Today, at Wallerawang, there is a striking monument to record Darwin’s thought or, perhaps more accurately, the adumbration of a thought, which would have seismic consequences: species are not created once and for all but adapt to their environments.
Darwin was in Australia on the homeward leg of the voyage of HMS Beagle. The Beagle had been charting parts of South America and recording meteorological observations at several places around the globe. The captain, Robert FitzRoy, had felt the need for ‘some well-educated and scientific person’ as a companion: someone with whom he could dine and someone who could keep his spirits up on such a long voyage. FitzRoy, grandson of both a duke and a marquis, could not just dine with anyone; the chosen young man would have to be a gentleman. He would have no duties onboard ship but would collect specimens and think. Darwin was not the first choice, or even the second, but he was, as no one could possibly foresee, an inspired one.
Darwin had just come down from Cambridge, enthused by natural history and contemplating life in a country vicarage: a little sermonising and a whole lot of examining bugs and beetles. His father, Robert Darwin, was rich. Charles did not need paid work and, in fact, never would. The voyage was a godsend. After some persuading, his father, who would be paying the bills, allowed him to go.
‘The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career,’ Charles would write in 1876. Others, including Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had espoused the concept of evolution. However, no one had discovered the underlying mechanism.
The Beagle voyage, together with further investigations back in England, provided the evidence for that mechanism. A farmer undertakes ‘artificial selection’ to improve his livestock. Darwin termed nature’s mechanism for improvement ‘natural selection’. In November 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection — and nothing was quite the same again.
Darwin spent from 12 January to 14 March 1836 in Australia and Australian waters. He visited Sydney, travelled over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst, explored Hobart and its environs as far as New Norfolk, and spent a week at King George Sound in Western Australia. All the time he was collecting rocks, insects, plants and animals, and observing the inhabitants — thinking over what he found and relating it to what he had seen earlier on the voyage.
He arrived in Sydney in the middle of a boom. There was extensive property speculation — ‘the number of large houses just finished & others building is truly surprising: & with this, every one complains of the high rents & difficulty in procuring a house’. Interest rates were high, people were making vast fortunes and there was Sydney’s usual conspicuous consumption: ‘In the streets Gigs, Phaetons & Carriages with livery Servants are driving about …’ Darwin wrote in his diary, ‘There is much jealousy between the rich emancipists & their children, & the free settlers. The whole population poor & rich are bent on acquiring wealth.’ It would end in tears, as it always does, in the depression of the 1840s with bank crashes, the slump in wool prices and high unemployment.