You’re a Strange Man, Charlie Darwin

One of my favorite passages in Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” is the one where Darwin nearly kills a toad with kindness. Since most people haven’t read VotB, I’ll reproduce it for you here, with useful diagrams.

 From “The Voyage of the Beagle,” Chapter Five, Bahia Blanca, August 24, 1833.

Amongst the Batrachian reptiles, I found only one little

toad (Phryniscus nigricans), which was most singular from

its colour.

If we imagine, first, that it had been steeped in

the blackest ink,

and then, when dry,

allowed to crawl over a board,

freshly painted with the brightest vermilion,

so as to colour the soles of its feet

and parts of its stomach

a good idea of its appearance will be gained.

If it had been an unnamed species,

surely it ought to have been called

Diabolicus,

for it is a fit toad to preach in the ear of Eve.

Instead of being nocturnal in its habits, as other toads are,

and living in damp obscure recesses, it crawls during the heat

of the day about the dry sand-hillocks and arid plains, where

not a single drop of water can be found.

It must necessarily depend on the dew for its moisture; and this probably is

absorbed by the skin, for it is known, that these reptiles possess

great powers of cutaneous absorption.

At Maldonado, I found one in a situation nearly as dry as at Bahia Blanca, and

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.

=============

Charles Darwin, this is all very cute, but why are you trying to give great treats to toads.

You are not the Toad Party God.

You are Charles Darwin.

Go home, Charles Darwin.

You are drunk.

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78 thoughts on “You’re a Strange Man, Charlie Darwin

    • Hahaha! Thank you <3

      I really do mean to write a special post for you, but it turns out to involve a lot of research. Next time, ask me an easy one like "Which is the cutest baby farm animal?" or "what is the most delicious sandwich?"

      I kid, I kid. I love you too.

      • I’ll be thinking about a question like this, then, and post it immediately when I found a good one, ‘kay?*
        But really, you are the first person whom I trust to actually find the answer to the feels-like-not-often-asked questions I have sometimes. But please don’t beat yourself up over it or something! I’m always a bit embarrassed when someone does things like a special post for me, but at the same time it makes me happy.^^

        *I think it will be food-related. I love food!

        [Btw, I was browsing through old CA-commentaries a few days ago and realised that we're almost the same age! Well, I'll only be 22 in March and I take it you're 24 by now but still pretty close. And I saw what you look like through your twitter and then I was happy because it's very much like I imagined you to look! /random]

  1. Well, since I commented last time with bad news, I might as well comment here just to say that omg, I laughed so much from this post! Literally, and I really shouldn’t, because I was at work, but I think a little break to read some very awesome writings is ok.
    Also your drawings are amazing, and perfectly capture the scientific spirit of this passage.
    Poor little toad. What a crappy crappy treat it got.

    • Only if you’re interested in him anyway! Don’t do it just to impress me.

      There is no copyright on Darwin’s work, so it’s free to read online. “Voyage of the Beagle” can have some cute moments, especially when he’s tormenting creatures like these lizards:

      I watched one for a long time, till half its body was buried; I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, as much as to say, “What made you pull my tail?”

      He also records the extinction of many native peoples, often with more compassion than his contemporaries, who slaughtered these humans like animals; Darwin, who has great empathy for animals, records them with some sympathy. And he almost thinks about racism sometimes:

      [The slaves] were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.

      There are passages that are quite descriptive of the landscapes, lifestyles and people that Darwin encountered, many of which are better than standard travel books:

      About two leagues beyond this curious tree we halted for the night: at this instant an unfortunate cow was spied by the lynx-eyed Gauchos, who set off in full chase, and in a few minutes dragged her in with their lazos, and slaughtered her. We here had the four necessaries of life “en el campo,”—pasture for the horses, water (only a muddy puddle), meat and firewood. The Gauchos were in high spirits at finding all these luxuries; and we soon set to work at the poor cow. This was the first night which I passed under the open sky, with the gear of the recado for my bed. There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life—to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, “Here we will pass the night.” The deathlike stillness of the plain, the dogs keeping watch, the gipsy-group of Gauchos making their beds round the fire, have left in my mind a strongly-marked picture of this first night, which will never be forgotten.

      If you’re interested in natural history, anthropology, Edwardian language, and colonialism, or just a crazy English guy pulling lizards by the tail, then you’ll probably find him educational and lovely. If you’re not, then you won’t.

