150 years since the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859)

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication On the Origin of Species and I thought that I should write a brief post on https://neuroanthropology.net/ to mark the occasion before the year is up. During my fieldwork in Brazil I did some work tangential to my thesis and went out looking for sites which had previously been painted by Conrad Martens (Botafogo Bay) and Augustus Earle (Salvador da Bahia). Earle and Martens were painters on board the Beagle during its famous voyage in the 19th century. Last week I looked at population growth in Brazil as a case-study of urbanisation, pollution and the future of developing countries. This week, I would like to share with you a visual comparison of what Brazil looked like over 150 years ago and what it looks like today.

Botafogo Bay 1842 Botafogo 2009

Before: Botafogo Bay, Rio de Janeiro, 1842-1843             After: Botafogo Bay, Rio de Janeiro, April, 2009
Lithograph: W. Loeillot (26 x 37 cm)                                      Photo: Paul H. Mason

Brazil was Darwin’s first landfall on board the HMS Beagle. 150 years after the publication of The Origin of Species, what has happened to the landscape since the voyages of Charles Darwin? The above photos of Rio (Darwin’s second landfall on board the Beagle) demonstrate just a very small example of what has happened in that period. The city of Rio has had to claim land from the sea in order to accomodate a growing population, construct tall high-rise buildings to fit in more people and consequently Botafogo bay has become so polluted that on the three occasions I visited this beach I saw no one enjoying a swim. Since Darwin’s publication, carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 10 000% per year, the human population is almost seven times larger, and we are fast-tracking ourselves into the next great evolutionary bottle-neck of natural history. What modes of thinking, cultural practices and social behaviours must change as we face our greatest challenge to population thinking? 

Turn wheresoe’er I may, By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Excerpt from Ode on Intimations of Immortality
William Wordsworth, 1770-1850

(Please click on the above image to enlarge it)

The above picture is a 19th century sketching by Augustus Earle of San Salvador, Bahia, contrasted with Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, April 2009. The Forte São Marcelo and the church, Igreja Conceiçao da Praia, are still there but the Teatro São João built in 1808 only existed until 1922. It was later replaced by the Palaçio das Esportes. The place that Augustus Earle once sat to sketch this city is now home to a shantytown where tourists are warned by locals not to go for fear of armed attack, violence and robbery due to the increased economic pressures of urban poverty.

Brazil was Darwin’s first landfall on board the epic voyage of The Beagle in the 19th century. The following is an eclectic collection of photos from my fieldwork in Brazil that I have randomly arranged to document some of the changes Darwin would observe if he were alive and able to visit Brazil today. This post is to commemorate Darwin but also to lament the greatest destruction of diversity ever witnessed by Gaia.

Voyage of the Beagle

Brazil is nearly three times as large territorially as India but has less than one-sixth of India’s population. The distance from Brazil to U.S. markets is one-third that of China’s. However, the policies of the Brazilian government do not enhance their competitiveness in global finance or business.* One day, as I sat in a café overlooking the Bay of Salvador with a colleague, we looked out and saw only a couple of large ships in the harbour. My colleague mentioned to me that before the economic crisis, the bay was full of merchant ships and cargo vessels.

Salvador is a fascinating place for the traveller. Luxury is right next door to poverty, Shopping malls with the latest fashions are erected next to favelas full of people who can’t afford them and expensive high-rise apartments exist next to the most dangerous shanty-towns. When I first moved to Salvador and was looking for a place to rent, I had the choice between $AUS 200 a week for a private luxury appartment or $AUS 30 for a room in a shared appartment in a poor area. The private appartment came with maid-service, ensuite and hot water, in a building with a gym, a swimming pool, sauna and security. The shared-appartment was in a suburb plagued by drug addicts, armed thieves and con-artists. Despite three months of searching, I was unable to find any accomodation for a price between these two poles of living. Either you live in luxury or in poverty but the majority of Brazilians don’t have a choice. The middle class is a rare and seemingly only recent phenomena in Bahia.

As someone who has performed fieldwork in Brazil, I relish this excerpt from Charles Darwin’s Diary (6th April 1832):

“The day has been frittered away in obtaining the passports for my expedition into the interior. – It is never very pleasant to submit to the insolence of men in office… But the prospect of wild forests tenanted by beautiful birds, Monkeys & Sloths, & Lakes by Cavies & Alligators, will make any naturalist lick the dust even from the foot of a Brazilian.-“

Evidently little has changed in the way of bureaucracy, but much has changed in natural landscape of Brazil. (Just in case you thought that Darwin had questionable views about Brazilians, you may like to know that he almost left the Voyage of the Beagle in Salvador da Bahia over a dispute he had with Captain Robert Fitzroy concerning Slavery. Darwin abhorred Slavery and expressed his views firmly with all of his peers.

