INTRODUCTION - Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons

Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)


The World’s Most Famous Iguana Hurler

Happiest at home with his notebooks and his microscopes.


EVOLUTION HAD DONE THE THING RIGHT. The marine iguana of the Galapagos Islands swam well. Dined well. Lounged well. It basked in the sun, it munched seaweed, it strutted out for an occasional constitution-improving swim, all until one cloudless, sweltering September afternoon in 1835, when a young man stepped ashore and ruined everything.

Charles Darwin had not yet conceived the theory of evolution by natural selection. Five months shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, tall and thin and already distinctively heavy browed, he had not yet acquired a reputation as a scientist, had not yet published a celebrated travelogue about South America (or an influential treatise on tropical corals), and had not yet had a species of ostrich named after him. His visit to the Galapagos came at the tail end of a five-year trip around the world, and it did not act on him as one of those Sistine-Chapel-ceiling, hand-meets-hand kind of moments. But Darwin was in the midst of a travel-induced transformation, combining his childhood love of exploration and biology with an increasingly sophisticated ability to catalogue nature. When he published The Origin of Species twenty-four years later, it was notable for the meticulous observational detail Darwin used to support his theory. For someone who delighted in scientific inquiry, the reptilian megafauna swarming the Galapagos was a scaly, ugly, crawling—and terrific—learning opportunity.

Darwin spent one day studying tortoises, chasing them, riding them, and upending them to see if they could right themselves. He spent another day with the marine iguanas, and it was not a good day to be a member of the lizard kingdom. He cut up the iguanas to see what they were eating (seaweed), and in his journal, he disparaged their color (“dirty black”), their disposition (“stupid and sluggish”), and their looks (“hideous”). He and a co-conspirator tied one animal to a rock and dropped it off their boat, the Beagle, to see what would happen (“when, an hour afterwards, he drew up the line, it was quite active”). He also noticed that some of the iguanas seemed to like the water, and he wondered: How well did they swim?

On the morning that Darwin chose to answer this question, it became evident that in one way, at least, evolution had failed the iguana: It had given it no recourse at all for dealing with thrill-seeking British naturalists. Darwin strode across the craggy rocks toward a napping “imp of darkness,” cornered it, snatched it by the tail, and hurled it into a pool left by the receding tide. The iguana, no doubt wondering what had gone wrong on a day that had started so pleasantly, swam straight back to its sunning rock.

Charles Darwin was a scientist at heart, and a good scientist always repeats his experiment. As the aggrieved beast climbed dripping from the pool, Darwin jumped forward again, clasped the iguana firmly in hand, and drew back. And then, in the name of science, discovery, and swimming iguanas, he hurled it into the sea.


In his five-year stint as geologist, naturalist, and traveler on the HMS Beagle, a gloriously happy Darwin galloped with Patagonian gauchos, stormed Montevideo armed with cutlasses and a knife between his teeth, beat his bare chest to properly greet an indigenous man in Tierra del Fuego, chased exotic birds, beetles, and butterflies through the jungles of Brazil, and, of course, took up iguana-tossing. He lived the swashbuckling explorer ’s life that modern travelers desire and almost never achieve, and he penned the book detailing the places and adventures that travelers hope to experience. A sense of exhilaration pervades The Voyage of the Beagle—exhilaration totally dissonant with the Charles Darwin we remember today as a wrinkled, heavy-eyebrowed, white-bearded, finch-beak measurer. In the United States, at least, Darwin exists as an almost mythical figure: praised or reviled, overemphasized or over-criticized, beyond personality and beyond the affable cheeriness that defined most of his life. Critical creationists want to see Darwin as an old tormented evolutionist, unhappy with his work and shut up in his country house in England. Many evolutionists want to see him as a rigid scientist, a pristine visionary beyond the petty events of daily life. Biographers tend to approach the young, happy, excitable Darwin as merely a training ground for what would come later, picking apart his journals for clues to his thinking on evolution and discarding many of his early energetic adventures.

Darwin never forgot these experiences. “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.”


The science was pretty much the extent of what I knew until I happened across The Voyage of the Beagle for the first time, and read about the iguana-lobbing, and immediately went green with nineteenth century naturalist envy. The guy got to chase, catch, and throw iguanas—repeatedly—and call it research! But I’d seen the pictures— Darwin was some old tormented guy with facial fungus like Santa Claus. Well, how the hell did that happen?

My introductory encounter with The Voyage of the Beagle came in the late afternoon of a snowy day in Ushuaia, Argentina, the self-proclaimed southernmost city in the world. I was there in the very last days of a long trip, trying to put as much distance as possible between myself and a frustrating post-college stab at employment. Trying, in fact, to put seven thousand, one hundred, forty-three-point-four miles between us—I really loathed that job. For two years I’d worked the 4 P.M.-1 A.M. shift as a newspaper copy editor—the most soul-leeching job in an industry that operated on the principle that the more leeches dangling from employees the better. On nights when I couldn’t indulge my primary form of relaxation (hurling dirt clods at the “SLOW” sign in the parking lot), I turned to a secondary method of stress relief: thumbing through the atlas. Retreating into the corner of my cubicle, I would dream of faraway lands, of reaching that glorious level of understanding where the Brazilian forest was more than little orange lines and squiggly blue rivers on a map, but a vast, green, three-dimensional place full of real people living real lives and chasing real lizards. So one miserable night—probably as I was bumping the headline size on a car crash story—I bought plane tickets. Which was how I found myself a few months later, idling through my savings account in Tierra del Fuego, and stumbling into a bookstore that stocked English-language books on the same afternoon a pair of friends and I had bounded through snowy mountains overlooking the Beagle Channel. I decided on impulse to learn more about the ship that gave its name to the channel, and that provided Darwin with lodging for nearly five years. That evening I curled up in the hostel common room, watched snow swirling over the channel, and started to read—and kept reading for the next two weeks as I stumbled back to Santiago, Chile, and returned home. But I could not leave that image of Darwin, and the snow falling over the Beagle Channel, behind. Back in California, with no burning ambition to return to graveyard-shift proofreading, I started to map out a new voyage.


The Beagle, a surveying ship under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, left England in December of 1831 and arrived on the east coast of South America, in Brazil, in February of 1832. The ship spent five months in Brazil, including a three-month stop in Rio de Janeiro (Darwin rented a cottage and lived onshore), then headed south down the coast of Brazil to the world’s largest estuary, the Rio de la Plata, between present-day Argentina and Uruguay. From there, FitzRoy launched multiple surveying trips, heading south to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego before returning to Montevideo or Buenos Aires. Darwin, who suffered from terrible seasickness (“the misery is excessive and far exceeds what a person would suppose, ” he complained early on), would leave the boat whenever possible to make land expeditions. These weren’t always daytrips—Darwin would sometimes quit the Beagle for weeks at a time and cover a huge distance over harsh terrain. Twice he exceeded four hundred miles, including a two-week ride with a band of gauchos from Northern Patagonia to Buenos Aires that left him hugely enamored of the nomadic lifestyle and idly speculating about the health benefits of his new all-red-meat diet. (“I found this new regimen agreed very well with me,” Darwin wrote, “but I at the same time felt hard exercise was necessary to make it do so.”)

In June 1834, after two years spent exploring back and forth between the Plata and Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle rounded the southern tip of the continent and started surveying the west coast of South America. Over the next year the ship moved gradually northward, while Darwin made land expeditions into the interior to inspect Chilean mines or examine the geology of the Andes. On his final—and longest—land journey, he rode north 420 miles from Valparaíso into the world’s driest desert and met up with the Beagle again two months later near the tiny mining town of Copiapó, in northern Chile. From that point the ship continued north without backtracking and reached Lima, Peru, in July 1835. (Darwin didn’t explore around Lima because of political trouble.) From Lima the Beagle headed west to the Galapagos Islands, where it stayed for a month, and then on through the Pacific—with stops in Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia. (“Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilization, which, at some not very remote period, will rule as empress over the southern hemisphere,” Darwin proclaimed. “To hoist the British flag seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilization.”) The ship sailed past Africa and rode the wind all the way back across the Atlantic to northern Brazil, returning to Darwin’s first landing-spot in South America. After a few days in Bahia, which Darwin spent reexam in ing the Brazilian jungle, the Beagle departed for home, and Darwin arrived back at his family house in October 1836.

During the trip, Darwin kept three journals, two scientific and one personal. He wrote in them almost every day, filling the personal diary with his adventures and observations and the scientific ones with descriptions of plants, animals, fossils, and geology. He took any opportunity to mail his completed work home, and when he returned to England after nearly five years on the Beagle, he published a combination of his two journals as a book titled The Voyage of the Beagle: Journal of Researches Into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World.

With its publication, Darwin became a famous and well-recognized naturalist, explorer, and author, twenty years before writing The Origin of Species. He could have stopped there and been remembered forever as an amiable, moderately accomplished scientist and left the evolution-related mud-slinging for Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, or Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who came up with a theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin. But he did not stop, and so became the name and face of one side in a debate so rancorous it threatens to obliterate his real personality.

That personality shines through the pages of The Voyage of the Beagle. Three years after Darwin’s death, his wife, Emma, picked up his journal and started reading as a way to remember her husband. “It makes me feel so happy as if I was going with him; only I want to ask him so many questions,” she wrote in a letter to their son William. She had recently read Darwin’s description of a brightly colored black-and-vermillion toad, which, in a reference to seventeenth century English author John Milton, he called “a fit toad to preach in the ear of Eve.” Upon encountering one of these toads on a dry plain, Darwin, “thinking to give it a great treat, carried it to a pool of water; not only was the little animal unable to swim, but I think without help it would soon have been drowned.”

