Darwin Goes to Rio

Darwin on the Beagle landed at Rio
but no carnival, no Copacabana beach days
or girls from Ipanema. Lots of beetles,
exotic meals and port wine to ease
his gradual evolution away from his God.


When I read recently that Charles Darwin went to Rio de Janeiro as part of a five-year trip before the more famous part on the Galapagos, I had his image of him at Carnivale. Totally unrealistic image.

Long before his Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, he first studied at Edinburgh University to become a doctor but discovered that he couldn’t stand the sight of blood or suffering. He decided to become a clergyman, but before he could complete his religious studies he was approached by the Captain of the HMS Beagle to go on an unpaid voyage. On it, he would be able to follow his interest in natural history and catalog animals and plants on the journey.

Darwin landed in Rio in April of 1832 and stayed until June. He recorded the midday temperature in the shade as a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. He took ill at one point but was cured overnight by “cinnamon and port wine.”

In one day he collected 68 different species of beetles. One of the most memorable moments of the stop came when he came across a parasitic wasp laying eggs inside a live caterpillar to be eaten alive by the grubs after hatching. This event single-handedly challenged Darwin’s belief in God; he wrote to fellow naturalist Asa Gray, “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the [parasitic wasp] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars.”

Darwin himself sampled many of the animals he encountered on the islands that he visited. He ate armadillos, iguanas, giant tortoises, agouti rodents (“the best meat I ever tasted”), a puma with “veal-like” meat, and a large bird called a rhea which Darwin had been looking for desperately before realizing that he had been dining on it.

Darwin didn’t get to his more famous time on the Galapagos Islands for three years, in 1835, and he didn’t publish On the Origin of Species until 1859. He held back on publishing for years because he thought his work would hurt religious beliefs.

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