Excerpt from Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Darwin's Armada

Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution

by Iain McCalman

Darwin's Armada
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2009, 432 pages
    Nov 2010, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Print Excerpt

Three men in late middle age who also gripped the brass handles of the coffin were there because they'd been Darwin's closest friends and intellectual collaborators. Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, aged fifty-seven, was tall and thickset with a beaklike nose and massive side whiskers. Next to him stooped botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, sixty-five, slight and fragile with a leonine ruff of white hair circling his face, which was pale from angina. At the rear was zoogeographer Alfred Russel Wallace, fifty-nine, tall and gangly with a heavy white beard around a kindly mouth.

The modest co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection, Wallace was a man whom Darwin had revered, despite Wallace's reputation for radical eccentricity. Privately, George Darwin thought it would have been more in keeping with his father's feelings to have positioned Wallace 'at the other end' of the coffin with his two colleagues. These three scientists belonged together: they were not only the dead man's most committed scientific supporters, but, as fellow southern voyagers, they had also shared with him a special bond of the 'salt'.

As if to remind them of that formative period in all their lives, Darwin's coffin came to rest next to another southern traveller, whom Darwin had first met at the Cape of Good Hope half a century earlier. This neighbour in death was the eminent astronomer--philosopher Sir John Herschel. The two old travellers nudged each other in the confined space of the Abbey. As a seaman, Darwin had been familiar with constrictions of space. One of his mourners, Admiral John Lort Stokes, had written to The Times five days earlier to tell readers how he had worked beside Darwin on the Beagle's poop-cabin table while their hammocks swayed overhead. Sudden bouts of seasickness would force Darwin to leave his microscope and lie down, saying, 'Old fellow, I must take the horizontal for it.' And here he was taking the horizontal for the last time.

The organ sounded a final anthem, Canon Prothero pronounced the Benediction, and Charles Darwin, that most reluctant sailor and fighter, embarked on his last voyage to meet the worms he'd been so recently studying.

Locals from Darwin's tiny Kentish hamlet of Downe were represented by two long-time family servants, Mary Evans, who'd looked after Darwin since he was a boy, and old Mr Parslow, the almost equally long-serving butler. Provision had been made for other villagers to attend the funeral, but none did so. Most believed that Darwin would have hated the Abbey ceremony. Had it been held at the local church of St Mary's as they'd hoped, and as he'd intended, the pallbearers would not have included all these stiff society folk. Family members, neighbours, and old friends like Hooker, Huxley and Wallace would have carried the coffin to the resting spot Darwin had requested.

The Downe church was small, just a nave and a chancel below a white plaster ceiling and an old timbered roof, but it was dignified in its simplicity. The dwarf tower and tall spire were the first thing travellers glimpsed through the horse chestnut trees as they made their way down from Keston Hill, along a steep winding path cut into the chalk, then across a level meadow and into the village. A huge old elm with a 23-foot girth shadowed the entrance to the church and the adjacent yard. This was the burial spot of Darwin's two children who died in infancy, Mary Eleanor and Charles Waring. Here too, in a grassy patch under a large old yew tree, lay two of Darwin's Wedgwood cousins, sharing with his elder brother Erasmus a specially commissioned family vault designed to hold twelve. In spite of Charles's lack of religious feeling, he'd felt this tiny churchyard to be 'the sweetest place on earth'. So when his stuttering heart finally stopped beating at four pm on 19 April, after a week of pain, both the family and the village took it for granted that a quiet local ceremony would be held. Darwin had expressed this wish to his wife Emma a year earlier, when gripped by an intimation of death.

Reprinted from Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution by Iain McCalum copyright (c) 2009 by Iain McCalum. with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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