Among other things, it was Fitzroy who had gathered a collection of Galapagos finches, that some years after the return to England, Darwin asked to borrow so that he could help flesh out his evolutionary ideas in ways that are now quite famous. Fitzroy bitterly resented that he had helped Darwin establish this terrible idea about life.
FitzRoy has paid the price for his stubborn biblical fundamentalism, a price of ridicule. But that is quite unfair. Fitzroy was a sailor and his hydrographic surveys of South America on the Beagle were an important part of the Navy's desire to understand the world's oceans. His meticulous up-and-down, back-and-forth fathoming of the ocean floor and coastline gave Darwin months of free time, to roam the adjacent territory in South America, doing his own kind of geological surveying, that led him to see physical and biogeographic patterns that accounted for the nature and origin of life's diversity. That it was heretical to biblical thought was not Darwin's motive at the time, nor is it unreasonable to think that a believer, like FitzRoy, should easily accept this challenge to the meaning of existence lightly.
But FitzRoy, who went on to other distinguished positions in the British government, made a contribution perhaps more innovative and at least as important as his hydrographic surveys: he was the pioneer of formal meteorology, and of weather forecasting.
This contribution of FitzRoy's is important to me, because I was at one time a professional meteorologist (and, indeed, in Britain). FitzRoy developed extensive material on proper weather-measuring instrumentation (weather vanes, thermometers, barometers), and ways of collecting and analyzing meteorological data. His main objective was the safety of sailors and their ability to anticipate and avoid dangerous weather.
FitzRoy's work led to the systematic collection of weather data, the systematic understanding of the association of storms with pressure and temperature changes, the large-scale flow of air and its weather implications. And he considered the nature of the sorts of data that, in the 1800s, could be collected. He developed some basic forecasting rules based on these sorts of data, understood the importance of maps plotting similar observations over large areas and what happened after the time of the map, and of global wind, weather, and pressure patterns, among other things.
|Cover page of FitzRoy's book. Google digitization from UCalifornia|
In 1863, just four years after Darwin had made a big stir with his Origin of Species, then Rear Admiral FitzRoy wrote a popular book, such as things were at the time, called The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology. This is a very clearly written book that shows the state of this new science at the time. It was an era of inductionism--the wholesale collection of lots and lots of data--based on the Enlightenment view that from data laws of Nature would emerge. But FitzRoy, a meticulous and careful observer and thinker, also noticed something important. As he wrote in The Weather Book:
Objects of known importance should take precedence of any speculative or merely curious observations. However true may be the principle of accumulating facts in order to deduce laws, a reasonable line of action, a sufficiently apparent cause for accumulation, is surely necessary, lest heaps of chaff or piles of unprofitable figures should overwhelm the grain-seeker, or bewilder any one in his search after undiscovered laws.
Definite objects, a distinct course, should be kept in mind, lest we should take infinite pains in daily registration of facts scarcely less insignificant for future purposes than our nightly dreams.Does this perhaps ring any relevant bells about what is going on today, in many areas of science, including a central one spawned by Mendel: genetics? Maybe we should be paying a bit more heed, rather than ridicule, to another of our Victorian antecedents.
Yes, I'm taking impish advantage of a fortuitous quote that I came across, to make a point. But it is a valid point in today's terms nonetheless, when anything one chooses to throw in the hopper is considered 'data' and applauded.
In fact, modern meteorology is a field in which huge amounts of data collection are, indeed, quite valuable. But there are legitimate reasons: first, patterns repeat themselves and recognizing them greatly aids forecasting, both locally and on a continental scale; second, we have a prior theory, based on hydrodynamics, into which to fit these data. Three, using the theory and the data from the past and present, we can reasonably accurately predict specific future states. These are advantages and characteristics hardly shared with anything comparably rigorous in genetics and evolution, where, nonetheless, raw and expensive inductionism prevails today.