited by Gordon Chancellor & John Van Wyhe and handsomely published by Cambridge University Press allow the reader to see a pre-Origin Darwin at work on the expedition that would not only make his scientific name but stimulate many of the ideas that fed in to his later thinking.  What emerges from the notebooks is the reassuring normalness of Darwin.  They are the notes of a young man with a burning curiosity about the natural world and provide glimpses of a profound clarity of thought and supreme powers of observation.  This is the first time that Darwin’s day-to-day notebooks from the Beagle voyage have ever been published in their entirety and the result is quite simply stunning.  While the journals were ostensibly intended to record his geological, and more general, observations the range and breadth of material that he covers is nothing short of breathtaking, showing a scientific freedom that many can now only dream about.

The editors have provided the complete text of the fifteen notebooks that Darwin filled during the five years of the Beagle voyage along with all maps and drawings.  Each notebook is provided with a comprehensive introduction and has been given a unique name by the editors to supersede the ad-hoc numbers that had been assigned to the field notebooks in the past.  The result is to render what is often considered to be the least readable of all Darwin’s material instantly accessible and engaging for all.  The reader is given the key to unlock the work of the young Darwin and hardly a page goes by without some gem jumping out and hinting the scientific giant he would become.  The beauty of the notebooks is that they are unpolished and raw: Darwin was writing for himself rather than the reader, bringing greater vitality and spontaneity to the text than can be found in his carefully polished masterpiece On the Origins of Species.  In between the detailed scientific notes are shopping lists, parts of essays, diary entries and sketches (although the editors have sadly omitted what they deemed to be random doodles).  Read in conjunction with Darwin’s Beagle Diary  (also published buy CUP) the reader can follow Darwin in the most visceral and stimulating fashion using the notebooks to conjure up his day-to-day life over five years of scientific discovery.

The huge amount of Darwin-related material that has been produced for the bicentenary (books, television documentaries and even a film) does risk portraying Darwin as something he wasn’t.  He would have hated the celebrity style treatment that 2009 has hit him with.  Let’s ignore such gloss and to keep things simple: why view Darwin ‘through a glass darkly’ when the great man’s original work is so accessible, and his genius still so enlightening?

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