On 27th December, 1831, after much delay, a ship lifted anchor from Barn Pool,
near Davenport, England. Soon to become one of the most famous ships in history,
it was headed on a two year expedition to conduct a hydrographic survey of the
southern coasts of South America. Just before it set out, the captain of the ship, a
24-year old aristocrat, gave his companion, a 22-year old naturalist, a copy of a
recently published book. Little could he have imagined the profound impact that
this simple action would have on his companion’s life or on our understanding of
the natural world.
The ship was the HMS Beagle. It was commandeered by Captain Robert FitzRoy,
who was already making a name for himself as an able leader and a meticulous
surveyor. The young naturalist was Charles Darwin. Nearly rejected by FitzRoy
because the shape of his nose seemed to indicate a lack of determination, Darwin
seemed well-suited for this role in every other way.As the grandson of Erasmus
Darwin, a well-known philosopher, he fit FitzRoy’s criteria of being a ‘gentleman’.
Six feet tall, with a tendency to stoop, and an abiding interest in natural history,
Darwin nurtured a keen desire to visit the tropics once, before he became a parson.
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The book that FitzRoy had handed him was called the ‘Principles of Geology’ and
marked an important transition in the career of its first-time author, the Scottish
aristocrat Charles Lyell. Lyell had turned to geology after his attempt to become a
barrister was scuttled by his deteriorating eyesight. In his book, Lyell used an
evidence-based approach to argue that all great geological changes, historical as
well as current, were the outcome of a gradual process of accumulation of minute
changes over long time spans. Although Darwin had initially found classes in
geology dull, he had developed a strong interest in the subject on a field-trip with
Adam Sedgewick, one of the founders of modern geology. Reading Lyell’s book, and
later seeing rock formations at the Cape Verde islands through ‘Lyell’s eyes’, left a
lasting impression on Darwin’s long-standing reflections on the origins of species.
Needless to say, this issue of iwonder is centered on evolution, a concept that today
is almost synonymous with Charles Darwin. However, in a strange but fitting way,
the word evolution, derived from the Latin ‘evolvere’, was originally used to refer
to the ‘unrolling of a book’. And it was, in fact, Charles Lyell who first used this term
with its modern meaning – twenty-seven years before Darwin used it once in the
final paragraph of his ‘On the Origin of Species’. Thus, it is Lyell’s notion that ‘the
present is the key to the past’, a key first principle in almost every field of science,
which is the underlying thread linking the articles in this issue – from the evolution
of stars and the Earth to that of living organisms, humans, or even the phenomenon
of ocean acidification. Join us in this exploration, and don’t forget to share your
thoughts with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.