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Review: The Voyage of the Beetle
Its title easily recognizable as a play on that of Darwin's own volume, Anne Weaver's The Voyage of the Beetle is a fanciful account of the historic circumnavigation from the perspective of Rosie, another passenger on the Beagle who happens to be a rose chafer beetle (Cetonia aurata).
Those acquainted with books on evolution for young readers will probably, and fondly, recall The Sandwalk Adventures (2003), Jay Hosler's delightful graphic novel in which Darwin is similarly associated with a storytelling arthropod. And while the subject matter and the intended age level may overlap, there are marked differences between these two works. For example, in Sandwalk, Mara, a young follicle mite and resident of Darwin's left eyebrow, is unfailingly respectful to Darwin, calling him "sir" while she wrestles with his insistence that he is not, as she has always believed, an all-powerful god called "Flycatcher", an allusion to his moniker among the Beagle's crew. Mara listens raptly as Darwin explains his theory of natural selection and debunks misconceptions about evolution such as, for example, that individuals (rather than populations) evolve — a misconception retained in Weaver's definition of adaptation in Beetle's glossary, which suggests, erroneously, that adaptation in animals is achieved "by learning".
Rosie contrasts starkly with Hosler's reverent Mara. She has been a constant, though independent, companion of Darwin since the young naturalist discovered her under a rock, and she rather familiarly calls him Charles — which she prefers over his "silly nickname of Gas." Fortunately, Rosie followed a most unbeetlelike whim in her decision to forsake a comfortable life among England's rosebuds to join Darwin in his travels. Otherwise he might never have discovered his solution — descent with modification via natural selection — to "the mystery of mysteries", the origin of new species.
Darwin is already pondering questions about the diversity of life as the story begins, sometime before the Beagle's embarkation. Even at this point, Rosie hints that she was aware of the workings of evolution, since "beetles have been around for more than 200 million years" and thus "have an ancient and unique vantage point when it comes to the mysteries of nature." However, describing Charles as resistant to suggestions or advice, Rosie decides to guide him toward a solution, challenging the reader to figure it out before Darwin.
Recounting the five-year voyage, Rosie colorfully describes several members of the ship's crew and a few particulars of life at sea, which, to say the least, was uncomfortable for Darwin. Although she portrays him as "a restless and irritable cabin mate," Rosie sympathizes with Darwin over the cramped conditions and his seasickness. She also commends him for faithfully recording and sketching countless and amazing species of microscopic creatures collected via plankton nets, and admires his enthusiasm for such discoveries. At this point, however, our coleopteran narrator turns to well-intended subterfuge, covertly scribbling clues into Darwin's notebook in hopes that she can lead him toward the answer to "the mystery of mysteries".
Rosie's clues are drawn from their encounters with the organisms and environments of South America, the Galápagos, and a few stops in the southern Pacific. They essentially comprise the basic tenets of Darwin's theory (variation exists among individuals of a species; some individuals have traits which give them advantages in the struggle for life; those that survive pass on their traits to offspring) as well as observations about geologic change, comparisons between extinct and extant organisms, and the inference that the diversity of living things has changed over time.
After their return to England, Rosie explains, she "continued to accompany Charles on long walks" where she listened and waited for him to figure out what all the clues meant, and she lists them again for the reader to ponder. A solution is offered in the final chapter which condenses Darwin's theory and a few supporting concepts in a scant three pages.
Although Darwin is often portrayed in Beetle as fussy, clumsy, and at times obstinate, he is more often described as insatiably curious, brilliant, and congenial. In the afterword, Weaver explains, "the comical incidents included in this book were chosen to show that Darwin was open to new experiences and able to laugh at himself." Indeed, the book does paint Darwin as likeable, as do the wonderful illustrations by George Lawrence, which refreshingly portray a youthful and spry Darwin with locks of "fly-away red hair" rather than the wizened old sage of Down.
Sundry references to Darwin's training in theology (curiously defined in the glossary as being specific to Christianity) and associations with missionaries on his travels are no doubt intended, and may well help, to make him and the book more palatable to potentially wary Christians. Rosie describes Darwin as a loving husband and father as well as having a deep and caring respect for others. Noting his vehement opposition to slavery, she explains that he had been "much grieved by the misery" of the slaves and that such cruelty was "a mystery that even Charles could not fathom."
Such efforts to depict Darwin as the genius and grand human figure that he was, and such efforts to acquaint young readers with evolution and natural selection, will always get my nod of approval, even if a number of errors detracted from my enjoyment. (For example, spiders are included among Rosie's "insect companions"; a tsunami is called a "tidal wave"; Darwin is described as the Beagle's naturalist — a legend that Stephen Jay Gould  was fond of dispelling.) And Beetle is such an attractive book that it is sure to catch the attention of youngsters. I'd like to see Beetle in the hands of children of the appropriate age, especially if they have knowledgeable parents and teachers nearby to shore up the details, catch misconceptions, and answer the questions that are sure to arise. As Weaver aptly states, "one mystery leads to another."
Gould SJ. 1977. Darwin's sea change, or five years at the captain's table. In: Gould SJ. Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History. New York: WW Norton. p 28–38.
Hosler J. 2003. The Sandwalk Adventures. Columbus (OH): Active Synapse.