Darwin’s Armada

 John van Wyhe explores a book about the travels of Darwin and his contemporaries

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Reviewed by: John van Wyhe
Author: Iain McCalman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Price (RRP): £9.99

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This is a book about exploring and the discovery of evolution in the 19th century. It tells the story of four scientific travellers, Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Joseph Dalton Hooker around Australia and Antarctica, Thomas Henry Huxley around Australia and New Guinea, and Alfred Russel Wallace in the Amazon and south-east Asia (particularly Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia).

Although the story of Darwin is well-known, to many readers the latter three are less familiar and their stories deserve to be told alongside Darwin’s. Each section is in essence a brief biography with the largest emphasis on exploration and collecting in the southern hemisphere aboard sailing ships. These youthful experiences are part of the common background these four men shared when, in later decades, they joined forces to defend the new theory of evolution by natural selection first published by Darwin and Wallace in 1858.

The final part of the book retells the story of the Darwin-Wallace paper and the subsequent struggles to promote the new theory. McCalman is new to the field of Darwin studies and researching these figures has meant covering an incredibly vast literature – a daunting task indeed which sometimes led to some factual errors. But the book is a brisk, delightful read with swashbuckling adventure leading to amazing scientific discoveries. After these travelling naturalists returned to Britain they became principal players in one of the greatest revolutions in scientific thinking which, by the 1870s saw the theory of evolution accepted by the international scientific community as fact. This is a point that is worth remembering because we sometimes hear journalists today describe it as “controversial”. Well, no, not since the 1870s actually.

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John van Wyhe is director of darwin-online.org.uk