Charles Darwin and the Galápagos Islands

by Shaun Hayeslip
Honors, Biochemistry, Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics (CMBG) Double Degree Candidate
July 2, 2000

"Try putting yourself in Darwin's shoes, that is, try imagining yourself as you first step onto one of the Galápagos Islands and see these bizarre birds, lizards, tortoises, and plants, and having no previous knowledge of evolution. Could you perceive the fundamental and underlying cause of the number and distribution of species from island to island? Would you even care enough to consider this important? Darwin's brilliance cannot be understated; simply put, his contribution forever changed the world.

-from David Pearson, Ecuador and its Galápagos Islands: The Ecotraveller's Wildlife Guide

I: The Voyage of the Beagle
II: Darwin's Early Career
III: From 1860 to the Present
IV: Links and References

         At the present time, it is impossible to discuss the Galápagos Islands without the image of Charles Darwin immediately coming to mind. Although he only stayed in the islands for a total of five weeks in 1835, his wonder at the immense variety of flora and fauna present provided for further reflection upon his return to England. When coupled with the ideas of Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus, and Alfred Russel Wallace, the diversity of wildlife provided the perfect backdrop for the development of his idea of evolution by natural selection, which was published in 1859 in the famous work The Origin of Species. A source of both controversy and inspiration, The Origin of Species and Charles Darwin have since become household names, and the Galápagos Islands remain the source behind the processes involved in evolutionary theory.

The Voyage of the Beagle

         And to think: the most famous ship carrying arguably the most famous scientist of the last 200 years almost left without him. His father, Robert Waring Darwin, initially disapproved of the opportunity, and in respect for his father Charles declined the invitation from Captain Robert FitzRoy. However, his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood (his maternal grandfather was the famous potter of the same name), intervened on his behalf, and soon the younger Darwin found himself as naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. Departing from Portsmouth on December 27, 1831, the trip was not all smooth sailing, either. Darwin repeatedly complained of seasickness (as, I think, all of us can empathize - thank God for Dramamine!); such a malady must have been severely problematic over the five-year period. In addition, FitzRoy had a nasty temper; officers would ask "whether much hot coffee had been served out this morning". (Autobiography 72) Darwin quarreled with the captain on occasion, most notably about the conditions of slaves in Brazil, with Darwin maintaining his belief against their captivity. Although these instances are noted in Darwin's Autobiography, it seems that their relationship was one of mutual respect.

         Although the Beagle is best remembered for its stop in the Galápagos, it took almost four years after leaving England for the ship to initially arrive in the islands. The primary purpose of the voyage was a surveying and mapping expedition for the British government, and among the stops of the vessel before reaching the Galápagos were in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, the Falklands, and Tierra del Fuego. (For more on the earlier exploits of the Beagle, here are some links to The Voyage of the Beagle, as published from the notes of Darwin.) Continuing on their surveying mission, the vessel traveled up the Chilean coast to anchor off the coast of Peru. From this point, on September 7, 1835, the Beagle set sail for the Galápagos, reaching Chatham Island [San Crístobal] on 9/15.

Map of the Voyage of the Beagle through the Galapagos
Courtesy of the Interpretation Center
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, Galapagos

         Whatever one's views on evolution may be, Charles Darwin's powers of observation cannot be disputed. In a region where one can spend hours marveling at the diversity and uniqueness of flora and fauna present, the ability of Darwin to take copious notes served him well later on in the development of his theories. After all, Darwin did not arrive at the Galapagos and immediately "discover" evolution. In fact, the Beagle only remained in the islands for a total of five weeks with the sailors only setting foot on the islands of San Crístobal, Floreana, Isabella, and Santiago. Thus, even the scope of his raw data was limited, especially since he was limited in his ability to view the diverse underwater life in the vicinity. However, upon his return to England it was his reflection on what he had seen and the geological formations present in the islands that eventually led to his ideas on natural selection.

         Like any present day visitor to the islands, the initial reaction of Darwin was probably a mix of shock and wonder. After his return to England, Darwin stated, "one is astonished at the amount of creative force, if such an expression may be used, displayed on these small, barren, and rocky islands, and still more so, at its diverse yet analogous action on points so near each other." (Voyage 383) The tortoises were obviously a source of amazement throughout his stay; he marvels at the weight of the animals, their (at that time) abundance, and their feeding habits while hiking on Charles Island [Floreana]. Most importantly, however, it was the ability of certain sailors to distinguish among the different island species based on the shell patterns of the reptiles that was of influence later on in Darwin's theories.

         Throughout his notes and later writings, such a tone of amazement remains present. He describes in his Diary the marine iguanas, which had been nicknamed "imps of darkness" by his fellow sailors. The diversity of life is certainly manifest: whether botanical, terrestrial, avian, aquatic, or insectivorous, Darwin took notes and collected specimens of many of the species present in islands. The tameness of the animals, especially the birds, was also duly noted; it is interesting that over 150 years of visitors have passed with most of the animals remaining unaffected by human presence. As it turned out, his most important observations were of the geological formations and these avian residents.

