Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle is a very readable, insightful travelogue that provides a detailed description of the habitats, organisms, and people he encountered on the five-year journey. In this exercise, students read passages corresponding to one of Darwin's principal inland expeditions in South America and write short response papers about the passage, which they then discuss in class. Through this exercise, students gain an appreciation for the diversity of terrestrial habitats and organisms in South America as well as for the young Darwin's interpretations of his experience. His insights include the negative impact of invasive and introduced species on native organisms and the anthropogenic effects on species’ distributions. Thus students will also recognize the foundations of many important principles of modern ecology and conservation biology in this historic narrative.
- writing exercise
- South America
- Latin America
- invasive species
- introduced species
- species distribution
The landscape of South America ranges from tropical shores to glacier-covered cliffs, yet most students are familiar only with its rainforests and Andean peaks. As a way to introduce students to the diversity of South American habitats and organisms, I use Charles Darwin's classic travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle. In addition to providing students with a fascinating first-hand account of the geology, plants, animals, and people of South America, the exercise helps them appreciate how approachable Darwin's works are and how applicable they are to the environmental challenges we face today.
I use the exercise described here in my course for non-science majors entitled “Environmental Issues in Latin America.” I developed the course as part of our interdisciplinary Latin American Studies concentration and major. The exercise could easily be used in courses on ecology, biogeography, or conservation biology for majors or non-majors.
In 1831, when he was only 22 years old, Charles Darwin was invited to join the Beagle expedition as the ship's naturalist and traveling companion for Captain Robert Fitzroy (Henslow, 1831). Darwin had just completed his bachelor of arts degree at Cambridge, the first step toward becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. His talent and enthusiasm for natural history, however, led John Henslow, Professor of Botany and Darwin's mentor, to recommend him for the position. The Beagle's charge was to survey the coastline of South America, especially the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego, for the benefit of British naval and commercial interests (Keynes, 2001). Although the voyage was originally supposed to take three years, the complete journey, in which the ship circumnavigated the globe, lasted almost five years, from December 1831 to October 1836.
Darwin suffered from seasickness throughout the voyage. Because surveying the coast entailed multiple passages up and down portions of the coastline and did not require Darwin's participation, he would disembark, hire local horses and guides, and travel inland to explore and collect geological and biological specimens, which he shipped back to his scientific contacts in England. He would then reboard the Beagle and travel to its next anchorage. As first cataloged by Barlow (1933) (Figure 1), his eight major expeditions included (spelling as used by Darwin):
El Carmen or Patagones to Bahia Blanca (August 11–17, 1833)
Bahia Blanca to Buenos Ayres (September 8–20, 1833)
Buenos Ayres to Santa Fé (returned down the river) (September 27–October 2, 1833)
Monte Video to Mercedes and return (November 14–28, 1833)
Captain's expedition up Santa Cruz River (April 18–May 8, 1834)
Chiloé. San Carlos to Castro to Cucao, Castro to San Carlos (January 22–28, 1835)
Valparaíso to Mendoza to Santiago (March 18–April 10, 1835)
Valparaíso to Coquimbo to Copiapó (April 27–June 22, 1835)
Darwin made careful records of his experiences on the Beagle through field notebooks, a journal (now referred to as the Beagle Diary), zoological and geological notes (now referred to as the Zoological Diary and the Geological Diary), specimen lists, and an extensive correspondence with his family, friends, and growing number of scientific contacts (Chancellor et al., 2007; Chancellor, 2015). Once he returned home and distributed his specimens to experts for identification, Darwin worked at writing his observations for publication (Browne, 1995). The result is a fascinating and insightful travelogue of the geology, biology, and people of South America.
Darwin's descriptions of the land and the organisms still ring with the excitement and curiosity of the young explorer as he traveled to regions that were scarcely known to Europeans. He travelled on foot, horseback, by mule, and on boats, accompanied by local guides, gauchos, muleteers, and Beagle crew members. His explorations took him up major rivers, across the Pampas, sand dunes, salt flats, and across the cordilleras of the Andes. He describes native animals including guanacos, agoutis, “bizcachas” (chinchillas), zorrillos (skunks), “ostriches” (rheas), and pumas. His observations are detailed and thoughtful; they reveal the developing mind of a great naturalist. Darwin's comments on his experiences include insights that are now incorporated into modern ecology and conservation biology, including reflections on the impact of introduced and invasive species, species displacement, and biogeography (Table 1).
There are numerous online and printed versions of the Voyage of the Beagle available, although abridged versions should be avoided for this exercise because of they omit much of the rich detail of the complete narrative. Darwin (1860) is generally recognized as the standard text. See Table 2 for links to this and additional online resources on Darwin and the Beagle voyage.
After a brief introduction about Darwin, his background, and the voyage, I distribute a handout describing the assignment. I have the students count off 1 through 8 in a cycle until each student has a number that corresponds to one of the eight expeditions listed above. The Voyage is organized by date, so it is relatively simple for students to find the appropriate short passage regardless of whether they read a print or online version of the book. I request that each student focus on the passage of the Voyage that describes the inland expedition corresponding to their number. I ask them to write a few paragraphs about the passage that address the following questions, citing specific examples from the text:
How did Darwin travel? Was he alone or did he have company?
Which of the biomes and environments that we have studied did Darwin encounter?
Describe some of the scenery and organisms he mentions. [I suggest that they try to find the modern names and images of the organisms he describes.]
What other topics are of concern to Darwin as he travels?
These questions could easily be modified to suit the focus of the course in which the exercise is being used. For example, students might be asked to research the conservation status of the organisms Darwin describes, or they might develop an interactive map illustrating his journey.
I usually give students about five days to complete the assignment. The day it is due, I have them group themselves according to the particular passage on which they focused. After giving group members a chance to share their answers with each other, I ask a spokesperson from each group to summarize their passage. This gives everyone a chance to appreciate the diverse habitats Darwin explored, the various ways in which he traveled, and his principal observations and reflections about the landscape and culture.
Although this exercise was developed for a college-level course that includes an introduction to the geology, geography, and diverse environments of South America, it could be adapted to high school courses on environmental science. Core ideas from the Next Generation Science Standards (2015) that could be incorporated into this exercise include Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems, Social Interactions and Group Behavior, and Biodiversity and Humans.
Assessments of this exercise include evaluating student progress on tests, oral presentations, and written assignments that demonstrate a student's ability to recognize and describe specific biomes. These assessments indicate that this exercise helps students appreciate the diversity of the geology, fauna, and flora of South America. Because Darwin's text is so approachable, it gives students a vibrant first-hand view of what travel was like in the early nineteenth century and how significant the effects of humans on the land were even then.
I thank Ned Fetcher and Erika Iyengar for comments on the manuscript, and Crissy Fetcher for help preparing the figure. I am grateful to The University of Scranton for its ongoing support of my teaching and research efforts. I am indebted to the contributors to Darwin Online for their dedication and valuable commentaries.
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