Jan 29: The Road to Tierra Del Fuego

I was never raised to think of much of a conflict between Jesus and Darwin, but thanks to the culture wars there now is; so it’s funny to see Darwin follow Thomas a Kempis, making a “careful and vitally interesting study of that land and its ill-fated inhabitants.” Darwin gets his own volume, so we can regard him as at least as important as Robert Burns.

-- Here's another example of the argument thing I was talking about the other day:
Tierra del Fuego, first arrival—Good Success Bay—An Account of the Fuegians on board—Interview with the Savages—Scenery of the Forests—Cape Horn—Wigwam Cove—Miserable Condition of the Savages— Famines—Cannibals— Matricide—Religious Feelings—Great Gale—Beagle Channel—Ponsonby Sound—Build Wigwams and settle the Fuegians—Bifurcation of the Beagle Channel—Glaciers—Return to the Ship—Second Visit in the Ship to the Settlement—Equality of Condition amongst the Natives
Now you’ve read the whole chapter!

Darwin says:
I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.
Why are they savage? Because they’re shouting and telling them where to land, that's why -- not that different than what us civilized people would do now. Actually, a lot of us civilized people would probably not want different-colored boat people to land, but these were more innocent times.

(As an aside, I will admit here that my knowledge of the dates of the theory of evolution are pretty hazy. Maybe it’s because of the Scopes trial that makes me think that the theory is a late 19th-century development, like the player piano or something. But James Madison was still alive when Darwin was on the Beagle. )

In Darwin's defense, he notes that the savages are painted like people in the opera "Der Freischutz." So maybe they’re not so civilized. Or maybe they were putting on a production of Der Freischutz when the Beagle landed! I bet Darwin didn’t think of that.

He also tries to look on the other hand:
They could repeat with perfect correctness each word in any sentence we addressed them, and they remembered such words for some time. Yet we Europeans all know how difficult it is to distinguish apart the sounds in a foreign language. Which of us, for instance, could follow an American Indian through a sentence of more than three words? All savages appear to possess, to an uncommon degree, this power of mimicry.... How can this faculty be explained? is it a consequence of the more practised habits of perception and keener senses, common to all men in a savage state, as compared with those long civilized?
Still, all this “savages” and “civilized” diction is making him sound like Commander McBragg to me, especially because they’ve named one of their Fuegans guides “York Minster," which is a building, I believe. On the other hand we named one of our great heroes "Refrigerator" Perry.

As a lifelong urban man, however, I despise the idea that those who are close to nature are more virtuous than us city folk with our bookstores and leash laws, and Darwin is of like mind, in a way:

At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. Whenever it is low water, winter or summer, night or day they must rise to pick shell-fish from the rocks; and the women either dive to collect sea-eggs, or sit patiently in their canoes, and with a baited hair-line without any hook, jerk out little fish. If a seal is killed, or the floating carcass of a putrid whale is discovered, it is a feast; and such miserable food is assisted by a few tasteless berries and fungi. They often suffer from famine.
Think of how far we’ve advanced, to the point where we’ve invented the Cheeto. And speaking of those whose way of life we look down on:
Although such reflections [i.e., why the hell do these people choose to live here? – ed.] must at first seize on the mind, yet we may feel sure that they are partly erroneous. There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number; therefore we must suppose that they enjoy a sufficient share of happiness, of whatever kind it may be, to render life worth having. Nature by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his miserable country.
The “effects” of habit are hereditary? I’m not sure what that means, nor that the Fuegian is fitted by nature to live in Tierra del Fuego. I can see where, if you didn’t have the Fuegian culture and knowledge, you’d shrivel (picture Vince Vaughn in a fish-out-of-water movie set in Tierra Del Fuego); but, if you were sufficiently hardy, you could make it (Vince Vaughn befriends a native (Russell Peters) and learns to wear the blubber poncho, which is a hilarious scene we can use in the trailer.)

I guess this is the only anthropology we're going to get in the Harvard Classics -- the kind that lends itself to a Vince Vaughn movie.

No comments: