Histories & Mysteries: How the theory of natural selection started in Plymouth

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

On 27th December, 1831, 190 years ago, British naturalist Charles Darwin set out from Plymouth, aboard the HMS Beagle on a five-year surveying expedition of the southern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Visiting such diverse places as the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand, Darwin acquired an intimate knowledge of the flora, fauna, and geology of many lands.

This information proved invaluable in the development of his theory of evolution, first put forward in his ground-breaking scientific work of 1859, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

During the evening of Monday, 24th October, 1831, following ‘a pleasant drive from London’, Charles Darwin arrived in Devonport, where HMS Beagle was being prepared for a voyage around the world, primarily to survey the coast of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in South America. Captain Robert FitzRoy commanded the Beagle, and Darwin, then just twenty-two, was joining the ship as naturalist.

Darwin, although not the first or second choice, was an ideal candidate for the voyage. He enjoyed a growing reputation as a naturalist; he wasn’t married and so could be away from England for two years or more; and given his family’s wealth, he was able, as he confirmed in a letter to his sister Susan dated 5th September, 1831, to pay the £30 a year required to travel on the Beagle.

Darwin had previously made a brief visit to Devonport in early September, between the 14th and 18th. Upon arriving in October, he booked into lodgings at 4 Clarence Baths, Devonport at 15 shillings (75p) per week.

From his temporary base in Devonport, Darwin commenced to finalise his own arrangements while the Beagle was being painted and fitted out, preparing to sail in late November. In his journal and in letters to family and friends, Darwin noted how he spent some of his time whilst waiting to sail.

He walked often to Plymouth, spending time at the Athenaeum and in the company of William Snow Harris, the Plymouth-born inventor of a nautical lightning conductor, and Colonel Charles Hamilton Smith, a local botanist.

On the Devon side of the Tamar, Darwin walked to Saltram and rode with Lord Morley to see the granite on Dartmoor. On the Cornwall side he walked the Edgcombe estate, and at various times visited Rame Head, Millbrook, Whitsand Bay and Cawsand, which he described as ‘one of the most curiously built places I ever saw… It is situated in a very pretty little bay, which shelters numerous fishing and smuggling boats from the sea’.

Condy, Nicholas; Mount Edgcumbe and Hamoaze; Plymouth City Council: Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mount-edgcumbe-and-hamoaze-147561

On 4th November, 1831, Darwin visited the Breakwater, then under construction, where he met the architect and engineer Sir John Rennie. Obviously impressed with the Breakwater, Darwin noted in his journal: ‘Everybody agrees in the Breakwater being as useful as it is a most stupendous work of art.’

The Beagle left Devonport on 23rd November, and dropped anchor at the Barn Pool under Mount Edgcombe, where FitzRoy waited for a favourable north easterly wind. Now spending a lot of his time on board ship, Darwin had trouble finding his sea legs and wasn’t used to sleeping in a hammock: “I… experienced a most ludicrous difficulty in getting into it; my great fault of jockeyship was in trying to put my legs in first.”

Several times during December the Beagle should have sailed, but that month south west gales battered the coast.

Twice the Beagle weighed anchor and sailed out, the first time on the 9th, only to return the next day: “We got to our anchorage at Barnett Pool about 12 o’clock, and are now lying quiet and snug.” (Journal: 10th December, 1831).

The second time was on 21st December. This time the Beagle ran on to a rock whilst tacking round Drake’s Island. To release the ship, all the crew ran from one side of the ship to the other and back again, so tipping it off the rock. Unharmed, the Beagle got within sight of the Lizard before storms struck, returning back to the Barn Pool the next day.

On Christmas Day 1831, Darwin went to church, most probably Stoke Damerel, where the guest preacher was a friend from Cambridge University, William Strong Hore of Stonehouse.

Hore was at that time Assistant Stipendiary Curate to Saltash; after ordination he became Curate at Stoke Damerel.

Whilst Darwin was at church, the Beagle’s crew got drunk and disorderly. The weather on 26th December, was ideal for sailing, but the crew were either hungover or in irons as a result of their behaviour the day before.

At 11am On Monday, 27th December, 1831, in perfect weather, the Beagle did weigh anchor and set sail. On a friend’s yacht, Darwin caught the ship at 2pm beyond the Breakwater, and so began his epic voyage.

Darwin appears to have had a rather low opinion of Plymouth. In an autobiographical chapter in his son Francis’ The life and letters of Charles Darwin, he describes the two months spent in Plymouth waiting for the Beagle to sail as: ‘the most miserable which I ever spent’.

Indeed, when the Beagle returned to England, on 2nd October, 1836, it sailed into Falmouth from where Darwin rushed home to Shrewsbury. Four days later he wrote to FitzRoy who had travelled to Plymouth: “I wish with all my heart, I was writing to you, amongst your friends instead of at that horrid Plymouth.”

However, Darwin didn’t always write disparagingly about Plymouth. In a letter to his sister Caroline on 12th November, 1831, a little over two weeks after his arrival in Plymouth, Darwin describes various social occasions and concludes: ‘so that I am quite gay and like the place very much’.

In his journal entry on 26th November, 1831, Darwin noted about a walk around Mount Edgcombe: ‘The day has been a very fine one and the view of Plymouth was exceedingly striking’.

Moreover, Fanny Mostyn Owen, a close family friend, in a letter to Darwin dated Friday, 2nd December, 1831, wrote: “I hear you like Plymouth very much, I thought it a delightful place when I was there for a few days, there is so much going on.”

Darwin’s impression of Plymouth may have been clouded by circumstances. The weather was terrible during December, 1831, and the Beagle was delayed by at least three weeks. Darwin, spending more time aboard the ship, became increasingly impatient, seasick, homesick and otherwise ill: ‘I was out of spirits at the thought of leaving all my family and friends for so long a time, and the weather seemed to me inexpressibly gloomy. I was also troubled with palpitation and pain about the heart, and like many a young ignorant man, especially one with a smattering of medical knowledge, was convinced that I had heart disease’.

Notwithstanding, it was Plymouth that marked the beginning of a journey that would change the history of humanity for ever. Darwin’s theory argued that organisms gradually evolve through a process he called ‘natural selection’.
In natural selection, organisms with genetic variations that suit their environment tend to propagate more descendants than organisms of the same species that lack the variation, thus influencing the overall genetic makeup of the species.

Most scientists quickly embraced the theory that solved so many puzzles of biological science, but orthodox Christians condemned the work as heresy.

Controversy over Darwin’s ideas deepened with the publication of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), in which he presented evidence of man’s evolution from apes.

By the time of Darwin’s death in 1882, his theory of evolution had become generally accepted. In honour of his scientific work, he was buried in Westminster Abbey beside kings, queens, and other illustrious figures from British history.

Subsequent developments in genetics and molecular biology led to modifications in accepted evolutionary theory, but Darwin’s ideas remain central to the field.

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