Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

The Evolution of Charles Darwin

The Epic Voyage of the Beagle That Forever Changed Our View of Life on Earth

by Diana Preston

From the Los Angeles Times Book Prize-winning historian, the colorful, dramatic story of Charles Darwin’s journey on HMS Beagle that inspired the revolutionary theories in his path-breaking books On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 512
  • Publication Date September 19, 2023
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6122-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 512
  • Publication Date October 04, 2022
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6018-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $30.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Publication Date October 04, 2022
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-6019-5
  • US List Price $30.00

When twenty-two-year-old aspiring geologist Charles Darwin boarded HMS Beagle in 1831 with his microscopes and specimen bottles—invited by ship’s captain Robert FitzRoy who wanted a travel companion at least as much as a ship’s naturalist — he hardly thought he was embarking on what would become the most important and epoch-changing voyage in scientific history. Nonetheless, over the course of the five-year journey around the globe in often hard and hazardous conditions, Darwin would make observations and gather samples that would form the basis of his revolutionary, evolutionary theories about the origin of species and natural selection.

Drawing on a rich range of revealing letters, diary entries, recollections of those who encountered him, and Darwin’s and FitzRoy’s own accounts of what transpired, Diana Preston chronicles the epic voyage as it unfolded, tracing Darwin’s growth from untested young man to accomplished adventurer and natural scientist in his own right. Darwin often left the ship to climb mountains or ride hundreds of miles across pampas and through rainforests in search of further unique specimens. From the wilds of Patagonia to the Galapagos and other Atlantic and Pacific islands, as Preston vibrantly relates, he collected and contrasted giant fossils and volcanic rocks, observed the Argentinian rhea, Falklands fox, and Galapagos finch, through which he began to discern connections between deep past and present.

Darwin never left Britain again after his return in 1836, though his mind journeyed far and wide to develop the theories that were first revealed, after great delay and with great trepidation, in 1859 with the publication of his epochal book On the Origin of Species. Offering a unique portrait of one of history’s most consequential figures, The Evolution of Charles Darwin is a vital contribution to our understanding of life on Earth.

Praise for The Evolution of Charles Darwin:

Named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews (Nonfiction)

“Fascinating . . . A beautifully told coming-of-age story focused on Darwin’s psychological transmutation from a diffident specimen collector expecting to become a country parson to a novice scientist climbing the career ladder in London’s private and prestigious clubs and societies . . . Offer[s] new and exciting ideas that will likely beat out the competition.”—Robert M. Thorson, Wall Street Journal

“[Preston’s] books are always entertaining . . . This book fits that mould; it’s an adventure story . . . The author has chosen the perfect topic. It’s nearly impossible to write a dull book about Darwin . . . The real attraction of this book lies in the way it turns the development of evolutionary theory into a personal story.”—Gerald DeGroot, Times (UK)

“[A] meticulously researched compelling narrative . . . Diana Preston’s vibrant reconstruction of Darwin’s extraordinary journey, world-changing work and the consequences he experienced makes it all accessible and new in her telling.”—Janet Somerville, Toronto Star
“An exciting biography of the immortal naturalist’s legendary journey . . . It was well into the 20th century before essentially all scientists agreed that Darwin was on the right track. Since then, biographies have poured off the presses, but readers cannot go wrong with this expert account. An irresistible scientific biography and adventure story with a happy ending.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“While much has been written about Darwin’s revolutionary scientific achievements on this journey, historian Preston sheds light on the voyage itself, its captain and crew, and the Native populations they encountered.”—Booklist (starred review)

“A brisk and accessible account of how Charles Darwin developed his theory of natural selection . . . A rewarding look at the development of an earth-shattering idea.”—Publishers Weekly

“Darwin was only 22 when he boarded the HMS Beagle in 1830 under the command of Robert FitzRoy as a ‘gentleman naturalist,’ unaware his name would one day grace an award honouring humans who remove themselves from the gene pool through misadventure. Drawing on the naturalist’s diaries, Preston’s biography reveals a man who, in his chauvinism and blind patriotism, was typical of his time—but in his liberal- and abolition-mindedness, atypical as well.”—Globe and Mail

Praise for Eight Days at Yalta:

“A colorful chronicle of high-stakes negotiations and a study in human frailties, missteps, and ideological blunders.”—Washington Post

“Ms. Preston’s conference narrative abjures authorial hindsight judgments, placing the spotlight instead on the characters’ natural blind spots and biases. She also devotes a full third of the book to the summit’s historical context and personalities, the latter of which are nicely developed.”—Wall Street Journal

“A highly readable, highly detailed account of the historic meetings and often difficult and contentious negotiations between Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, and their staffs, and a vivid description of the once ornate Tsarist palaces and their much deteriorated wartime condition that served as the setting for meetings, dinners, and private talks.”—New York Journal of Books

