Wonderings: what can Charles Darwin teach us about travel?

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel… this month, James Kay ponders what travellers can learn from the father of evolutionary theory © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm’s marble sculpture of Charles Darwin sits at the head of the Hintze Hall, the ornate central chamber of the Natural History Museum, London. With legs crossed, overcoat laid across knees and hands resting in lap, the great naturalist is the lord of all he surveys.

His seat on the half-landing of the imperial staircase looks out upon Hope, the skeleton of a blue whale suspended from the hall’s vaulted roof. Roughly four and a half million people pass before Darwin’s unblinking gaze each year, as this ‘cathedral of nature’ is one of the capital’s greatest tourist attractions.

The museum – itself a masterpiece of Gothic Revival and Romanesque architecture built by Alfred Waterhouse – opened in 1881; sadly, Darwin died a year later at the age of 73, having never visited the place which his life’s work had helped to inspire.

Darwin’s night at the museum

If his statue came to life, Night at the Museum style, Darwin would first explore the Wonder Bays, the alcoves on each side of the hall, whereupon he’d… well… wonder, slack-jawed, at the Ice Age mastodon and the spiky-thumbed Mantellisaurus, the stuffed giraffe and the blue marlin floating in a tank of glycerol.

One can only guess at his reaction to the rest of the museum’s 80-million-strong menagerie – a display of biodiversity that illustrates his theory of evolution in a way no scientific paper ever could – not to mention the £78m centre that bears his name.

The great white cocoon of the Darwin Centre contains specimens that he brought back from a five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle, the ship on which the then 26-year-old famously sailed to the Galápagos Islands during a circumnavigation of the globe in the 1830s.

Extracts from his account of the trip – The Voyage of the Beagle – appear in Lonely Planet’s anthology of travel writing, Curiosities and Splendours. They’re fascinating, whether or not you have an interest in natural history or science generally.

Marble statue Charles Darwin by Joseph Edgar Boehm in the Hintze Hall of the Natural History Museum in London What would the great Charles Darwin have made of his extraordinary legacy? @ Riccardo Bianchini / Alamy

Contrary to what one might imagine (but consistent with how creativity works), Darwin didn’t have a blinding flash of insight amid the lumbering tortoises and lounging iguanas of the Galápagos; rather, he studied his surroundings, carefully documenting what he saw.

Only after digesting his experiences aboard the ship and other data for more than two decades did he go public with the paradigm-shifting On The Origin of Species, the book which expounded the mechanism of natural selection.

The extracts in Curiosities and Splendours illuminate the mindset of this methodical and meticulous man – a true scientists’ scientist whose ideas forever changed the world. But they also have something to say about an attitude or approach to travel in general, I think.

Be here now

Reading his observations of the environment, the animals and the interaction between the two, you get a sense of just how present Darwin was – of how his eyes, ears, and most importantly his mind, were open to everything around him.

In short, he was an exemplar of what is fashionably described as ‘mindful travel’, a simple idea dressed up in stockings and suspenders for a modern audience: the practice of keeping one’s attention on now, the experience unfolding around you, rather than letting it wander to the past or future.

You don’t need to be a gestating genius – or indeed a Zen master – to do this; keeping a journal forces you to observe the world more keenly than normal, as does sketching scenes from your adventures, which is why seasoned travellers recommend these complementary activities as ways to get more out a trip.

Travel journal on a wooden desk Keeping a journal is a great way to focus your attention on the here and now © marekuliasz / Getty Images

Photography? Not according to the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. Roughly a century and a half before the advent of Instagram, Ruskin railed against a new contraption called a camera, arguing that paper and pen was still the best choice if you really wanted to ‘see’ something.

I’d say… it depends. Some people put just as much effort into the creation of their images as others put into writing a journal entry or completing a watercolour sketch, soaking up every detail before deciding on a subject, a mood, a perspective, and so on. They are deeply engaged with their environment.

On the other hand, we have examples of selfie-takers seemingly so unaware of their surroundings that they endanger life and limb, gurning inanely at the lens as they back toward cliff edges, raging rivers, onrushing trains, etc. Their eyes are on the prize of more likes and shares rather than the thing in front (or rather behind) them.

Watch your step

Aside from being a model of mindfulness, Darwin – whose name, incidentally, has been appropriated for a set of awards ‘honouring’ those who remove themselves from the gene pool in such spectacular fashion – reminds us of something else, too: we’re not so special.

First, we learn the Earth is not the centre of the universe (take a bow, Copernicus); then Darwin slides in, studs up, to deliver the discomfiting news that humans are, in fact, just a modest upgrade on apes. Turns out we share nearly 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees; hell, we share about 60% of it with fruit flies.

Noble Prize winners, pink fairy armadillos and blobfish alike can trace the family tree back to LUCA, the last universal common ancestor. And what, precisely, was that? We can’t be sure, but the smart money is on a microbial mat that formed around a thermal vent in the depths of the primordial ocean.

For me, that knowledge of the interconnectedness of life is yet another reason for responsible travellers to tread ever so carefully – to, in the words of Chief Seattle, ‘take only memories, leave nothing but footprints’ – as they step out into the fragile world. You’re no more entitled to it than pond slime, remember.

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