After graduating from Christ’s College, Charles Darwin was burning to use his newfound scientific knowledge. His contact with numerous scientists at the university had only increased his desire for knowledge and his desire to work in a scientific capacity. He had planned to voyage with some classmates to the Canary Islands to study there for a time before returning to England, but he was destined to do far more damage to the church he had studied for than he ever would have behind a single pulpit.
Darwin’s former botany professor at Christ’s College, John Stevens Henslow, who was a noted scientist and also, in a bitterly ironic twist, a creationist, sparked Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Henslow offered to arrange the trip as a naturalist on board the planned two-year voyage around the world. Darwin would be able to make studies everywhere the ship put into port. It was a great opportunity for the budding scientist to make a name for himself. There was, however, a catch. Darwin would have to pay his own way. Like most young people fresh from college, Darwin could not afford that. That meant his family would have to pay. His father objected. However, Darwin’s uncle intervened and convinced his brother-in-law to finance Darwin’s voyage.
The voyage of the Beagle took five years. Darwin was seasick for sizeable portions of the voyage. In the time he was well, Darwin served more as a geologist than as a biologist. The primary mission of the Beagle was to chart the coasts of South Africa. Darwin did much of the work inland, while the ship itself marked the coast. However, Darwin was more than capable of carving out enough time to bring in specimens. Some of these specimens Darwin dissected himself, while others he shipped back to England for examination. Darwin also made copious notes on everything he collected, particularly marine plankton and other organisms since these were the easiest to access in the middle of the ocean.
When he wasn’t seasick or collecting, Darwin read. One of the books he had with him was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology undoubtedly recommended to him by his old geology professor Adam Sedgwick, though it was the Captain of the Beagle that provided the copy. Lyell’s book was a major influence on Darwin. He began to interpret the rock formations he saw on shore in light of Lyell’s ideas about uniformitarianism. Lyell claimed that the present was the key to the past; that present processes were the key to understanding past events. He used this philosophy to advance the idea that the earth is millions of years old. Darwin looked at the rock formations he was seeing in South Africa and other places and applied Lyell’s philosophy to arrive at the same conclusion. Since this went against what he had been taught at Christ’s College, Darwin began to reject the Bible. The thoughts of the evolutionary ideas he had been exposed to in Edinborough came back to him. However, he could see the problem with evolution. There was no mechanism. While according to his presupposed uniformitarian mindset it made sense, he could not figure out the “how”.
When Darwin arrived in the Galapagos islands, he had been exposed to numerous rock structures already, and he had begun applying Lyell’s ideas. Further, he had seen remote Tierra del Fuego tribes that, to his refined Victorian mind, were little better than animals. This helped convince him that animals could have evolved into man. The experience of an earthquake in Chile and observing seashells fossilized in the Andes did nothing to shake his uniformitarian mindset. In the Galapagos, Darwin discovered and cataloged, somewhat sloppily, what is now known as Darwin’s finches. He called the finches species of multiple different types of birds in his notes. The significance of these finches would not be known until Darwin returned to England.
As Darwin returned to England, he was beginning to believe he had discovered something that would challenge the scientific world. The common belief at the time was that species did not change. Darwin’s observations had rightly convinced him that this was not the case. However, the other, more radical idea of evolution was still in his mind. He still lacked a mechanism, but his uniformitarian beliefs and his observation of the fluidity of species had convinced him that the Bible was not true. This can largely be traced to two factors. The first factor was undoubtedly Lyell’s undermining of the authority of God’s word. The second was a certain amount of poor teaching and general laziness in creationists of the day. The geological facts about the flood seem to have been relatively unknown to most and the fluidity of species either not understood or ignored from the Bible. These factors undoubtedly played into Darwin’s choice.