Visiting Isla Isabela in the Galápagos Archipelago

The Serendipity Of History

I have inserted this small sidebar to make a few more comments about serendipity. In the beginning of this journal, I described how serendipity affected me; how leaving a computer career to go cruising brought me to this grand adventure—voyaging on the South Pacific to the Galápagos and Easter Island.

I think serendipity also plays a huge role in the advancement of history. History is not about the periods of stasis when nothing changes and the world just idles ahead. Instead, history is about change, new discoveries, and new ideas, when serendipity brings together people, places, and ideas and the world leaps forward. When we read historical accounts, it all seems so inevitable, but at the time, the effects of serendipity could not be foretold or even imagined. You see this a lot when you read stories of South Seas adventure and exploration (some of my favorite subjects)—Captain Cook, Lieutenant Bligh, Fletcher Christian, Mutiny On The Bounty, Pitcairn Island—stories so improbable that even Hollywood would have trouble inventing them.

But one of the most improbable stories of all is how Charles Darwin wound up on the voyage of the Beagle (captained by Robert Fitzroy) and later went on to come up with the Theory of Evolution. Here, serendipity throws a wild pitch and Charles Darwin hits it out of the ballpark (if you will forgive my modern metaphor). Darwin's masterfully elucidated theory set the world on its ear, and even a hundred years later, we're still in a tizzy.

There's a really good book on the subject, Darwin and the Beagle, by Alan Moorehead (published in 1971 by Penguin Press). Here's a quote from the book, in fact, it's the opening paragraph:

One of the fascinating things about Charles Darwin is that he really does seem to have been one of those men whose careers quite unexpectedly and fortuitously are decided for them by a single stroke of fortune. For twenty-one years nothing much happens, no exceptional abilities are revealed; then suddenly a chance is offered, things can go either this was or that, but luck steps in, or rather a chain of lucky events, and away he soars into the blue never to return. It all looks so inevitable, so predestined; yet the fact is that in 1831 no one in England, certainly not Darwin himself, had the slightest inkling of the extraordinary future that lay ahead of him, and it is next to impossible to recognise in the brooding, ailing figure of the later years this blithe young extrovert on the brink of his greatest adventure—the voyage of the Beagle.

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