19 August 2013

Review: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

Mass market paperback, 524 pages
Published 1962 (originally 1839)
Acquired September 2012
Read October 2012
The Voyage of the Beagle
by Charles Darwin

The work of science is often shown as a form of vision, innate to the workings of science, and exploring the various ways in which that kind of vision manifests within the work of the scientist. Though vision is often invoked as a metaphor for the operation of science by scientists and non-scientists alike, it can be an odd one. John Berger opens his famous Ways of Seeing with the statement: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak” (7). The metaphor of sight suggests something instantaneous and intrinsic, but much of the writing on scientific sight stresses the need for training, for time, and for judgment.

Charles Darwin returns to the concept of scientific sight several times in The Voyage of the Beagle, most interestingly when contemplating how one looks at a lagoon island: “We feel surprise when travelers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins, but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these, when compared to these mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals! This is a wonder which does not at first strike the eye of the body, but, after reflection, the eye of reason” (464). For Darwin, scientific sight is a direct contrast to visual sight—it requires reflection to see with it, as well as training. It does not come before words, but rather requires considerable knowledge in order to utilize.

There is not much of a resemblance between visual sight and scientific sight in this instance, except in one regard—its all-pervasiveness. Berger’s formulation that “Seeing comes before words” suggests that it is impossible to not see, that it suffuses every part of the human experience. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn employs the metaphor of sight for similar reasons, using it to explain his concept of the scientific paradigm: an orientation towards the world so innate that one is almost literally unable to see it differently. Scientific sight, as used by Darwin and others, suggests that the worldview of the scientist is so ingrained that once acquired, it cannot be gotten rid of.

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