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TOPIC: Stuff they didn't teach you in high school #1

Stuff they didn't teach you in high school #1 6 months 4 weeks ago #1

This latest diatribe has nothing whatsoever to do with our craft so please feel free to skip to another article if you so desire – this is only meant to be an amusement ;)

I’m doing a history degree at present and have to admit I get a little bored with it from time to time so I go off on little tangents researching interesting people from the past to see what makes them tick. On these little journeys I have discovered all sorts of things not presented in the curriculum when I went to school. The subject of creation versus evolution has popped up from time to time on TGR so in this article I will briefly examine the voyage of The Beagle, its principal characters, and its consequences.

Captain Robert FitzRoy, Commander of The Beagle, had previously ventured to South America on survey expeditions and was charged by the Royal Society in 1831 with conducting further and more extensive explorations there in geology, natural history and ethnology – a journey which was expected to take five years. A deeply religious man, FitzRoy’s hope was that these explorations would confirm beyond doubt the teachings of the Bible that man and all life on earth was created by God. To this end he needed to recruit a naturalist and after some deliberation selected the recently graduated Charles Darwin as his scientist for the voyage. Darwin was almost overlooked in the process as FitzRoy initially did not like the shape of his nose. Never in the field of human endeavour though has a choice backfired so spectacularly.

The voyage itself was reasonably uneventful apart from FitzRoy’s regular bouts of depression where he would lock himself in his cabin for weeks on end and the occasional blazing rows with Darwin over his ever developing research. The men did for the main part get along well and both respected each other’s abilities.

Returning to England in 1836 and whilst preparing the publication of his book On the Origin of the Species, Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory and natural selection, made the astonishing decision to marry his first cousin Emma despite there being significant evidence of inbreeding throughout the family for generations beforehand. Darwin had initially made a list of the ‘Pros’ and ‘Cons’ of marriage with examples of the ‘Pros” being “companionship in old age” and “better than having a dog” whilst the ‘Cons’ included “less money for books” and “interference”.

Darwin spent the rest of his life defending his work. When not doing this he devoted his time to other subjects such as rebuilding the reputation of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a doctor with somewhat controversial views on health and wellbeing which included bizarre sexual practices to cure almost any ills. Darwin’s biography on his grandfather in its original form must have been compelling reading – when he presented it to his publisher there were several sections completely removed as they would have been too harsh on Victorian sensibilities – in fact it is estimated that at least 20% of the manuscript was summarily cut out prior to publication. Darwin also wrote on many other things and in fact his highest selling book in his lifetime was on his favourite subject The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. He died of suspected heat disease in 1882.

FitzRoy, for the rest of his life, would deeply regret his choice of Darwin as The Beagle’s scientist. Initially, prior to the publication of Darwin’s writings, it was FitzRoy however who earned all the plaudits for the ships remarkable achievements and the British government rewarded him by appointing him Governor of New Zealand. A land with a significant native population governed by a religious zealot did not gel well however and FitzRoy was recalled to England after only 2 years in the post.

Desperate to find this national hero a worthy post where he could do little damage, the government charged FitzRoy with developing a method of predictive weather forecasting for shipping. Up until this point, weather had only been reported retrospectively such as “the weather yesterday in Southampton was overcast with blustery winds abating in the afternoon”. This was of little value to the average mariner. The government was desperate to solve this problem as many ships were being lost in storms and with a recent tragedy where 450 lives were lost they needed a solution quickly. FitzRoy approached the problem diligently and worked out a system of weather predictions the basis of which are still used to this day. He also coined the term ‘forecast’ and Queen Victoria herself was known to consult FitzRoy personally prior to making her voyages to her home on the Isle of Wight.

The new method of ‘weather forecasting’ proved extremely popular and commenced being printed in the daily newspapers. Almost immediately complaints were received that they were often wrong to the extent that most newspapers printed disclaimers about their accuracy.

Promoted to Vice-Admiral, FitzRoy became embroiled in long running public brawls about divinity, evolution, and meteorology. He continued to struggle with depression and committed suicide in 1865.

In the next article of three I will get stuck into Sir Isaac Newton - a true madman.
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Stuff they didn't teach you in high school #1 6 months 4 weeks ago #2

Thank you Emma. I've read a lot about Darwin and I knew that he'd married his cousin but the additional information that you provided on his family history was quite interesting. I wonder how Darwin would see those of us who don't fit what was certainly the Victorian-era mould of man and woman. Evolution? Nature over nurture?

I look forward to reading your next article. Newton was certainly more than falling apples and laws of motion.

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Stuff they didn't teach you in high school #1 6 months 4 weeks ago #3

Thank you Jane :)

Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, was probably equally as brilliant and unhinged as the great man. Worth looking up if you get a chance.
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