To Emma Darwin, this incident captured her husband’s charm perfectly. “The real man comes out constantly,” she wrote in her letter, “e.g. thinking to give a toad in a dry place in Rio Plata ‘quite a treat’ by taking it to a pond & nearly drowning it.”


It is neither possible nor desirable to follow the Beagle chronologically (unless you’ve got five years). The ship spent so much time traveling up and down the South American coast, poking into inlets and taking soundings as it went, that a journey in Darwin’s exact footsteps would be tedious at best. But once the Beagle passed Cape Horn and started to explore the west coast of Chile, it didn’t return to the east coast (except for the weeklong pit stop in Bahia on its way back to England). So I conceived of a journey in two parts, one visiting Darwin highlights on the east coast—from Brazil in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south—the other tracing the Beagle on the west coast, from southern Chile to the northern desert.

But there’s more to following Darwin than just standing where he stood. One of the things that most impressed me about The Voyage of the Beagle was how much Darwin sounded like twenty-somethings swapping stories in a h o stel bunk room. I hoped that a return visit to South America, this time with Darwin’s diary in hand, would deepen my understanding of the legends and people that fascinated Darwin when he wasn’t working. I hoped I’d be able to trace the historical roots of some of South America’s most persistent travelers’ tales, like the challenging Brazilian forests and culture and the romantic allure of Patagonian plains, while peering into the cultural identity of the continent’s most enduring places.

I also hoped that setting off on such a trip while I, too, was in my mid-twenties might allow me easier access to Darwin’s emotions while observing a continent amid fitful, often violent, transformation. Even in the 1830s, the places the Beagle dropped anchor were in the midst of a transformation—facing floods of immigrants, the rotten last years of colonial governments, expansion of grazing land and mining, the resulting pressure on traditional nature and culture, and wars between settlers and indigenous people. Darwin was tossed into the middle of this with little context from his English education. Now, as these same areas face new pressures—globalization, economic woes, environmental degradation—and with my own education having offered little in the way of background, I hoped to employ the same curiosity to better understand what, exactly, is at risk.

It’s hard not to be sentimental. In 1835, you could toss a Galapagos iguana around a few times to see what would happen. Right now, you’d leap for the tail and probably end up with a restraining order. In Darwin’s era, rolling boulders off a cliff to see how much noise they’d make was high sport. Right now, touching the sacred parts of a national park and disturbing others’ wilderness tranquility gets you raised eyebrows and a ranger-escort to the front gate. Even in a generation, things have changed d r amatically in South America. Water is dirtier. Slums are growing. Habitats are disappearing. Iguanas, tortoises, fish, and just about every other kind of flora and fauna are declining.

The early twenties are a time for worrying about risk, loss, and the past. Little wonder, I think, since when you finish college you suddenly realize the huge number of things you could be doing with your life. Like Darwin, a lot of twenty-somethings simultaneously calculate the trajectory of the safe route, and then run off screaming for variety. My own quarter-life crisis wasn’t just a panic about choosing between options, it was a panic about when or even if I might have that variety of choice again. I grew up during perhaps the most pampered, materialistic time in American history, and then hit adulthood and realized that my generation was going to make less money than our parents did, with fewer work opportunities for lower pay, and that I live in a world in which the United States is not the world’s only superpower, with looming repercussions for deferred decisions on climate change, Social Security, and tax cuts. That’s why decision-making morphs so easily into fretting about losing our youth while we are, in fact, living it. I’m told this mania wanes when you hit thirty, and it certainly did for Darwin, who, upon touching land in England again at age twenty-seven, had permanently cured his wanderlust.

A note on organization: Rather than belabor all the overnight bus rides it takes to actually follow Darwin around (although I should mention that overnight buses in Argentina are sweet—roomy reclining chairs, snacks, movies—while buses in Brazil are scary—crazy drivers, frequent crashes, and movies like The Matrix, full of noise and mayhem), I’ve split the story into three thematic parts. The first looks at how Darwin the naturalist and geologist saw South America’s east coast, from the jungle of Brazil to the plains of Patagonia. The second tracks his forays into politics and culture as he railed against slavery, rode with gauchos, and studied Native Americans. The final part follows Darwin up the west coast in a more chronological fashion, taking into account what he’d learned and how he’d changed, and leading northward into the Chilean desert where both he and I chose to end our overland travels.

In picking Darwin sites to visit, I tried to look for significance beyond science. To compare modern Rio de Janeiro to the green world that inspired Darwin to write, in his autobiography, that nothing can “exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man.” To track the fate of the captured natives of Tierra del Fuego who rode along with the Beagle, pitied Darwin’s seasickness, and were repatriated to their homeland. To take in summit views across the continent to see how many of them cued up for me, as they did for Darwin, the opening choral strains of Handel’s Messiah. And, with any luck, to find the twenty-first century equivalent of a day spent lobbing marine iguanas.