The years before the Beagle

Contrary to a widespread view, CD's youth and student years prepared him well for the *naturalist role he assumed during the voyage of the *Beagle.

CD's schooling appears to have been typical of that of boys of his social class and time, even if he recalled, in his *Autobiography (p. 46) that he was doing no good at school. Far more interesting, at least here, is his extraordinary devotion to *angling, which started at an early age, and apparently lasted until well into the Beagle years. An extensive *correspondence attests to this devotion, and related activities and readings, notably of Izaak *Walton's CompleatAngler.Indeed, Walton's classic, which identifies (and names!) distinct populations of *Trout and other fish species in the British Isles, may have contributed, a decade or so later, to CD's dawning perception of within-species *variation as a motor of *evolution.

CD's angling years were also a period of avid *beetle collection, and this introduced him to Leonard *Jenyns, who later described the fish CD collected during the voyage of the Beagle.

Only two elements are highlighted here of CD's student years in Edinburgh: his dissection of a *Lumpfish under the guidance of his then mentor Robert *Grant, and his relationship with John *Edmonton.

The importance of the written account of the Lumpfish dissection derives from the fact that it is the first bit of scientific writing by CD ever found, and from the profound understanding of the relationship between scientific 'fact' and 'theory' that this account documents. Indeed, the mature way of *'seeing' illustrated by this account, while establishing that CD then was already a keen observer, quick to formulate and test fruitful hypotheses, also establishes that Grant, an early evolutionist, cannot have had on CD as little intellectual influence as claimed in his


The relationship with John *Edmonton, a former South American slave of African ancestry established in Edinburgh, from whom CD took private lessons in taxidermy, is also important, as it appears to have opened his mind to respecting people outside his narrow class and ethnic background, thus enabling him to learn from the people he met in his later travels and readings, and, ultimately, to formulate a theory that encompassed all of humanity, and embedded us within the same nature. This contrasts with the divisive schemes propagated by less open-minded contemporaries, e.g. Louis *Agassiz and Richard *Owen, whose religious prejudices, combined with social opportunism, ultimately undermined their science.

CD's years in Cambridge, where he performed rather well as a student, again contrary to a widespread belief fuelled by a misleading account in the Autobiography,are documented in various biographies, most of which emphasize the role of his mentor there, the botanist John *Henslow. Nothing peculiar to ichthyology is reported from this period, which ends when Captain Robert *FitzRoy accepted CD as his companion and effective *naturalist on the Beagle, after *Jenyns had refused the offer.

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