Published On: April 15, 2013

Evolution “Began” in Brazil

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By B. Michael Rubin

The theories on evolution and natural selection began with Charles Darwin, who made public his groundbreaking ideas in a book entitled On the Origin of Species, which was first published in 1859. Darwin found the inspiration for his ideas while on a research trip aboard the ship the H.M.S. Beagle. Darwin’s primary destination was the Galapagos Islands, and it was during his five-year voyage from his home in England that he developed his theory of natural selection.

What many people don’t know about Darwin is that his epic voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, before arriving at the Galapagos Islands, first arrived in South America in Bahia, Brazil in 1832.

Additionally, Darwin wasn’t the only important European scientist to come to Brazil to study nature. Two of Darwin’s fellow Englishmen, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates, arrived at Pará in 1848. Wallace roamed the Amazon for four years, and the remarkable Bates explored the Amazon region for eleven years.

Galapagos Islands

There are many stories about Darwin and how he developed his ideas. There have been books and movies about his life. In 2009, a movie depicted Darwin’s personal struggle over whether he should publish his theory of evolution. The film, Creation, in which Paul Bettany plays Darwin, illustrates how Darwin debated with his own conscience and his wife, (the superb actress Jennifer Connelly as Emma Darwin) about whether or not he should allow his ideas to be made public.

Darwin was born in 1809 and was fond of quoting the Bible as a young man. He didn’t publish his famous book until he was 50 years old, by which time he had stopped attending church. However, he never gave up his belief in God, and some scholars say that while he was certain about natural selection and man’s descent from apes, he delayed publishing his ideas for ten or twenty years because he believed his theories would be criticized by the church and misunderstood as a refutation of God’s existence along with the Biblical account of God’s creation of the universe and Adam and Eve.

In 1852, another naturalist named Fritz Müller arrived in Brazil from Germany. Although Müller is much less known today than Darwin or Wallace or Bates, he pursued his research by remaining in Brazil. Müller brought his German wife and young child to Brazil and had no intention of returning to Prussia. He traded a medical career in Europe for a mud-floor hut at the edge of virgin forest in the Blumenau colony in Santa Catarina.

Only a few years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Bates suggested that a sort of mimicry found in Brazilian butterflies — now called Batesian — was proof of the principle of natural selection. Müller’s understanding of nature was so inspired by Darwin’s work that he wrote his own book, Für Darwin, (For Darwin) that presented facts and arguments in favor of Darwin’s theory, including Müller’s own observations on Brazilian plants and animals. The two men struck up a lively and warm correspondence that lasted 17 years until Darwin’s death. Darwin referred to Müller as the “prince of observers,” and although they never met, Müller considered Darwin a second father.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in Brazil

The founders of the theory of natural selection and the principles behind evolution were not the only European researchers whose ideas relied upon their analysis of plant and animal specimens from Brazil. In the 1930s, another scholar came to Brazil from Europe, a Frenchman named Claude Lévi-Strauss. He was interested in early mankind, and he made several visits to Brazil and spent his time living with different native tribes. During this time, the tribal leaders permitted him to observe every detail of their lives. Lévi-Strauss took notes on everything from their food preparation to polygamous marriage. His observations of tribal life were not only ground-breaking for their details, but his account of Brazil became famous in a book he published called Tristes Tropiques, which described his travels in Brazil.

Here’s a quote from that book, where he describes a canoe trip in the Amazon: “The birds did not flee at our approach: like live jewels wandering among the dripping creepers and overgrown torrents, they were part of the living reconstitution, before my astonished eyes, of those pictures by the Brueghels in which Paradise is marked by a tender intimacy between plants, beasts and men, and takes us back to the time when there was as yet no division among God’s creatures.”

Lévi-Strauss’s study of native Indians taught him the “savage” mind had the same structure as the “civilized” mind, and thus human characteristics are the same everywhere. His observations and theories in Tristes Tropiques became so famous among students of anthropology that today he is considered the father of an entire field of study known as “structural anthropology”. He died in 2009 at the age of 100 and forever recognized the contribution Brazil had made to the study of man’s social origins. He always spoke fondly of his travels and his memories of Brazil.

Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

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