The Virtual Voyage of the Beagle
February 2nd.- During the last week I made several short excursions. One was to examine a great bed of now-existing shells, elevated 350 feet above the level of the sea: from among these shells, large forest trees were growing. Another ride was to the Rugbyologist, who strongly objected to the very idea of a sesquicentennial celebration, exclaiming somewhat sarcastically, "HUZZA! The occurrence of an arbitrary time unit with base 10 aesthetic appeal! HUZZA!" Nevertheless, he showed me his fascinating population model of creationist belief in America, and made the remarkable prediction, based on surely sound mathematical reasoning which I confess was somewhat beyond me, that creationist thinking will be completely extinct by the year 2050.
May 29th.- We descended into the fertile valley of Coquimbo, and followed it till we reached an Hacienda beloging to a relation of Don Jose, where we stayed the next day. I then rode one day's journey further, to see what were declared to be some petrified shells and beans, which latter turned out to be small quartz pebbles. We passed through several small villages, in one of which I obtained a copy of an intriguing publication called The Viewspaper. The current issue contained a provocative essay on the subject of bringing back the dead, the dead being in this case the extinct megafauna of North America. Although the idea of importing elephants, lions, and camels to roam the wide prairies of Kansas strikes me as pushing the boundaries of sanity, the Viewspaper argues quite forcefully that "it is nevertheless a daring new step in the right direction."
Oct 1st.- We started by moonlight and arrived at the Rio Tercero by sunrise. The river is also called the Saladillo, and it desevres the name, for the water is brackish. I stayed here the greater part of the day, searching for fossil bones. Besides a perfect tooth of a Toxodon, I also learned from Christie Wilcox, who keeps her own her journal of Observations of a Nerd, of a curious instance of good genes going bad in the honeycreeper (Loxops coccineus), resulting in a remarkable failure of this beleaguered species to produce female offspring.
Later we arrived at Southern Fried Science, hoping to observe the hirsute conclusion of the Great Darwin Beard Challenge. In fact, the challenge has not yet been drawn to a satisfactory conclusion, as the voting will be left open until November 24th, when the voice of the people will determine whose beard rivals that of Darwin himself.
October 4th.- I was confined this day to my bed by a headache. A good-natured old woman, who attended me, wished me to try many odd remedies. A common practice is, to bind an orange-leaf or a bit of black plaster to each temple: and a still more general plan is, to split a bean into halves, moisten them, and place one on each temple, where they will easily adhere. Fortunately Andrew at The Evolving Mind relieved me with a more scientific approach. His motto is that "If casting stones or dowsing were reliable tools for acquiring information and working in the world, science would not reject them." He also discussed the question of whether prions were the result of Biological Evolution or Diabolic Design?.
October 6th.- While I remained confined to my bed, Andrew continued his discussion, expressing his delight in producing puzzles for creationists. He posed for me this riddle: "What do you call a fossil of a 'transitional species' between ancient, hippo-like creatures and modern whales?" I suggested a 'whippo' or perhaps an 'orcapotamus.' Andrew replied: "I call it a whopper of a nightmare for Creationists."
October 8th.- We arrived at James Island, in the Galapagos Archipelago: this island, as well as Charles Island, were long since thus named after our kings of the Stuart line. Mr. Bynoe, myself, and our servants were left here for a week, with provisions and a tent, whilst the Beagle went for water. This was an opportune time for Waine, who apparently coined the term Hippomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, to give a charming lecture on the basics of evolution.
During the greater part of our stay of a week, the sky was cloudless, and if the trade-wind failed for an hour, the heat became very oppressive. On two days the thermometer within the tent for some hours at 93˚, but in the open air, in the wind and sun, at only 85˚. On these searing days, Mr. Bisigano entertained us with tales from The Chromosome Chronicles. One particular fascinating tale concerns the use of cloning to create new species, hitherto known primarily to the famously fanatical fans of a certain writer named Rowling: "Once someone solves the unicorn, we can move onto other legendary creatures like cerberus, the sphinx, and all manners of chimera. Imagine a chihuahua with wings! It will be studies in genomics, cellular reprogramming, and developmental biology that will unlock pandora’s box and enable legendary creatures to be born."
October 10th.- Most of the land-birds on the island form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body and plumage: there are thirteen species, which Mr. Gould has divided into four subgroups. All these species are peculiar to this archipelago; and so is the whole group, with the exception of one species of the sub-group Cactornis, lately brought from Bow Island, in the Low Archipelago. Mr. Yoder, attired in his usual style of Denim and Tweed, found that these finches illustrated the idea that natural selection is much messier than we typically imagine, and that it is analogous to "aiming at a moving target with a shaky pistol."
