Frank Cottrell Boyce is a screenwriter (Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie, 24 Hour Party People and Millions) and children's writer (Millions and Framed). He lives in Liverpool with his wife and seven children. His latest film - Grow Your Own - comes out this month. Here Frank writes about Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle.
Frank Cottrell Boyce on The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
I love the theory of Evolution. Whenever my train is delayed, or I'm stuck in traffic or a hospital waiting room, I can cheer myself up no end by thinking about it. It's very hard for non-mathematical humans to conceptualize big numbers, but thinking about evolution gives me some way of colouring in the noughts of the millions of years that the planet has been spinning. Whenever I knacker one of my projects, I think about the heedless, headlong creativity that is evolution - the dead-ends, the sprites, the hair-raisingly desperate solutions to the business of being alive that it has thrown up. Evolution inspires me, comforts me, and amuses me. If I meet a poor benighted Creationist or an advocate of 'Intelligent Design', I always try to enlighten them, just because I feel they're missing out.
I first came to the detail and the subtlety of Darwin through the essays of Stephen Jay Gould and then through his two great books The Mismeasure of Man and Wonderful Life, but I've only read The Voygage of the Beagle very recently. My son is working in a poor country parish in Peru and the emails he sends are the highlight of my life just now. Knowing that Darwin's book was culled from the letters he sent to his parents from South America gave me a fuzzy and spurious sense of connection so I picked it up.
Reading the Journal of Researches into Geology and Natural History - to give it its proper name - is like drinking from the Fountain of Youth. Although it plays a key role in the history of ideas, the most striking thing about the book is how carefree it is. Fitzroy wrote a serious, multi-volume account of the voyage and if you want to see someone struggling with the conflict between new geological evidence and current biblical exegesis, that's where you have to look (volume 2, chapter 28). Darwin is more concerned with describing his amazing adventures - volcanos erupting, being caught up in an earthquake, winched up a cliff in Tahiti, riding around with gauchos in Argentina and hunting, shooting and fishing everywhere. Darwin's days on Galapagos constitute one of the most important episodes in the history of ideas but the most vivid moment in his account of it is his description of repeatedly lobbing a marine lizard into the sea and watching it swim back - fascinated by the fact that it would not go willingly into the water, no matter how hard he chased it, even though it could swim. It's like a paragraph from Just William. As is the earlier account of trying to drown one by tying it to a stone.
This is not to say that the book isn't serious. Of course it is. Darwin puts geology above natural history in the title of the book. He was turned on to geology by J.S. Henslow at Cambridge, and it was Henslow who got him the job on the Beagle. Systematic geology was in its infancy and Darwin was one of the first geologists to visit South America. The geological descriptions have the excitement and the sense of privilege of an astronaut landing on an unknown planet. Everything in those pages is news, and sings with the excitement and thrill of newness. It was geology - and his religion, with its sense of eternity - that alerted Darwin to the idea that time might be bigger, longer than generally believed. And it was this sense of the hugeness of time, and the relative youth of life as we know it, that gave him space to imagine evolution.
Darwin did not join the Beagle as official scientist. He was there really as a companion for the conscientious but depressive Fitzroy. What the journal describes is a clever young man with time to kill in an amazing place, a brilliant mind at play. In an age of attainment targets, critical paths and self-assessment, it's a radiant reminder of the profound importance of idleness and irresponsibility.
It would also be a good read for everyone involved in the current tedious standoff between religious and scientific fundamentalists. Darwin's power of observation and his child-like curiosity are clearly fuelled both by his love of hunting and his reverence for what he thought of as Creation. As I hinted above, he wouldn't have been able to conceive his great scientific theory if he hadn't had a religious sense of eternity, and if his curiosity had not been intensified and focused by reverence. All fundamentalism is irreconcilable with both religion and science. Fundamentalism is a parasite that feeds sometimes on science, sometimes on religion, sometimes on economic policy, for its own ends, offering nothing in return. It is never ever ever in a million years going to produce something as breezy and brilliant as this book.