      So read him if you’d like to. Don’t, if you don’t want to. He’s dead; he won’t mind.
      <3

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    • Rescued from the spam filter for hilarity’s sake:

      I really like your blog

      Oh, I deeply and sincerely doubt that, little spam-fish. No you do not like my blog. You haven’t even read my blog. You haven’t even read this post. You don’t even know how to READ.

      Here is exactly what I think of this, through the interpretive medium of Dylan Moran.

      and would love you to feature on mine

      All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site.

      Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

      Please consider following me on facebook.

      Anyone else want to have a go? Come at me, bros.

      NO FUCKS TO GIVE HERE. THIS IS MOTHERFUCKING ELODIE UNDER GLASS.

    • Probably something like, “O, that there should come a time after my death wherein purveyors of cheap paint-by-numbers consumables should laugh at my open and candid affection for the natural world! Lo, what legacy have I left, that it should come to this; for I only meant to please the little toad, and by his kindly, uncynical and sympathetic nature, one may measure a man.”

    • Sweet pea, Charles Darwin never stated that the ancestor of humans were apes. In his 1871 work “The Descent of Man,” Charles Darwin suggested that humans and apes share a common ancestor.

      Humans and apes are related; we are cousins. Humans and other life forms are related; we are more distant cousins, but still family. We are part of the kindred of life on earth.

      But you did not descend from your cousins. Your cousins are not your ancestors. You share your ancestors with them – perhaps you might share a grandmother with your close cousins, or a great-grandmother with more distant cousins – but you did not descend from them.

      This is something to be grateful and happy for, that you are connected to all other forms of life on earth, that you and I are close relations, and that we share genetic material with everything else that lives and breathes and loves and exists. It’s something to celebrate. That’s what I think about it.

      (Dear Readers: If your cousin actually is your grandmother, then I did not mean to cause offense. Also, please consider moving to a different place.)

      • Kitties have souls and are our friends: chimpanzees are horrible monsters’
        , soulless p-zombies, meat machines. This is the fundamental nihilism at the heart of Darwinism.

        At least that’swhat some guy said, you know? People say a lot of things. The poliss is all communiss around here.

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  4. This is so spicy and has so much flare. You really have the depth of comedy and hilarious pictures. I encourage you to make more. I am an ultimate FAN!!!!!! it would be sick if you could follow our new blog swagginlunch. [link redacted because fuckoff] ily <3

  5. I didn’t know Darwin had some comical (probably not intended to be so) works out there. Thanks for the laugh, and introducing me to this side of ‘Charlie’. Also, congrats on FP!

  6. It is not without the greatest of intent, that I Sir, do declare, with humblest of sincerity, and could not argue if one was to say that by and large, without a shadow of a doubt, that you Sir, could be deemed by the the terminology, and perhaps coined by the phrase, yes, you are a funny bastard.

    • See this? This is an example of the kind of comment where I will go, “What ho, Interesting Person! You seem like one of my species; even if you have not actually read the post, Sir, I like the cut of your jib. Let us wear top hats together, Sir, and I will click on your little links of my own free will.”

      This blog appears to be a PR firm, and I like them anyway. This is a link that I clicked on. This is a blog that I looked at.

      PR is interesting to me. I strongly value charisma, a rare and charming quality, and PR is essentially a way of wrapping up the poor unfortunates who lack charisma in a nice blanket of charm. When done well, it’s something of value: a bit of sparkle and polish on an otherwise dull world. Lack of charisma is a sad affliction, and I appreciate that PR exists to hide it from me.

      Because while I try to be a compassionate person, and see the Darwin in everyone, I find mediocrity draining; I find dullness repulsive, and if somebody drags me over to their blog to show me some dregs of their tedious dribblings, it makes me violent. I have shit to do with my life. I’m a scientist, babes, I’ve got work to do; don’t act like I can’t entertain myself on my lunch break. I loathe the genuine-but-banal spammer who desperately tries to drag me over to their blog. I like the PR firm that butters me up with the language of a Victorian naturalist.

      Four for you, Sir. You go, Sir.

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  10. Darwin cracks me up!! I’m fascinated by his writing… Reading VotB and have to google all the scientific names and that’s how I saw your blog! You should do this for more passages :)

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