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n one of those passages from The Voyage of the Beagle that show Darwin performing an act of interpretative virtuosity, we encounter a mysterious piece of rock where none should be — “on a small atoll” in the vast Pacific Ocean. “Captain Ross found embedded in the conglomerate on the outer coast a well-rounded fragment of greenstone, rather larger than a man's head: he and the men with him were so much surprised at this, that they brought it away and preserved it as a curiosity.” Writing much in the manner of the Victorian sages, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold, Darwin pauses to consider an apparently trivial phenomenon that he turns into an act of interpretative virtuosity as we the readers watch. Like these sages, this Act of Interpretation becomes a performance during which he both lets us observe how one should think about such mysteries of nature and reveals the presence of this stone where it should't be serves as a window into the laws of Nature.

First, he points out how strange it was to find a stone on a coral island that has no rock or sand, nothing in fact but coral: “The occurrence of this one stone, where every other particle of matter is calcareous, certainly is very puzzling.” He then explains that the “island has scarcely ever been visited, nor is it probable that a ship had been wrecked there.”For these reasons, Darwin comes up with an apparently improbable explanation, which he admits to be so:

From the absence of any better explanation, I came to the conclusion that it must have come entangled in the roots of some large tree: when, however, I considered the great distance from the nearest land, the combination of chances against a stone thus being entangled, the tree washed into the sea, floated so far, then landed safely, and the stone finally so embedded as to allow of its discovery, I was almost afraid of imagining a means of transport apparently so improbable. It was therefore with great interest that I found Chamisso, the justly distinguished naturalist who accompanied Kotzebue, stating that the inhabitants of the Radack Archipelago, a group of lagoon islands in the midst of the Pacific, obtained stones for sharpening their instruments by searching the roots of trees which are cast upon the beach. It will be evident that this must have happened several times, since laws have been established that such stones belong to the chief, and a punishment is inflicted on any one who attempts to steal them. When the isolated position of these small islands in the midst of a vast ocean--their great distance from any land excepting that of coral formation, attested by the value which the inhabitants, who are such bold navigators, attach to a stone of any kind--and the slowness of the currents of the open sea, are all considered, the occurrence of pebbles thus transported does appear wonderful.

Although improbable, his explanation, he shows, must be the solution to this puzzle, since Darwin has eliminated others that first come to mind. He supports his interpretation, we see, by citing another naturalist, Chamisso, a fact that simultaneously reminds us of two things, the first of which although The Voyage of the Beagle takes the form of a series of chronologically arranged reports of personal experience, it continually displays its relation to other texts, which range from the writings of earlier naturalists and scientific papers to reviews positive and negative of early editions of the book. Considered as a performance, this specific Act of Interpretation, like so many others in the book, also serves to show the reader that the writer has an expert knowledge of the scientific literature in his field.

He closes this brief episode by providing two reasons — both matters of perception — that explaon why less brilliant thinkers might find his solution unlikely. First, “Stones may often be thus carried; and if the island on which they are stranded is constructed of any other substance besides coral, they would scarcely attract attention, and their origin at least would never be guessed.” In other words, stones arrive all the time on shores distant from their place of origin, but they so blend with their environment that we do not notice them. “Moreover,” Darwin adds, “this agency may long escape discovery from the probability of trees, especially those loaded with stones, floating beneath the surface. In the channels of Tierra del Fuego large quantities of drift timber are cast upon the beach, yet it is extremely rare to meet a tree swimming on the water. These facts,” Darwin modestly concludes, “may possibly throw light on single stones, whether angular or rounded, occasionally found embedded in fine sedimentary masses.”


Darwin, Charles. A Naturalist's Voyage Round the World The Voyage Of The Beagle. Project Gutenberg EBook #3704 produced by Sue Asscher. August 6, 2008. The e-version is based on the 1890 11th edition. (The book first appeared in 1839.)

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Last modified 25 March 2012