Darwin and the Galapagos: Part 2

Posted by on June 25th, 2013

If you’re planning a luxury Galapagos cruise it pays to know a bit about the history of the place. Last week’s blog looked at Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos in 1835. This week I examine what happened between then and 1859, when On the Origin of Species was published. It’s as much a tale of missed opportunities as it is of dogged determination, and I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

The first inkling

darwin oldDarwin, like nearly everyone of his generation, was a creationist. He believed that each species had been placed on the earth in its original, immutable form. His first inkling that this might not be the case came in a discussion with Nicholas Lawson, the manager of the penal colony at Floreana. Lawson that based on differences in the tortoises’ shells “he could at once tell from which island any one was brought.”

It took a long time for the idea to crystallise, however, and even as it did it encountered many setbacks. Foremost amongst these was a fear of redefining the paradigms: Darwin was about to take one of the biggest leaps of faith in human history, and he wanted to be damned sure he was right before he leapt. Darwin’s own words were that he had “always been fearful” about his “assertion on the differences in the animals of the different islands”.

A collaborative effort

But there were also more prosaic obstacles to Darwin formalising his theory. In addition to his poor collection methods detailed last week, Darwin also made some errors of identification. His famous finches are a case in point: it was only after a meeting in 1836 with a renowned ornithologist, John Gould, that Darwin realised that the finches were separate species rather than varieties of the same species. This was a quantum leap, as creationism allowed for the existence of varieties of the same species but no more than that.

Another meeting with a French herpetologist confirmed that there were at least two different species of tortoise on the islands, but Darwin had no tortoise samples. Hard evidence would be required if he was going to rock the scientific establishment at its core.

He found this hard evidence not in his animal collections but rather in his plants. It was only in 1845, ten years after Darwin’s visit to the islands, that he showed his plant collection to a botanist, Joseph Hooker. As Frank Sulloway explains in his excellent article (from which much of the inspiration for this blog is drawn) in the Smithsonian Magazine, “Hooker eventually identified more than 200 species, half of which were unique to the Galápagos. Of these, three-quarters were confined to single islands—yet other islands often possessed closely related forms also found nowhere else on earth.”

On the Origin of Species

origin of speciesNow that Darwin was convinced his theory had some base in fact, he had to prove it. But there were still more obstacles – his primary work as a geologist demanded much of his time, and the conservative piety of his wife and friends has also been cited as a reason for his procrastination.

In 1847 Darwin attempted to remedy his previous problems with classification by immersing himself in the study of barnacles. This would continue for eight years, and would result not only in him becoming the world expert on these animals’ classification but it would also provide him with much needed evidence of the fact that “variation arose constantly and not just in response to changed circumstances.”

In 1854 Darwin finally began working full-time on his theory of evolution (although it wasn’t called that yet), and five years later he published the book which would redefine the natural sciences forever. Only 1% of On the Origin of Species was dedicated to the Galapagos, but without those little islands sprinkled way off the coast of Ecuador his theories of evolution and natural selection would never have been conceived, let alone written of.

Why was Darwin the one to come up with the theory and write the book, when there were other scientists better placed to do so (Gould and Hooker to name just two). Here it pays to heed the words of Darwin’s uncle, Josiah Wedgewood who noted that Charles was “a man of enlarged curiosity.”

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