2009 will be a big year in the Galapagos Islands, as the people of the archipelago celebrate the 200th birthday of their most famous honorary resident, British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882).
2009 coincidentally marks the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Species, which detailed his controversial Theory of Evolution. Darwin visited Galapagos in 1835 on board the HMS Beagle, a British survey ship. He only spent a few weeks in the Islands that he would make famous, but his notes and specimens from that short visit made his later work possible.
Charles Darwin was still a young student in 1831 when the Beagle set sail. He was selected as naturalist mostly because Captain Robert FitzRoy wanted a gentleman companion on board the ship: as an officer and a nobleman, he could not fraternize with the crew.
The Beagle sailed to the west, eventually going all of the way around the world before returning to England in 1836. Young Darwin had the opportunity to see many places, including Tierra del Fuego, Australia and South Africa. His journey would give him a lifetime’s worth of samples and notes, more than enough to allow him to make a name for himself as one of England’s most distinguished naturalists.
The Beagle was in the Galapagos in September-October of 1835 and completed a very thorough survey, visiting all of the main islands either in the Beagle itself or by sending out smaller boats. Darwin was very active, going ashore whenever he could to take notes and collect specimens. He would eventually visit four of the islands: Isabela, San Cristóbal, Santiago and Floreana.
He was initially most interested by the different subspecies of mockingbirds to be found on the various islands, but he also collected other birds (including finches). Fortunately for Darwin, Captain FitzRoy was an amateur naturalist himself and he also collected specimens. Back in England, it was shown that FitzRoy had done a better job of labeling his specimens than Darwin had, and he allowed his old shipmate to study the animals he had collected.
While on the journey, Darwin began making a name for himself as a naturalist, as he corresponded with several important scientists in addition to his friends and family. He began developing his theories, usually thinking of the different mockingbirds he had seen. He had also collected several fossils during his visit to South America.
Upon return, he cemented his position by publishing his journals as The Voyage of the Beagle and began presenting papers at conferences. He also married and tried to stay healthy: he had contacted a tropical disease while on his journey and it would torment him for the rest of his life.
He kept his most important work secret: the Theory of Evolution. He probably did so out of a combination of wanting to make sure no one else stole it and the knowledge that once revealed it would stir up a hornet’s nest with the Church. He toiled over his specimens, determining what made them different, and eventually realized that his finches made for a better illustration than the mockingbirds.
In 1858, he learned that another scholar, Alfred Russel Wallace, was preparing to give a paper on natural selection. Wallace, an old acquaintance, had contacted him, asking for an opinion on his work. Darwin did not want to have someone else get all of the credit, so they presented together.
The next year, On the Origin of Species was published, describing the process of natural selection.
Darwin became an immediate, controversial celebrity. Many religious people were deeply offended, as they believed that God had created each and every creature as is, and that changes over time were impossible.
The logical conclusion to take regarding humans and evolution was that mankind had evolved from some sort of ape, and this notion was cause for even more uproar. Darwin himself stayed out of the fray, letting those who believed in his theories speak for him and defend his conclusions in public, although he followed the controversy closely from his home.
The controversy over his work did not end with his death in 1882: it continues to this day. Many people, particularly very religious ones, still find his conclusions offensive. In the past, the debate was always between Evolution (“Man evolved from other lower life forms”) and Creationism (“God made Man exactly as he is”). Today, these two have been joined by a third, Intelligent Design. To make a long debate short, Intelligent Design is a sort of combination of the two (“God made evolution”).
Two hundred years later, the Galapagos is gearing up for a birthday party. The Charles Darwin Research Station will be hosting a major scientific symposium in Darwin’s honor, and many visitor ships are inviting guest speakers for special cruises aimed at those interested in Darwin and his life.