In the footsteps of Darwin

Senior gets Watson Fellowship to retrace voyage of HMS Beagle

By Michaele Birney-Arneson '90

“As far as I can judge of myself I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in natural science.”

So wrote Charles Darwin about his travels aboard the H.M.S. Beagle during its historic 1831–1836 voyage from England to South America and the Galapagos Islands. The same might be said by Toby Ault ’02, from Lake Oswego, Ore., as he prepares to spend the next year retracing Darwin’s voyage.

Ault, a Puget Sound math major and Spanish minor, is the recipient of a Watson Fellowship, awarded to only 60 to 65 graduating students from 50 U.S. liberal arts colleges each year. As stipulated by the Watson Foundation, the fellowships are to allow “college graduates of unusual promise the freedom to engage in a year of independent study and travel abroad following their graduation.”

The idea of retracing Dar-win’s voyage came to Ault after taking the class “Idea of Evolution” to fulfill his Science in Context core requirement. For the class, he read The Origin of Species and then, for his own interest, The Voyage of the Beagle. Drawing upon experiences in Latin America and his longtime affinity for natural history, Ault envisioned himself in Darwin’s place. Because of the thoroughness of the notes that Darwin took on his voyage, Ault plans to compare and contrast what he experiences during his 2002–03 journey with what Darwin experienced in the 1830s, particularly with regard to the native cultures and the introduction of non-native species to those locales.

During his year of study, Ault will spend eight months in South America, where Darwin spent the majority of his time. Similar to Darwin, he hopes to interact with the native cultures there, an experience he had while living with his family in Costa Rica at the age of 13 and again while participating in a Puget Sound-sponsored study-abroad program in Chile.

Ault also will travel to New Zealand and Australia briefly, as did Darwin, and then to England, where he will visit Darwin’s house and the church he attended; the London Museum of National History; and, if legend is correct, one of the tortoises Darwin brought back from the Galapagos Islands.

Mark Largent, visiting assistant professor of history, who teaches the “Idea of Evolution” class, intends to track Ault’s voyage through electronic communication with Ault during the year and post his progress on a Web site specifically created for this purpose. Largent hopes to augment his course, which is offered twice in the fall and once in the spring, with Ault’s findings.

“Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle is such a significant event in intellectual history that the Watson Foundation has, in fact, funded several students to pursue this quest over the years. They all proposed to travel the same route, but each got something different out of it,” explained Professor of Economics Michael Veseth, who is Puget Sound’s Watson liaison. “Some people learn from books, but Toby likes to get his hands dirty and his feet wet first, engaging personally and intuitively with the object of his study. Only after he has engaged directly with nature is he ready to hit the books and approach his topic in the traditional academic way. In this regard, Toby mirrors Darwin himself.”

The Watson program is specifically designed to encourage students to set creative plans, pursuing intellectual activities that they normally wouldn’t be able to do. In its 30 years of existence, everything from nuclear arms to noodle culture has been studied. Fellows are provided a grant of $22,000 for the year, but they are not allowed to return home at any time during their fellowship year.

Since the university joined the program in 1994, nine Puget Sound students have received Watsons. Recent winners include Jess Sotelo ’01, an exercise science major, who is currently spending her year in Latin America learning about the healing techniques of different cultures, and Matthew Swarner ’00, a biology major who traveled the jungles of South America in search of the bush dog, a wild canine that is rarely seen in the wild.

With the application process taking nearly a year, the path leading to the fellowship is difficult. And once the fellows arrive at their overseas locales, they often encounter difficulties there, as well.

“The Watson year may sound like a long vacation, but it is really a very serious and difficult task,” Veseth said. “Each of our fellows has experienced hardships and dangers that they did not expect. They have had to learn to cope with both the excitement of discovery and the frustration of disappointment. I think each fellow comes away from his or her experience changed in some fundamental way, although the changes are not that easy to see or understand from the outside.”