“Lively and nuanced . . . Shrewd on the main personalities . . . Preston goes beyond the horse-trading of three old men, with vivid scene-setting of the tsarist palaces where the conference took place.”—Times (UK)

“In this well-written and absorbing book, Diana Preston provides a chronological narrative of these crucial eight days.”—Airmail

“On the Yalta conference’s 75th anniversary, this insightful history recounts its enormous, if teeth-gnashing, accomplishments . . . Impressively researched . . . An expert account of an unedifying milestone at the dawn of the Cold War.”—Kirkus Reviews

“[A] spirited, behind-the-scenes account of the February 1945 Yalta Conference. Preston mixes foreign policy critique . . . with vibrant descriptions of backstage activities . . . Colorful personalities, piquant details, and a diverse array of perspectives make this a satisfying introduction to the subject.”—Publishers Weekly

Praise for Diana Preston:

“A treasure map of a book.”—San Diego Union-Tribune, on A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

“A superbly rendered popular history.”—Booklist (starred review), on A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

“Unforgettable . . . The definitive account of the Lusitania.”—Philadelphia Inquirer, on Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy

“As majestic as its subject . . . Extraordinarily readable.”—Chicago Sun-Times, on Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy

“An engaging narrative . . . Rich in detail and texture.”—San Diego Union Tribune, on Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima

“Ultimately this book is about survival, and the author engagingly recounts the nearly impossible task of trying to establish a penal colony with few supplies and poor agricultural conditions. Preston shines in her description of the true nature of Captain Bligh . . . A wonderful look into the beginnings of Australia and the remarkable strength of the survivors of these dangerous voyages.”—Kirkus Reviews, on Paradise in Chains


Excerpted from The Evolution of Charles Darwin © 2022 by Diana Preston. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

In the early afternoon of December 27, 1831, just beyond the breakwater of Plymouth harbor, a tall, ruddy-complexioned, gray-eyed young man transferred from a small yacht to HMS Beagle after enjoying a convivial last lunch ashore. Though the weather had recently calmed, the Beagle’s crew had labored for three hours to tack her into open water to begin her long voyage under her commander Robert FitzRoy. His demanding mission was to survey the coast of South America from Buenos Aires to Lima and complete a circumnavigation of the world, taking longitudinal measurements as well as returning to Tierra del Fuego three of its inhabitants he had virtually kidnapped on the Beagle’s previous voyage and brought to England.

The new arrival clambering aboard the Beagle was the expedition’s supernumerary and self-financed “gentleman naturalist,” twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin. His excitement was tempered by justifiable apprehension. Could he withstand the physical and mental rigors of the voyage? Would he be seasick? Would he get along with his diverse companions in the ship’s cramped confines and lack of privacy? Could he really bear parting from family and friends for so long? And, perhaps above all, did he know enough about the various fields of science he would be expected to cover? Writing in his diary two weeks earlier, he had tried to reassure himself that the voyage was a “great and uncommon . . . opportunity of improving myself” that must not be thrown away.

Because of its twin scientific and philosophical consequences for humanity, the voyage of HMS Beagle was to become one of the most important ever undertaken, arguably surpassing the expeditions of Leif Erikson, Ibn Battuta, Zheng He, Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus, and James Cook, and even the first moon landing. Yet when the Beagle departed England, little suggested the intellectual revolution to follow. Charles Darwin was a conventional young man, but as the voyage progressed, he began to develop unconventional ideas. The theories that grew from his research on the voyage would redefine perceptions of humanity and its relationship to other species, showing it had evolved from earlier life forms and was not the divinely created and ordained apex of an unchanging hierarchy. Darwin’s thinking would consign the first chapter of Genesis, and with it Adam and Eve, to a mythological limbo, though he himself would never become a declared atheist.

At the time, Darwin would have appeared an unlikely radical thinker. From a wealthy middle-class background he was, by his own admission, comfortably used to being the focus of family attention, not least from his devoted sisters. He had accepted his medical doctor father’s prescription for his unfocused son of a quiet life as a country parson until unexpectedly offered the opportunity to sail on the Beagle. He anticipated the coming voyage would show him the glories of tropical places so vividly described by his hero the explorer and natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt.

Sociable, usually good-natured, and eager to please, Darwin was well-suited to fit in on a small naval vessel. His uncle Josiah Wedgwood II, son of the founder of the Wedgwood potteries, had already spotted that Darwin was “a man of enlarged curiosity.” Yet to many who knew him, the likable young man, installed with his books and microscopes aboard the Beagle, did not seem out of the ordinary. Indeed, Adam Sedgwick, Cambridge University professor of geology, thought, “There was some risk of his turning out an idle man.”

Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin was cheerfully and unashamedly chauvinistic, nationalistic, and sexist, as the diary he kept aboard the Beagle as well as his subsequent writings reveal. However, though far from radical, his political views were liberal for the time and deep-seated. He opposed slavery, and during the voyage his abhorrence was reinforced by seeing slave-owning societies at first hand. While he believed that different peoples—such as the indigenous Aboriginal peoples of Australia and the Fuegians subsisting near-naked in twig wigwams in chill Tierra del Fuego—might be at differing stages of “civilization,” he never wavered from the belief that all humankind belongs to a single species.

By its eventual length—nearly five years—and the fact it circumnavigated the world, returning from South America across the Pacific via Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia, the Beagle voyage gave Darwin a rare opportunity to gather a massive collection of data. These enabled him with growing confidence to examine geological strata and compare and contrast flora and fauna, whether on opposite sides of the Andes or within islands such as the Falklands, St. Helena, Ascension, and the Galapagos—although contrary to popular myth, he did not have a eureka moment about evolution in the latter. He was able to collect fossils of extinct species, prompting lines of thought about their connections to species still living. In Chile he felt the ground shudder beneath his feet— his first experience of an earthquake—seeming proof that the earth’s crust was in perpetual motion.

The voyage marked an evolution in Darwin himself. The more facts he gathered—and he was, throughout his life, an inveterate list maker—the more ideas came into his head. Many of these would have seemed heretical to the embryo clergyman he had been when he sailed, not doubting the literal truth of the Biblical picture of Creation. For most of the voyage Darwin thought of himself as primarily a geologist. However, in its latter stages he turned increasingly to biology and zoology. As the Beagle finally headed for home, he was already making notes on how species changed though it would be many years before he felt confident enough to reveal his ideas about evolution publicly and face the storm of hostility he knew they would provoke. Integral to his thinking was the interrelationship between living organisms and their environment, making him a pioneer of what we today call ecology.

Eager to explore ashore at any opportunity—Darwin spent some three-fifths of the time on land—he plunged into remote, sometimes hazardous, hinterlands for weeks, even months, usually carrying his pistols with him. In Argentina, he rode hundreds of miles with only gauchos for company, relishing their independent way of life, cooking beef over fires of animal bones and sleeping on their saddles beneath the starry Southern Hemisphere skies. He became caught up in South America’s frequent political upheavals. On one occasion he marched with an armed detachment of Beagle crew through the streets of Montevideo to intervene in a rising to help defend British property, even if he soon retired back to the Beagle with a headache.

During the voyage Darwin embraced new experiences, sampling his first banana in the Cape Verde islands and drinking tortoise urine in the Galapagos. Traveling rough, he sometimes became ill. Whether the poor health that harassed and hampered him in later years stemmed from this period, perhaps from bites from the notorious bugs of the South American pampas, has been much debated. As the voyage went on and as he collected ever more data, Darwin’s curiosity about the natural world grew more focused and analytical. He developed from a diffident young man, conscious of his inexperience, into an assured, ambitious natural scientist, prepared to question the ideas of his mentors. He came ashore in Falmouth in October 1836 no longer planning life in a quiet country parsonage, but determined to establish himself in academic circles.

The Beagle voyage also shaped the lives of others on board, in particular Captain Robert FitzRoy and his Fuegian protégé, Jemmy Button. FitzRoy, whose desire to take a naturalist gave Darwin his chance, spent a very different five years to the young scientist he nicknamed his Philos, or “philosopher.” Striving to fulfil his exacting orders from the Admiralty— even feeling compelled to spend his own money on the expedition—the perfectionist, possibly bipolar FitzRoy suffered a nervous breakdown. He also saw his attempts to establish a Christian mission in Tierra del Fuego fail. In later years, as a traditional Creationist, FitzRoy blamed himself for allowing Darwin the opportunity to develop his “heretical” theories. FitzRoy’s own career endured peaks and troughs. Though he distinguished himself as a meteorologist, devising the world’s first weather forecasts, his life ended tragically.

Of the three Fuegians FitzRoy brought to England as a kind of social experiment and then returned, Jemmy Button was the one most deeply affected by the Beagle voyage. Like other indigenous people plucked from their homes—such as the tragic Bennelong dispatched to Britain by Arthur Philip, governor of the first convict settlement in Sydney Cove, Australia—he was left stranded between two societies with serious consequences.

Others aboard the Beagle, from erstwhile ship’s “fiddler and boy to the poop cabin,” Syms Covington, who became Darwin’s personal assistant, to young naval officers Bartholomew Sulivan and John Wickham, who became Darwin’s lifelong friends, thrived through their experiences during the expedition.

The voyage of the Beagle was about discovery in every sense, at every level from self-discovery through detailed broadening of knowledge to the widest scientific revelation. This book belongs to all who sailed, but especially to Darwin, without whom the voyage would have been a footnote, albeit quite an important one, in the history of marine charting and meteorology. As he himself wrote, it was “by far the most important event in my life and . . . determined my whole career.”