Perhaps our first association with the word "Galapagos" is the name "Darwin." Darwin's visit to the Galapagos Islands had a resounding impact on the formation of his Theory of Natural Selection.
A rather unmotivated and failing medical scholar, Charles Darwin accompanied Captain Robert Fitzroy as a travel companion and naturalist on the HMS Beagle. His book the Voyage of the Beagle is an account of his worldwide journey.
When setting off from England in 1831 for a five-year voyage, Darwin had little ambitions for groundbreaking scientific research. After surveying the coasts of South America, the ship stopped over in the Galapagos Islands.
During his visit to the islands, Darwin noted that the unique creatures were similar from island to island, but perfectly adapted to their environments which led him to ponder the origin of the islands' inhabitants.
Among those that struck Darwin so greatly were the finches that are now named in his honor. Darwin would later base some of his thought from the supposing that these finches were all descendents of the same lineage.
Years later in 1859, Darwin finally consolidated all of his observations into his famous book On The Origin of Species, drastically and controversially altering the scientific view on the biological origins of life.
While reading Darwin’s works, it’s easy to see the enormous impression that the Galapagos left on the young naturalist even though his visit was very brief, it was a mutually beneficial relationship!
While the Islands provided Darwin the proof he needed for his groundbreaking theories, and in turn, Darwin provided the islands with a unique place in natural history, putting the remote islands “on the map”, who can doubt that much of the current tourism boom in the islands is owed to Darwin and his once-radical theories?
Visit Darwin’s Galapagos
The inspiration brought by Galapagos came through these voyages in the HMS Beagle:
“In a few days’ time, the Beagle will sail for the Galapagos Islands. I look forward with joy and interest to this, both as being somewhat nearer to England and for the sake of having a good look at an active volcano.”
-Charles Darwin, letter to J.S. Henslow, July 12, 1835.
Darwin and the HMS Beagle were in Galapagos during September and October of 1835, and through this time, he had the opportunity to explore a handful of islands, and collect several Galapagos species for use in his own research and that of his friends back in England.
The Beagle itself was far too large to land, so it cruised around the islands and smaller boats would take Darwin and the other crew members ashore, where they could mingle with the endemic wildlife.
On September 15, Mount Pitt was sighted, on San Cristóbal Island.
While the crew captured several of the San Cristobal giant tortoises for food, Charles Darwin was intrigued by the them and plant specimens on the islands, as well as with the rocky island and the lava that formed it.
Floreana was an Ecuadorian penal colony while being managed by the Englishman, Nicholas Lawson and the Beagle’s crew was allowed to go ashore for a tour of the colony.
Darwin diligently collected many animal and plant specimens and learned that it was possible to tell from which island a tortoise came judging by its shell. In his journal, Darwin remarked that the convicts regularly ate tortoises and that whaling ships and pirates often took them: one such ship carried off 700 Floreana tortoises to eat while at sea. By 1846 the race was extinct.
On this island, Darwin was amazed by the number of marine iguanas that forage underwater.
His first thought was that the iguana fed of fish and little animals. However, and while on James Island, a dissection of a marine iguana led to the discovery that they feed off algae.
The Beagle tried to get to Abingdon Island but was repeatedly foiled by currents and winds. It did not anchor at any of these islands and instead decided to head for James (Santiago) Island, as they were running low on fresh water.
The Beagle found no water on James and headed back to Chatham to resupply.
Darwin, the ship’s physician Benjamin Bynoe and each of their servants remained behind with a tent and provisions to spend the week exploring and gathering samples. They collected many specimens, including:
It was about this time that Darwin realized that the different islands were home to different species.
After picking up Darwin’s party, the Beagle went back to survey the eastern coast of Isabela Island before going to Abingdon (Pinta) to pick up another party that had been surveying in one of the smaller boats.
Fast fact: Darwin never set foot on Culpepper, the Island that now bears his name.
Tour the Islands like Darwin
The name of Charles Darwin and his famous book The Origin of Species will forever be linked with the Galapagos Islands. Although he was only in the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835, it was the wildlife that he saw there that inspired him to develop his Theory of Evolution.
But how much of Galapagos actually made it into his controversial book?
In chapter two of The Origin of Species, Darwin claims that it was his visit to the Galapagos that helped inspire his theories.
“Many years ago, when comparing, and seeing others compare, the birds from the separate islands of the Galapagos Archipelago, both one with another, and with those from the American mainland, I was much struck how entirely vague and arbitrary is the distinction between species and varieties.”
The idea of endemic species (species found only in one specific place and nowhere else on earth) was central to Darwin’s arguments. The Galapagos Archipelago was key for him to prove his point:
“This fact might have been expected on my theory for, as already explained, species occasionally arriving after long intervals in a new and isolated district, and having to compete with new associates, will be eminently liable to modification, and will often produce groups of modified descendants.”
In other words, the endemic species that had evolved on remote islands proved his point as they adapted over long periods of time to a new environment, leaving behind their original characteristics.
Surprisingly, Darwin does not dwell on his famous finches much in The Origin of Species.
His earlier journal, Voyage of the Beagle, however, shows the crucial role these finches played in his theories. He stated:
“The remaining land-birds form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, a form of body and plumage.”
“There are thirteen species, which Mr. Gould has divided into four subgroups. All these species are peculiar to this archipelago; and so is the whole group, with the exception of one species of the sub-group Cactornis, lately brought from Bow Island, in the Low Archipelago.”
He later summarized his interpretation of the nature of these finches.
“Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.”
You can follow in the steps of Darwin via cruise, personalized island-hopping, or a combination of both. Ask us about following Charles Darwin’s footsteps and visiting some, or most of the islands he got his inspirations from.