From here... to there

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Charles Darwin to David Attenborough

IT HAD TAKEN far longer than had been expected but 177 years ago today, September 15th, 1835, HMS Beagle reached the eastern-most point of the Galapagos archipelago, almost 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador to which this cluster of islands, some little more than bleak rock outcrops, belong.

Abroad the ship was a young natural scientist named Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Chance had played a part in his joining the trip, which lasted five years. In 1831, having read Divinity at Cambridge, Darwin was about to enter the church, content to spend his leisure hours pursuing his interest in natural history. A geological tour of Wales had proved immensely enjoyable and he considered organising a natural history expedition to Tenerife. Then he received a letter from the botany professor at Cambridge, with whom he had been friendly. Prof Henslow was also a curate and had been contacted by a Capt FitzRoy who was leading a two-year admiralty survey of South America. FitzRoy needed a naturalist and Henslow recommended his friend, Darwin.

Darwin’s father objected but was won round and so, with a Bible and his copy of Paradise Lost, Darwin joined the team. Sharing a tiny cabin with FitzRoy was often fraught as Darwin was prone to seasickness. Yet he quickly forgot his affliction when on land gathering fossils and geological samples as well as bird, mammal and marine specimens. On his return he joined the Royal Geological Society and saw himself as a geologist. He had become a scientist.

During the voyage Darwin had kept a journal. It was to be the basis of his thrilling travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839). Initially published as part of a four-volume official study, it was later re-published and made Darwin famous. Ironically, geological theory proved capable of alarming churchmen and Darwin’s natural selection and evolution outraged many. On the Origin of the Species (1859) changed the way men think: causing novelist Charles Kingsley to remark that God had made the world make itself.

However it came into being, the natural world is a majestic theatre, the glories of which have been introduced to a global television audience by another natural scientist and gifted communicator and writer, David Attenborough. During his

60-year career, he has not only pioneered natural history and wildlife documentary he has revolutionised the form. The series Life on Earth in 1979 was the beginning; it was followed by The Living Planet and The Trials of Life and from then on there has been a compelling succession of series from general wildlife studies to specific multi-part works on plants, insects and birds.

His latest book, The Birds of Paradise, draws on a pet project, the programmes he made about the dramatic courtship displays practised by the birds of paradise in the forests of New Guinea. Like an explorer of old, Attenborough has travelled the world and brought its secrets to us. He made a documentary marking Darwin’s 200th anniversary. Attenborough turned 86 in May and retains his enthusiasm, beguiling sense of wonder and distinctive voice.

His new three-part documentary on the Galapagos will be screened later this year.

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