October 11th.- We continued our studies of the life on the island. The species are not numerous, but the numbers of individuals of each species are extraordinarily great. There is one small lizard belonging to a South American genus, and two species (and probably more) of the Amblyrhynchus - a genus confined to the Galapagos Islands. Today we encountered a curious figure who claimed to practice a form of animal communication termed Pet Chatter. This mysterious figure claimed to have, on a trip to China, engaged a giant panda in conversation. I tend to become nervous and irritable in the presence of an unhinged mind, and was about to excuse myself and continue with my studies, when the stranger explained that this Ursine interview concerned the pressing question of what our responsibility is towards species on the brink of extinction. This aroused my curiosity about the existential thoughts expressed by the panda.
October 16th.- The survey of the Galapagos Archipelago being concluded, we steered towards Tahiti and commenced our long passage of 3200 miles, although not before receiving word, via the news service of Rick Sincere, that the Smithsonian Institution is producing a new exhibit on human evolution.
October 19th.- We passed through the Low or Dangerous Archipelago, and saw several of those most curious rings of coral land, just rising above the water's edge, which have been called Lagoon Islands. A long and brilliantly white beach is capped by a margin of green vegetation; and the strip, looping either way, rapidly narrows away in the distance, and sinks beneath the horizon. These low hollow coral islands bear no proportion to the vast ocean out of which they abruptly rise, and it seems wonderful, that such weak invaders are not overwhelmed, by the all-powerful and never-tiring waves of that great sea, miscalled the Pacific.
Mr. Johnson, who has published a set of Primate Diaries, discussed a recent African fossil find and its implications for our understanding of the evolution of human sexual habits. My understanding, from this discussion, is that human beings are just as sexually depraved as that lascivious species of ape known as Bonobo.
October 20th.- Mr. Johnson continued his discussion of the sexual practices of apes, by recounting a recent study of mating habits among chimpanzees. The question at hand concerned how a female chimp chose from among her many suitors, and the conclusion appeared to be that female chimpanzees, not at all like their human counterparts, are essentially opportunistic, "shifting their mating strategies for their own reproductive interests."
November 15th.- At daylight, Tahiti, an island which must forever remain classical to the voyager in the South Sea, was in view. At a distance the appearance was not attractive. The luxuriant vegetation of the lower part could not yet be seen, and as the clouds rolled past, the wildest and most precipitous peaks showed themselves towards the center of the island. After dinner we landed to enjoy all the delights produced by the first impressions of a new country, and that country the charming Tahiti.
The common people of this country, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is in that that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. This fact elicited from Mr. Bjørn Østman, recently arrived on the island on the HMS Pleiotropy, some comments on the subject of obesity. It soon became clear that he was referring to genomic obesity, or excess DNA. He was excited about a recent study of genomic obesity in three species of cotton plant, which found great variation in genomic girth among these closely related species.
Dec 26th.- Now in New Zealand, Mr. Bushby offered to take Mr. Sullivan and myself in his boat some miles up the river to Cawa-Cawa; and proposed afterwards to walk on to the village of Waiomio, where there are some curious rocks. There again we encountered the Rugbyologist, who was, in the isolation of a rude mud hut in Waiomio, was composing an essay entitled Imagine If Sex Were Only For IQs Over 120, a furious assault on a recent study making the claim that Ashkenazi Jews had been, for the last few hundred years, under unusually strong selection for intelligence. As is his wont, the Rugbyologist bemoaned the trend in some corners of biology, to resort to selection as the near-universal explanation for biological phenomena, at the expense of the other major forces in evolution.
On the last day of December, we anchored for the second time at Porto Praya in the Cape de Verd archipelago; thence we proceded to the Azores, where we stayed six days. Shortly thereafter we made the shores of England; and at Falmouth I left the Beagle, having lived on board the good little vessel nearly eleven months. Upon attempting to get my little volume of observations published, I discovered that another volume on evolution entitled The Link was then taking the ever-fickle science-reading world by storm. And yet upon reading the book, I found that it was little more than an attempt to advance slipshod science by means of the most outrageous public relations campaign.
I hope you've enjoyed our voyage. Rest up, and prepare your submissions for next month's carnival, hosted on December 1st at Hoxful Monsters. Submit your blog article to the next edition of Carnival of Evolution using our carnival submission form.
And if you enjoyed the virtual Beagle, join me here next Sunday at Adaptive Complexity for the Sunday Science Book Club. We'll be discussing the real Voyage of the Beagle, an outstanding piece of scientific writing, in spite of the impressions you may have after my abuses of Darwin's book here.
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