Evolution’s Captain

A review of Peter Nichols’ biography of Robert Fitzroy, captain of the H.M.S. Beagle

by John C. Snider © 2008

Every school child and amateur scientist knows (or should) that Charles Darwin began developing his ideas about evolution and the origin of species while on a round-the-world voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. What most people couldn’t tell you is the name of the Beagle’s captain.

Now Peter Nichols, author of several best-selling non-fiction books about sea exploration, has answered that question and more in Evolution’s Captain, which chronicles the career of Robert Fitzroy and his place in scientific history.

This book might more correctly be titled Evolution’s Reluctant Captain, since Fitzroy (a member of Britain’s ruling class) was a fundamentalist Christian in addition to being a renowned cartographer and “natural philosopher”. When the Beagle’s first captain died an untimely death (by suicide) in 1828, the command was handed over to Fitzroy, a young and promising naval officer. Beagle was a tough little ship used in charting the dangerous coast of Tierra del Fuego, that compact and convoluted archipelago nestled against the southern tip of South America. Fitzroy attracted a great deal of attention during his first command of the Beagle, both for his meticulously accurate data-collecting (which led to meticulously accurate navigation charts), but also for his eventual accumulation of knowledge regarding the “Fuegians”, as the aboriginal inhabitants of the region were called. Determined to prove the practicality and desirability of transforming the Fuegians into respectable, God-fearing Christians, Fitzroy more or less kidnapped four young natives and brought them to England in 1830. When this experiment failed (and worse, became scandalous), Fitzroy hurriedly pulled strings with the Admiralty to expedite a second command of the Beagle, both for the purpose of repatriating the troublesome Fuegians, but also to continue his mapping and eventually circumnavigate the globe (something that, while not unheard of, was hardly common in those days).

To assist in the scientific aspects of the voyage, Fitzroy needed another “natural philosopher”, someone intelligent and educated enough to compliment his own abilities, and who could withstand the rigors of the seafaring life. The man he ended up with was Charles Darwin, a modest wannabe-parson who was just as pious as Fitzroy, and who suffered from chronic seasickness!

During the five-year expedition (only a month of which, incredibly, was spent on and around the famous Galapagos Islands), Darwin and Fitzroy both saw the same geological puzzles, monstrous fossils, and head-spinning variety of plants and animals.

Although Fitzroy’s moodiness (he suffered from clinical depression inherited from his mother’s side of the family) prevented he and Darwin from forming a lasting friendship, their paths diverged at an ever-increasing rate as each man processed all they had seen – and came to completely opposite conclusions. Where Darwin began to see incredibly slow natural processes that operated over vast stretches of time (and resoundingly refuted the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible), Fitzroy sought to shoehorn the new data into a model that rationalized and supported his faith in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture. Indeed, it’s uncanny how Fitzroy’s mid-nineteenth century ideas are nearly identical to the rantings of modern-day creationists who hold sway in such backwater regions as Afghanistan and Alabama.

Angry, embittered, and plagued by fits of depression, Fitzroy’s star plummeted as Darwin’s rose. After a disastrous tenure as the governor of New Zealand, Fitzroy was shuffled around by the Admiralty in various lesser jobs until he was assigned to head up the newly-created meteorological service, which was perfectly suited to his aptitude for collating and analyzing oceanographic and atmospheric data.

Soon after Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species (over 20 years after the second voyage of the Beagle), Fitzroy suffered yet another setback when his much-touted method of weather prediction was discredited. In the iron grip of depression, and in failing health, Fitzroy committed suicide in 1865 – the same fate that befell the Beagle’s first captain, and Fitzroy’s own uncle.

Peter Nichols has lovingly researched the published writings and private correspondence of Fitzroy and those associated with him to create a compelling narrative of this man’s troubled (yet largely productive) life. His accounts of Fitzroy’s naval accomplishments, and his obsession with the now-extinct Fuegians, is fascinating and educational. Once in a while, Nichols loses the narrative by exploring some historical sidetracks (like his overview of an odd “post office” drop used for centuries by mariners visiting the Galapagos, or indulging in several pages’ worth of analysis of the rise of the steam locomotive). But these are delightfully interesting sidetracks, for which he earns a measure of forgiveness.

Overall, Evolution’s Captain is an entertaining and enlightening book that will appeal to those interested in colonial exploration, the history of science, or the roots of the current evolution-creationism debate. I highly recommend it.

Evolution’s Captain is available in hardcover or trade paperback at Amazon.com.

[This review (of the hardcover edition) originally appeared in February 2004 in the online science fiction magazine scifidimensions.com]

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