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The Voyage of the Beagle Reader’s Guide

By Charles Darwin

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Darwin’s scientific exploration was one of the many goals of the voyage of the Beagle, but what was the primary purpose of the journey? What information might such an exhaustive maritime expedition provide and what needs could it fulfill? You may want to examine the role of the British Empire at the time, at the height of her power with a strong leader, a sound economy, and many colonies under her stewardship.

2. In his Autobiography, Darwin called his five years on the Beagle the “most important event in my life” and said that it “determined my whole career.” How did it alter Darwin’s course? Are there early examples or indications of Darwin’s theories regarding adaptation and natural selection? How was this journal a precursor to his best-known, landmark work The Origin of Species?

3. Charles Darwin brought the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology on board with him and had the second and third volumes sent to him during his voyage. How do Lyell’s principles influence Darwin’s observations of the landscapes he visits? What conclusions does Darwin draw, if any? How did they influence his own hypotheses?

4. Among the extraordinary developments of Darwin’s trip were the examples of speciation that he saw, as he noticed the division of a single species into two genetically distinct ones. Look at his discussions of ostriches in Bahia Blanca and finches and other birds in the Galapagos. Where do you see other examples of speciation?

5. What scientific discoveries were being made at the time Darwin penned The Voyage of the Beagle, especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution? How did Darwin revolutionize science, and what controversies did his work spawn? Many of Darwin’s theories continue to be hotly contested, even among contemporary scientists. What legacy has he left, and what do you imagine are the nuances in the debate surrounding evolution?

6. The Voyage of the Beagle was warmly received and quite popular upon its publication. Accessible and interesting, it is as much a travel memoir as a scientific document. How does it mirror the travel writing of the time? How does it fit into the greater literary tradition? Take into account the growing popularity of Baedeker guides among travelers, but also the influences of the romantics and others in writing about nature and landscape.

7. Consider the audience that was reading Darwin’s journal. How did the Victorians view religion, morality, law, class, race, and gender? In what ways does Darwin see the places he visits through a Victorian lens? What values does he project onto the people and places he encounters?

8. How does Darwin describe the native inhabitants of the places he visits? How does Darwin’s meditation on slavery reflect the discourse in England at the time? How do his own opinions evolve during his time on the Beagle-from the earliest journal entries to those he writes about Brazil?

 
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