Reading Voyage of the Beagle in preparation for our Galápagos trip, I am finding the young Charles Darwin unexpectedly charming, in a sweet and very geeky wayk.

The man is (was, but as long as I’m reading the book he’s still alive and speaking) an absolute monster for detail; he can go on for pages being excited about the the structure of bits of plant floating on the ocean. Also, he is a ridiculous polymath; he appears to be familiar with every published book or paper of note dealing with any aspect of zoology or geology up to that time, and a lot of the ones about plants, though he claims not to be a botanist. (Part of this is cheating; after all, he spent a lot of time revising his diaries for publication after he got back to England, working with a bunch of emininent scientists – he might not have known all those publications while he was still out in the field).

But part of what makes him so endearing is, unless he’s got good grounds for a theory, he’s got absolutely no compunction against writing “I observed (this critter) do (this-and-such a thing), but why it does that I am completely ignorant.” And when he does have a theory he supports it with data. Sometimes he’s wrong (as with the idea that earthquake-prone regions have lakes of lava underneath a skin of rock, whereas more stable zones are on hard rock all the way down) but when he is, his hypotheses are reasonable or partially correct – not his fault if plate tectonics wasn’t figured out for another hundred-plus years).

He’s got the paternal colonialist attitudes you’d expect of an 1830s Englishman, but he never misses the chance to get in a dig at slavery and he’s absolutely gutted when, while he’s making wild gestures to get a local man to understand something, the man thinks Darwin is about to hit him and just braces himself to get hit without making any protest. (At one point he uses the phrase “people of colour” – I don’t know if that was a particularly respectful term at the time as it is now, but there were certainly a lot more pejorative ones he could have used.)

And also, without Darwin, I’d never have known that according to Dampier (who visited the Gal├ípagos Islands in 1684), cactus used to be called dildoe-trees.