Imagining Darwin: The Ghost of the Beagle




The sailors on board the Beagle told young Charles Darwin the chilling tale of their first captain, Pringle Stokes. After two harrowing years helming the ship safely through the hazards, desolation, and foul weather of the Straits of Magellan, Stokes fell into a deep depression. He wrote in his journal in June 1828:

Nothing could be more dreary than the scene around us. The lofty, bleak, and barren heights that surround the inhospitable shores of this inlet, were covered, even low down their sides, with dense clouds, upon which the fierce squalls that assailed us beat, without causing any change… Around us, and some of them distant no more than two-thirds of a cable’s length, were rocky inlets, lashed by a tremendous surf; and, as if to complete the dreariness and utter desolation of the scene, even the birds seemed to shun its neighborhood. The weather was that in which… “the soul of man dies in him.”

On the first of August that year, Captain Stokes shot himself in his cabin. He did not die immediately but lingered for two weeks until at last succumbing to gangrene. Robert Fitzroy had been a lieutenant on that first voyage, and now, on the second voyage to South America, he was The Beagle’s captain, and was determined to win through the hardships that had proven too much for Stokes.

According to the Beagle’s crew, however, Captain Stokes was still on board. They spoke of strange, unaccountable noises and occurrences, and several men swore they had seen the former Captain’s ghost walking the deck at night. Darwin had no use for such stories. To him they were mere superstition, a common enough weakness among sea-faring men. At this point in his life Darwin still believed in God, but he was convinced this divine Designer’s creation was rational and logical — His plans could be known through methodical investigation. Ghosts, on the other hand, were irrational and illogical. You couldn’t study such things the way you could study geological layers, or barnacles. The sailors were haunted, all right, but only by their own fears. 

Later in life, after the death of his beloved daughter Annie, and the working out of his theory of natural selection, Darwin lost his faith in a divine Creator. For him, God became a kind of ghost he could never completely banish. An illogical, irrational phantom that still haunted his thoughts, and haunted a world that made perfect sense without Him.



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