The audiobook reviewed here is ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin and narrated by Professor Richard Dawkins. It seems fitting that Dawkins should read this audiobook by Darwin as he travels on his historic voyage around the world. Dawkins narrates with an obvious passion for the work and each sentence is read so convincingly that it became easy to imagine Darwin’s corresponding experiences. Darwin’s writing in this book was a surprise to me. I had expected a concentrated description of the focus of his studies – the varieties of life that he witnessed. However Darwin takes considerable effort to describe not just the wonderful species that he came into contact with but also his own experience on what was a fantastic voyage around the world that would hold appeal to many over 150 years later. I was impressed when Darwin takes the time to describe the injustices that he witnessed against slaves with evident compassion for their plight. He describes the joy of being surrounded by the beautiful vistas, a visit to the Beagle by the Queen of Tahiti – Queen Pomarre, the anxiety of the sometimes dangerous encounters with indigenous tribes and the incomprehensible (to me) breakfast and lunch derived from a passing Armadillo.
Another striking feature is the eloquence of Darwin’s writing and this same writing had wide appeal to his Victorian audience on his return home. He writes humorously at times and I found myself laughing at some of the situations he described. He also painted a vivid picture of the people that he encountered on his travels. However Darwin also delivers to us a vast number of observations about the taxonomies of the witnessed species but interspersed in the text in such a way as to become almost imperceptible except on further reflection. After this further reflection however it is possible to see at work the great mind of Darwin carefully abstracting his visual and auditory perceptions, integrating those abstractions into his internalised taxonomic structures and then attaching these new labels to his descriptions of the scenery to at once transform this same scene and offer the reader a new vision of the world through the eyes of a naturalist.
Throughout the work, Darwin also refers to the ‘countenance’ of the people he met during the journey and their facial expressions are described in various passages. It was tempting for me to suspect that he had already at this stage started to think about the expression of emotions in humans long before the publication of his book ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ in 1872. Similarly there are various references to the pressures on animals in different environments. For instance in one passage he conjectures that a species of bird is adapting through generations so as to learn to avoid human predators which they were unable to do as individual birds in the short term.
This is a fascinating and well narrated book which is both entertaining without being too taxing and which gives an insight into Darwin and his experiences during this historic journey.
Charles Darwin. The Voyage of the Beagle. Narrated by Richard Dawkins. Originally published in 1837. Published as an audiobook in 2009 by CSA Word.
Charles Darwin. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 1872.
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