Sunday, 9 December 2012

Darwin's Finches in soluble graphite

This week's Illustration Friday prompt is explore. What you're seeing here is three quick sketches of what are popularly known as Darwin's Finches: "finches" from the Galapagos Islands that Darwin described after his trip around South America and Australia aboard the survey ship Beagle. The beak on my warbler-finch (the one on the left) is a bit too short because it was hard to judge from the reference photo I was using, and of course I didn't bother to do any further searching until I'd already finished the drawing. The other two finches are currently considered to be the same species, but the one on the right has developed a heavier body and beak and may one day become a new species.

That's the short and simplified version of that story, by the way. If you're interested in learning more, it should be easy enough to find if you google Geospiza fortis 5110. This post really isn't going to have much to do with Darwin's Finches and their importance to the development of the theory of evolution, believe it or not. It's more about the voyage.

And before I continue, I should note that as usual my scanner wasn't fond of the soluble graphite wash, so I've had to darken this a fair bit to show any detail.

I recently finished reading The Voyage of the Beagle, which is Darwin's account of his five years on the ship. He was serving as naturalist on a surveying trip, and in those days that meant you had to know a little bit about just about everything about the natural world (enough abouts in this sentence for everyone yet?), from geology to entomology. It was quite something to read this diary of a fairly young man (which, granted, since I was reading the second edition, was heavily influenced by the thoughts of the later, older man. Hmm. That makes it sound like Darwin invented time travel. Who knew?) exploring a world completely different from the England he'd grown up in. At times he's incredibly full of wonder and awe, at times he's dismissive, at times he goes on far too long about geology (I'm sorry. I just find it hard to get that interested in geology), and at times... well, he climbs an awful lot of hills and mountains. He must have driven his guides and servants nuts.

One thing that struck me very forcefully was the giant ball of contradiction that was Victorian science. There is this absolute admiration of the wonders of nature coupled with incredibly callous destruction. The standard operating procedure seemed to be see, admire, describe, shoot, describe dead thing.

There's a lot of dead things in The Voyage of the Beagle.

Now, before any of the more science-minded amongst you starts in on the importance of study specimens to the advancement of understanding, let me just say that I know. I have a zoology degree. I've handled many a dead thing. I know that it's almost impossible to fully understand anatomy without dissecting things, and I know the importance of study skins in the description and comparison of new species. It's not the death that bothered me so much; it's the scale. Where nowadays we might go out and collect one or two animals (or, increasingly and even better, their DNA), the Victorians were shooting braces at a time. As my officemate reminded me when I was describing all of this, there was a time where every field scientist's lab or office contained a well-used gun cabinet.

Considering what's since happened to some of the species that they were shooting in dozens, I'm glad that's not the way we explore the natural world anymore. The early science was important to take science to where it is now, but I hope we've learned that we can't continue to be so cavalier when dealing with the animals that we're studying.

Backing off from death for a moment, it's interesting to me that at first it wasn't the finches of the Galapagos that attracted Darwin's attention. That didn't happen until he got back to England and his collections were studied by other people. He was far more interested in a couple of species of... mockingbird, I think it was. A good lesson there, really. Sometimes you need others' eyes to help point you to the ideas that are truly important.

There are other things I could say about The Voyage of the Beagle -- the uncomfortable feeling a modern-day reader gets while hearing his very Victorian dismissal of many of the natives he meets comes to mind -- but I've already blathered long enough and blather's supposed to be for my other blog anyway. I'll just say, then, that if you have any sort of interest in early(ish) scientific exploration and the associated attitudes, the book's worth a flip-though.

Is it weird that I just gave a review for a nearly 170-old book? Probably. Welcome to my weird life, then.

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