On this day in 1832, Charles Darwin traveling aboard the HMS Beagle landed on the shores of Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip. His Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, which emerged as a result of his journey on the Beagle, remains one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century.
Darwin was born in 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He attended Edinburgh University as a young man to become a doctor, but discovered quickly that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or suffering. He decided to become a clergyman in the countryside instead, so that he could more fully pursue his interest in natural history.
Before he could complete his religious studies, he was approached by the Captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, who sought an unpaid companion for the trip. Darwin agreed, seeing opportunity to catalog animals and plants on the journey. Later, Darwin discovered that he almost missed his chance in the history books, detailing the ordeal in one of his letters: “Afterwards, on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”
Darwin and Fitzroy landed at port in Rio in April of 1832, and stayed until June. At the start of the trip on land, Darwin recorded the midday temperature in the shade as a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. He took ill at one point but was cured overnight by “cinnamon and port wine.”
In one day, he collected 68 different species of beetles. One of the most memorable moments of the stop came when he came across a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a live caterpillar, to be eaten alive by the grubs after hatching. This event single-handedly challenged Darwin’s belief in God; he wrote to fellow naturalist Asa Gray: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”
Darwin himself sampled many of the animals he encountered on the islands that he visited. He ate armadillos, iguanas, giant tortoises, agouti rodents (“the best meat I ever tasted”), a puma with “veal-like” meat, and a large bird called a rhea, which Darwin had been looking for desperately before realizing that he had been dining on it.
Darwin finally reached the famous Galapagos Islands three years later, in 1835. Then, in 1859, he published his seminal book On the Origin of Species. Those looking through the prolific library of Darwin at the time of the theory’s development will encounter endless marginalia detailing his thought process. On the final page of his copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which argued for an archaic view of evolution, Darwin scribbled a single line: “If this were true, adios theory.”
Reposted from Writer’s Almanac.