To get an idea about how things have changed since Darwin, HAVE A LOOK AT SALVADOR IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY AND TODAY BELOW:
San Salvador, ca 1830, sketched by Augustus Earle compared with Salvador in 2009, 
Painting by Augustus Earle (19th century) Photos: Paul H. Mason (21st century)

Augustus_Earle_053Salvador da Bahia

As you can see, Brazil has changed a lot since Darwin first visited the country. Today, Brazil is thought to be an example of the future of other developing nations. But what kind of future does the Brazilian model predict? 

In 2007:

  • Brazil’s ranking on Transparency International’s “corruption index” was 3.3, even lower than it was in 2004 and similar to that of India, China and Saudi Arabia*
  • the incidence of Dengue was about 50% higher than in 2006.*
  • Brazil’s Gini coefficient (GC)** was 0.57

*Source: De Blij, Harm (2009) The Power of Place, Oxford University Press.
**The GC measures income in a country on a scale of 0.0 (everyone earns the same income) to 1.0 (one earner takes it all)

During the Darwin Festival 2009, there was a fascinating presentation by Professor Roger Valentine Short from the University of Melbourne who gave a talk about “What does the Future hold?”

Professor Roger Valentine Short recently had a letter featured in Nature 462 on the 3rd of December 2009. Professor Short’s letter was titled “King Canute and the wisdom of forest conservation.” King Canute drafted the first forest conservation legislation almost 1,000 years ago (John Manwood, A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest Societie of Stationers, London; 1615). Canute first became King of England in 1016, then Denmark, then Norway. I find it somewhat fitting that the Climate Change Conference is occuring in Copenhagen at the moment.

Canute’s “Carta de Foresta” listed 34 Forest Laws aimed at conserving forests at all costs, and especially their wildlife, with heavy penalties for offenders. For example, Law 28 includes:

“No man may lay his hands upon the Kings demesne Woods without licence of the Verderor: for if he does, hee shal be aiudged guilty of the breach of the Kings free chase Royal.”

Professor short writes that, “Perhaps each nation attending the Copenhagen conference might agree to create its own new forest — thereby preserving endangered species, combating global warming and honouring Canute’s apocryphal command to the seas to stop rising” (2009:567).

Click here to read: John Manwood, A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest Societie of Stationers, London; 1615.

Without realising my own efforts, I have planted sixteen bushes and trees since moving to Sydney four years ago. That means that I have planted an average of Four trees a year. If every single one of my fellow Australians planted four trees over the next year, there would be 88million more trees in Australia by the end of 2010. That would be the equivalent of almost 50 new forests in Australia. While the cheap production and distribution of contraceptive technology as a way to combat climate change has received both praise and concern, no one could argue with planting a tree.

It is 150 years since the publication of Darwin’s greatest work and it would be fantastic to restore biodiversity to the earth.

Gary Larson

Some Links:

Guardian UK: Darwin Special

UN estimates

Environmental Information

Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions

Interactive Map: Urban Growth

Earth from the air

The impact of population growth on tomorrow’s world

Fewer Feet, Smaller Footprint

Population Growth driving Climate Change, poverty: Experts

Reproductive freedom may sequester global warming

A pill for global warming

A Theoretical Neurophysiologist writes about the great climate flip-flop

William H. Calvin PhD on Climate Change

Views from a University of Washington Scientist

Some images of Rio from back in the day:

Some Images Now:




Published by

Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

13 thoughts on “150 years since the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859)

  1. “This post is to commemorate Darwin but also to lament the greatest destruction of diversity ever witnessed by Gaia.”

    Oh,puhleaze! I mean, really. Get a grip Paul. Get a grip unfortunate lad.

    What this reads like, in part, is a kind of “Stations of the Darwin.”

  2. I’m becoming a big fan of King Canute. He was only 19 when he became King of England and did some amazing things like caring for people and going to Glastonbury! It will be his millenniumth in 2016 and I hope to make a celebration of it here in the Dengie in Essex where he features quite a lot in local history.

  3. According to Darwin, “All corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection”

    This is an interesting thought, though I have to wonder why it is that so many genetic disorders still occur. If it’s true that evolution has had millions of years to weed out certain defects, why are birth defects still so prevalent? Aside from the obvious environmental factors such as an increase in pollution and radiation, it makes me wonder if some of these disorders are actually dormant hereditary traits that don’t actually get filtered out by evolution. On the other hand, some of these defects (or mutations) may actually be an evolutionary response to the changing environmental conditions. Here’s a link to an interesting discussion and quick background video on the Origin of the Species: http://www.o3p.com/threads/charles-darwin-publishes-on-the-origin-of-species.661/

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