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Indomitable Adventurers

Indonesia, where Alfred Russel Wallace, sweating through
an attack of malaria, hit on the theory of natural selection.

We were charmed to learn from On This Day that Charles Darwin sailed off on the Beagle on December 27, 1831, and that James Barrie's Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up flew off a London stage for the first time on this day in 1904.

They would seem to have little in common, but the spirit of adventure infused both the fictional character and the real man. Darwin, who like Peter Pan had lost his mother when he was very young, was as insistent as Peter about doing what he wished. Blithely heading off on the Beagle on a journey that would last years, he endured seasickness, fevers, and illness that would have felled most men, and remained indomitably curious about fossils, geological formations, and natural specimens.

Darwin grew up, but he retained a boyish enthusiasm for discovery that sustained him when he returned to Britain and embarked on exhausting researches to obtain evidence for his theory of the adaptability of species and survival of the fittest. In this work he was sustained by many friends and scientists – his circle of boys – and by his family. He was certain he and his theory would face a torrent of criticism, and he and it did, but he faced his critics bravely. Given the controversy that still surrounds his theory, I was surprised to read in his book that he seemed to infer a Creator by speaking of a "primordial form, into which life was first breathed".

Developing the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin was Alfred Russel Wallace. His contributions were brilliant, and his adventures were hair-raising, as we describe in this timeline.