I recently finished two good books about Darwin. I haven’t known all that much about the man, apart from scattered biographical references and documentaries. I am embarrassed to say I have never read The Origin of the Species, expecting it to be filled with the retelling of facts about bird beaks, snail shells, etc. Nothing like the retelling of facts to spoil a good read … facts put an end to good conversation … facts kill thinking — there! That has the punch I was looking for!
Anyway, the first book is Evolution’s Captain, by Peter Nichols. It focuses on the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, and more particularly on his decision to kidnap three native people from Tierra del Fuego. Originally he kidnapped them to use as barter for some smaller boat the natives had stolen from him. But it turns out the natives liked the boat better, so he was stuck with a preteen girl, a young teenaged boy, and a young man. He and his crew named them Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button, and York Minster. The plan then was to acclimate them to England, embue them with civilization, and return them to their people, like living British viruses, spreading the higher virtues of Eurocentrism.
We learn then about FitzRoy’s second voyage of the Beagle, which included Darwin and the Fuegians, and how Darwin eventually came to be himself. FitzRoy’s moral experiment, of course, ended in disaster. Each of the younger kids ended up in a nowhereland between two moral worlds (Fuegia eventually prostituted herself to passing sailors), and the young man simply disappeared from view, after some raping and murder. FitzRoy’s own career, for various other reasons, began to turn downward, just as Darwin became famous and infamous. He eventually took his own life.
The second book is a short picture book by Peter Sís entitled The Tree of Life. We have another of Sís’s books, Tibet through the Red Box, which we keep on display in our home. He is a very detailed and compelling author and illustrator, creating pages that invite you in to stay for a while. You don’t want to pick up his books unless you have a couple of hours with nothing to do, even though there’re only 20 pages long. This book is a biography of Darwin which neatly fits with the picture I gained from Nichols’ book. I recommend it highly.
Maybe I’ll read something by the old man himself next.