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
    Paperback:
    Nov 2010, 432 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Alfred Wallace, though in some ways as shy and retiring as Darwin himself, echoed Huxley's martial sentiments. He was proud to be called Darwin's 'true knight', the man who had independently arrived at the same theory of natural selection before Darwin made his own public, and who chivalrously accorded all priority and fame to the older man. Wallace thought of himself as merely a 'guerrilla chief' in the evolution war, 'while Darwin is the great general, who can manoeuvre the largest army, and lead on his formation to victory'.

Joseph Hooker, botanist and biogeographer, had been an equally fierce and effective warrior for natural selection, though he took greatest pride in being the man whose judgement Darwin trusted absolutely: 'my public and my judge'. As he made his last farewell over Darwin's open grave, Hooker felt saddened to be one of only a few men who really knew the reclusive scientist intimately. 'But for those of us who have now to mourn so unspeakable a loss, it is some consolation to think, while much that was sweetest and noblest in our lives has ended in that death, his great life and finished work is still before our view; and in regarding them we may almost bring our hearts to cry. Not for him, but for ourselves we weep.'

And weep they did for their present, their future and their past. It is so often forgotten that what had brought these four very different and distinguished Victorian figures together so as to be 'strengthened in brotherly love' was their separate participation as young men in daring scientific voyages of exploration to the southern oceans. These four voyages created 'a Masonic bond' as a result of being 'well salted in early life'. The voyagers were tested, emotionally, physically and intellectually, and they felt themselves transformed in the deepest sense as scientists and as people.

The three younger men had each been conscious of following in Darwin's wake. His famous Voyage of the Beagle, detailing his trip to South America, Australia and the South Seas, had been their inspiration. It offered them so much, beginning with what Darwin modestly called 'a general interest in Southern lands': poetic descriptions of tropical landscapes, exciting stories of adventure, exhilarating new methods of discovering the forces that shaped the physical and biological habitats of the Southern Hemisphere. For as the St James Gazette rightly observed, 'Mr Darwin was not only a discoverer, but a captain and organizer of discovery.'

Through their South Seas odysseys, these four young, romantically minded amateur naturalists gained access to one of the richest natural laboratories on the globe. They each discovered evidence from which to build new scientific theories, and each stored lifelong memories of a common experience of hardship and pleasure that bound them together like shipmates. Out of these southern adventures grew their friendship, their interlocking scientific interests, and finally, their joint participation in Darwin's evolution war. The southern oceans were the training ground of the seamen who would lead Dar-win's armada to ultimate victory.

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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