Blame it on Darwin

Jonathan Rée

  • Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker by A.N. Wilson
    John Murray, 438 pp, £25.00, September, ISBN 978 1 4447 9488 5

When the 22-year-old Charles Darwin joined HMS Beagle in 1831 he took a copy of Paradise Lost with him, and over the next five years he read it many times, in Brazil, Patagonia, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Mauritius. As the ship’s naturalist he sent commentaries and specimens back to colleagues in London, who soon came to see him not as a dilettante but an extremely acute observer. On his return he published an extensive Journal of Researches which showed that reading Milton by the light of a campfire had taught him how to write.

One evening, when we were about ten miles from the Bay of San Blas, vast numbers of butterflies, in bands or flocks of countless myriads, extended as far as the eye could range. Even by the aid of a telescope it was not possible to see a space free from butterflies. The seamen cried out ‘it was snowing butterflies,’ and such in fact was the appearance.

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