In December 1831 a youthful Charles Darwin, recently graduated from Cambridge University, set sail as the ship’s naturalist on the HMS Beagle, his heart filled with the promise of the adventure that lay before him. What did Darwin know? He could not have anticipated that the conclusions he would draw from his field notes about life on the Galapagos Islands would transform our understanding of the nature of animals and their relationship to that special animal of a human kind. He was the grandson of the controversial physician Erasmus Darwin, living in the heyday of the British Empire at the very moment in which the dual passions for science and exploration converged. He was a Victorian gentleman in pursuit of knowledge and adventure, a disinterested spirit in the midst of the global struggle among nations for profit and power. He was also a great reader of the many important works of science and travelers’ tales of the preceding generations. He was not yet a "scientist"—a term that would not enter the lexicon until the early 1830s with the formation of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Much as we would like to proclaim Darwin the intellectual beacon of the nineteenth century, he was equally shaped by late eighteenth-century Romantic habits of mind, scientific practices and experiments in writing about the natural world. The mature Darwin was by no means a Romantic in any aesthetic sense. The Malthusian-inspired concept of evolution that he would eventually articulate in On the Origin of Species did not attempt to establish nature’s poetic unity, which characterized the Romantic movement at its height. Yet the eagerness of 22-year-old Darwin to follow in the footsteps of recent scientific explorers made him the final and most brilliant product of Romantic science.
To Richard Holmes, Darwin’s 1831 expedition was the apogee of an "age of wonder" inaugurated by the wealthy gentleman-naturalist Joseph Banks in 1768 when he set sail with Captain James Cook on the Endeavour for the island of Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus. With a lively wit and a meticulous attention to detail, Holmes charts in The Age of Wonder the era in which Romanticism’s long rebellion against the image of a clockwork universe inspired great works of knowledge and creativity—what he terms "the second scientific revolution." The objective developments in science of the preceding century gave way to subjective reflection about the meaning of understanding nature. Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats marveled at the new vision of the world wrought by science. At the same time, the British astronomers, naturalists, chemists and experimenters of their generation developed a conception of the world that was, in its own way, profoundly poetic. In private contemplation, public lectures and books written for a general audience craving the latest and most exciting discoveries, they opened up vistas of the imagination, exciting all who knew them about the potential for science to be a spiritual compass as well as a productive engine for the advancement of their society. Put another way, we might think of The Age of Wonder as a story of how the spirit of Newton gradually gave birth to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and subsequently reinvented itself in the generation that Darwin embodied.
But let us return to Tahiti and lose our clothes for a while, as Joseph Banks did for about three months after he disembarked from the Endeavour in the spring of 1769. When Banks returned to England two years later, his mouth was full of Tahitian words; his bags were laden with trinkets, his specimen boxes rich with seeds and plants and his notebooks all but bursting at the spine with the observations of an anthropologist in the making who had fully immersed himself in a truly different culture. Banks would be celebrated by the British people for surviving this arduous and exotic Pacific voyage. With his ascent to the presidency of the Royal Society of London in 1778 and the knighthood bestowed upon him as director of Kew Gardens in 1781, he became the leading figure of the British scientific establishment and its principal patron until his death in 1820. Under his watchful guidance, British science grew and matured.
Yet the most salient aspect of Banks’s voyage was his personal response to the unsettling isolation and biodiversity of Tahiti. In a way that others found alternately fascinating and disturbing, Banks had temporarily become a different man. Freed from the trappings of his own society, he had allowed himself to be seduced by Tahitian customs, the seeming ease of social relations and the rhythm of rituals. Banks observed and participated, and did not conceal its effect on his psyche even if he could never bring himself to publish a full account of all that he had seen and experienced on the voyage of the Endeavour. Had he remained permanently at a remove from civilization, his life would have become a tale of a real-life Robinson Crusoe, yet another Englishman lost on a remote island. Instead Banks transformed his encounter with Tahiti into the basis for an incredible career as Britain’s unofficial statesman of science, creating a web of scientific correspondents all over the world. A breakfast invitation to his home at 32 Soho Square was the first steppingstone for any ambitious scientist aspiring to a good career in the next fifty years. But the memory of his song of Tahitian innocence would continue to inspire epic poetry well into the nineteenth century.