Monday, February 16, 2015

Darwin: Encounters In Patagonia and Peru

I'm late by a few days for a Darwin Day 2015 post but wanted to share a couple of passages from Darwin's biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore which show more facets of his life and personality.

During the survey of Patagonia,  Darwin took to exploring the immense pampas on his  own, hiring guides and horses and living the life  of a gaucho. He was enjoying himself and yet there was an ugly underbelly to this newly constituted society of ranching and exploitation of the great grasslands of Argentina-

Darwin was becoming quite a gaucho himself. The rough-riding suited him perfectly. At night, crouched around a fire, eating roasted game, he jotted down notes and relaxed. "I.. drink my Mattee and smoke my cigar, and then lie down and sleep as comfortably with the Heavens for a Canopy as in a feather bed.' Well  armed, with fresh horses and ruthless companions he had little to fear from the hostiles. Indeed, he was beginning to  appreciate the "great benefits" of General Rosas's war of extermination'. For landowners it promised a bonanza. 'It will open four or 500 miles in length of fine country for the produce of cattle'

Extermination meant the elimination of the native South American population. Darwin did abhor such tactics. He came from an abolitionist background and enslavement and mistreatment of natives affected and disgusted him. Yet, his thinking about the place of natives in human society reflected his own class upbringing. He firmly saw European civilization as superior to other cultures.  He welcomed European settlement of these lands and the conversion of the natives to Christianity. He regarded natives, especially the Fuegians he met in Argentina as a particularly backward and deprived lot. He despaired about the meaning of the variation in human cultures he was witnessing. He hoped that a different upbringing may bring change to the natives and they could learn the ways of the "civilized" world. He turned to the Fuegian natives who had lived in England and spoke English and dressed like Englishman and thought that human behavior is adaptable and plastic. But then he felt his hopes were dashed when these same Fuegian natives reverted to their native ways when brought back to live amongst their people. Darwin then opined that millennia of living amongst harsh environments had led to ingrained habits, deep seated instincts and ways of living  that could not change. Lyell, his geological  mentor had written that humans might be different, but those differences were slight. He was thinking from a creationist point of view, that species were  brought into existence in a moment of creation and varied only slightly. Darwin on the other hand, face to face with the immense cultural differences between native South Americans and Europeans, saw a world of variation. He came close to conflating cultural differences with deep seated biological boundaries.

More that a  year later in July 1835 the HMS Beagle was in Lima, Peru.

There was faded grandeur, but only one thing turned his head. He 'could not keep [his] eyes off the tapadas'- the elegant ladies. Their dress and manners brought out the sailor in him. He felt as though he had fallen amongst 'nice round mermaids'. 

'The ...elastic gown fits the figure closely and obliges the ladies to walk with small steps which they do very elegantly and display very white  silk stockings & very pretty feet.- They wear a black silk veil, which is fixed round the waist behind, is brought over the head, & held by the hands before the face, allowing only one eye to remain uncovered.- But then  that one eye is so black & brilliant & has such powers of motion & expression, that its effect is very powerful'.

But his time Darwin was feeling homesick  too. Ahead lay a long Pacific voyage to Australia and then home via  the Indian Ocean.

His thoughts wandered 'English lady' was someone 'very angelic & good', a type he had 'almost forgotten' about.

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