Alan Needham on Charles Darwin in Australia and Western Australia

Our speaker, Alan Needham, is a retired biologist specialising in marsupials, with a great interest in evolution and the life and ideas of Charles Darwin. Alan quotes geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

Alan began with Darwin as a child growing up in Shropshire and having two well-known grandfathers. One of them, Erasmus Darwin, was a wealthy physician, who himself had ideas about evolution. The other, Josiah Wedgewood, of pottery fame, was prominent in the anti-slavery movement. (On the voyage, Darwin had a sharp disagreement on this matter with the captain, Fitzroy.) He was later to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgewood, who was also a grandchild of Josiah. As a child and a young man, Darwin took a keen interest in the natural world. Later, he was steered into studying medicine at Edinburgh, but did not find it to his liking and moved to Cambridge where he took out a B.A. with the intention of going into theology. His interests were not there either, but he took a great interest in geology and botany. In both these subjects, he extended his knowledge greatly through his colleagues at Cambridge, but especially, through his close friendship and field trips with Cambridge Professor, John Henslow.

It was Henslow who recommended Darwin as a companion for Captain Robert Fitzroy on the voyage of the Beagle, whose purpose was to conduct a hydrographic survey of the coasts of southern South America. Darwin’s participation was made possible by his wealthy father Robert, who was persuaded to fund his place on the trip. As a naturalist, it was Darwin’s job to observe and collect specimens of plants, animals, rocks and fossils wherever the expedition went ashore.

The trip was planned to take two years, but it was 3½ years before they even left South America. During that time, Darwin made several long trips overland, collecting and observing. These must have brought great relief from his continual seasickness. The next stop was in the Galapagos Islands, where his well-known observations of the finches, iguanas, flightless cormorants, giant tortoises and other animals were made and some of his ideas about evolution took root. After that, it was across the Pacific to Tahiti, where they were welcomed, and enjoyed a two-week stay for rest, recreation, and re-victualling. At the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, they were not welcomed at all. Darwin contrasted the warlike Maoris with the friendly Tahitians. There, they spent their last Christmas abroad and all began to feel rather jaded and homesick. Besides, Australia and New Zealand were regarded as a mere extra to the real task of surveying South America.

Darwin remarked on several animals that had been introduced to New Zealand, including rats and various livestock, and saw that native flightless birds were being displaced by introduced mammals. He correctly predicted the extinction of the Laughing Owl and the Chatham Island Rail. His prediction may have hastened the demise of the rail, however, because people shot them to send to museums to display an extinct species!

Sydney was the next stop and Darwin liked it. He collected 110 species in NSW. He classified Pseudomys gouldii in the familiar genus Mus (Gould’s mouse now extinct). Half of the insect species he described had not been previously described. Darwin had regard for the Australian Aborigines (unlike Fitzroy, who saw them as savages) and ranked them at a higher level than the people of Tierra del Fuego. He saw the Aborigines as nomadic and as not cultivating the ground. He crossed the Blue Mountains and travelled to Bathurst. At Parramatta, Aboriginal people demonstrated spear-throwing, and he saw them as good-humoured. There is a Darwin Walk where he walked at Wentworth Falls and a plaque at Govetts Leap, Blackheath, where he saw matching strata on both sides of the gorge, and hypothesised (wrongly) that an inland sea must have caused the erosion that separated the strata. It is remarkable that while staying on a farm, he saw platypuses and potoroos, but no kangaroos, and decided that kangaroos were doomed to extinction!

More importantly, he saw that the platypus was like a water rat and the potoroo was like a rabbit, these animals filling the same ecological niches as their European counterparts. He remarked “Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work.” Then for 20 years he buried this “blasphemous” thought, which was one of the ideas that led to the development of his theory of the mechanism of evolution.

Darwin enjoyed Hobart, climbed Mt Wellington, and walked what is now the “Darwin Trail”. Everywhere he went, he collected and described plants and animals.

Their final stop in Australia was eight days at King George Sound (now Albany), where they anchored at Ellen Cove (Middleton Beach) and he and Fitzroy stayed at The Old Farm, which is located on Strawberry Hill. Here, he collected 88 species of land animals including Rattus fuscipes (bush rat), 10 of fishes and 66 of insects. He made a “very interesting” visit to Bald Head and observed fossils in the limestone, which he had heard about. The local Aboriginal people, who he described as being very good natured, put on a corroboree. Although, he was obviously busy at King George Sound, Darwin did not explore widely and noted that he “passed a dull, uninteresting time”. He said that he left Australia “without sorrow or regret”. Fitzroy wanted to get this seasick man home after five long years at sea.

Old Farm, Strawberry Hill

Alan believes (and I agree) that Charles Darwin is the greatest man to have visited Albany. But he points out that, until recently, there was nothing there to commemorate him, even though Mokare, Lockyer, Hordern, Baudin, and even Attaturk all have monuments or statues. Now, seven information boards near Middleton Beach mark Darwin’s visit. Perhaps, he also needs at least a plaque at Old Farm, Strawberry Hill.

Photo: Hughesdarren – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0Link

Mike Gregson