Charles Darwin's Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

October 22, 2009

Whisper it quietly: 2009 has been something of a bad year for Darwin. The bicentennial celebrations of his birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species has led to an explosion of all manner of Darwin-related books, with increasingly tangential and surreal connections to the man and his work. Darwin himself would have been profoundly embarrassed and amazed by all the excitement. However, it does provide a ready excuse to revisit the great man's work in its original form, and that is what lies at the heart of Cambridge University Press' continuing efforts to publish the definitive works of Darwin in their original form.

This collection allows the reader to see a pre-Origin Darwin at work on the expedition that would not only make his scientific name, but stimulate many of the ideas that fed into his later thinking.

What emerges from the notebooks is Darwin's reassuring normality. They are the notes of a young man with a burning curiosity about the natural world and provide glimpses of his profound clarity of thought and supreme powers of observation.

This is the first time that Darwin's day-to-day notebooks from the Beagle voyage have been published in their entirety and the result is quite simply stunning. While the journals were ostensibly intended to record his geological and more general observations, the range and breadth of material that he covers is nothing short of breathtaking, and points to a scientific freedom that many can now only dream about.

The editors have provided the complete text of the 15 notebooks that Darwin filled during the five years of the Beagle voyage, along with all maps and drawings. Each notebook is accompanied by a comprehensive introduction and has been given a unique name by the editors to supersede the ad hoc numbers previously assigned to the field notebooks.

The result is to render what is often considered to be the least readable of all Darwin's material instantly accessible and engaging for all.

The reader is given the key to unlock the work of the young Darwin, and hardly a page goes by without some gem jumping out and hinting at the scientific giant he would become. The beauty of the notebooks is that they are unpolished and raw: Darwin was writing for himself rather than the reader, bringing greater vitality and spontaneity to the text than can be found in his carefully polished Origin. In between the detailed scientific notes are shopping lists, parts of essays, diary entries and sketches (although the editors have sadly omitted what they deemed to be random doodles). Read in conjunction with Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary (also published by Cambridge University Press) the reader can follow Darwin in the most visceral and stimulating fashion and use the notebooks to conjure up his day-to-day life over five years of scientific discovery.

The huge amount of Darwin-related material that has been produced for the bicentenary (books, television documentaries and even a film) does risk portraying the man as something he wasn't. Let's ignore such gloss and try to keep things simple: why view Darwin through a glass darkly when the great man's original work is so accessible, and his genius still so enlightening?

Charles Darwin's Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

Edited by Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe. Cambridge University Press 650pp, £85.00. ISBN 9780521517577. Published 2 July 2009

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