         Darwin's descriptions of the geology of the Galápagos were also plentiful in detail. Craters were present on Isabella, Floreana, and from a distance on Fernandina; he also described the various lava forms as being of "smoother...subaqueous origin" (pahoehoe) or of a "rough and horrid aspect" (aa). (Diary 337-8) While hiking on the island of Floreana, Darwin described an area which he compares to the "the iron furnaces of Wolverhampton [England]", due to steam arising from the widespread fissures. (335-6) While visiting Chatham Island [San Crístobal], Darwin examined the "soil" present, noting the sole residence of lizards on such rocky terrain. Finally, the differences between the Galápagos formations and those in mainland Chile and Peru were noted, a comparison that would later prove fruitful in the development of his ideas of speciation.

         Finally, Darwin's observations of both the mockingbirds and the finches proved important in the later development of his theory of natural selection. After all, why were there four species of mockingbirds spread throughout the islands; what role could each individual species serve, and why were each confined to certain geographical locations? During his time on the Galápagos, these questions were too intriguing to let go, and Darwin collected samples later analyzed by the noted ornithologist J. Gould. Darwin also proceded to collect finch species, and Gould was later able to identify the 13 related species [Courtesy of the Interpretation Center, San Crístobal, Gálapagos]. Ironically, the famous birds are never mentioned in The Origin of Species, but their importance cannot be underestimated. Within the 13 species, the gradation of the size of the beaks of the birds provided Darwin with evidence for multiple species descended from a single ancestor. Later, the territorial uniqueness of the birds on certain islands brought forth the means for such speciation via geographical separation and diversification. Certainly, the finches (and to a less common extent, the mockingbirds) remain the epitome of Darwinian evolution.

(Side note: I have a distinct admiration for Charles Darwin, as only a handful of people would have been able to have the observational skills to determine the importance of such ugly, gray little birds. They seemed to be a little less shy than the other birds present, and although they were around quite a bit, they were rather unobtrusive. Like small children, they also wouldn't sit still long enough for a decent photograph. :)

         After five weeks in the Galápagos, Darwin, FitzRoy, and the crew of the Beagle departed from the enchanted islands, and arrived in Tahiti a few weeks later (November, 1835). After another year with stops in New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius, and the Azores, "on the 2nd of October [1836] we made the shores of England; and at Falmouth I left the Beagle, having lived on board the good little vessel nearly five years." (Voyage 481) However, Charles Darwin's experiences during those five years would prove rather important, and his forthcoming views would forever change the world.

Darwin's Early Career

         Upon his return from five years away, Darwin found that his views had dramatically changed. Once a believer in the independent creation of species suited to the environmental conditions present, he was now convinced of the transmutation of species. Essentially, this theory involved the descent of each current species from some pre-existing form, with any variability in characteristics determined by hereditary means. (Ospovat 3) While Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had proposed such a theory in his Zoological Philosophy in 1809, the essential nature of his belief in acquired characteristics was in error. (The classic example of Lamarckism involved the giraffe stretching its neck to obtain food, and passing what was viewed as an enlarged neck onto its offspring) Fortunately, Darwin was able to see past such foibles, and set himself upon the discovery of the true mechanism involved in such speciation.

         In the late 1830s, Darwin was surrounded by a number of British thinkers who provided information to correspond with his raw data from the Beagle voyage. Charles Lyell was the most important; Darwin had taken the first volume of his Principles of Geology along on his trip around the world. In this work, Lyell outlined his uniformitarian beliefs, in that changes were brought about by slow, constant processes over time. Based on this belief, the earth was much older than had originally been predicted (6000 years), and the same forces present at that time could be applied to the world today. From his observations in the Galápagos, Darwin was able to assert the validity of Lyell's theory and recognize the relative youth of the islands compared with mainland South America; thus, the large variety of life present struck him as even more fascinating.

         After his return from the Beagle, Darwin began to read extensively concerning domesticated plants and animals, and the ability of man to artificially select for or against certain characteristics in the breeding of a population. However, his confusion regarding how nature could utilize a similar means of selection was apparent until he decided to read the work Essay on the Principle of Population by the economist Thomas Robert Malthus. In this essay, Malthus described that in the case of overpopulation, humans would struggle to survive based on a lack of adequate food production. Thus, only those with certain characteristics (such as a reduced need for food) would move on. Suddenly, the idea of the evolution of species began to make sense; only those that could survive under a given set of conditions would produce offspring, while those that could not adapt would die out.

         In 1842, Darwin began to produce an abstract on the subject of natural selection, and expanded the treatise to a manuscript of 230 pages in 1844. At this point in his career, though, there is a gap; The Origin of Species was not published until 1859. Part of the reason was Darwin's illness, which he had contracted during his worldwide travels. Additionally, his father passed away in 1847; partially out of grief and partially due to physical weakness, Darwin retreated to an eight-year study of the Cirripedes, or barnacles. While many would question the time spent on such a subject, the work is regarded today as a prominent manuscript in that particular area of study, and the time lapse was used to regain his youthful strength and energy.

         "On occasion, and it was true of Darwin, a scientist concludes that in order to present his new ideas for debate in the most effective manner it is necessary to undertake a sweeping reconstruction of existing knowledge." (Ospovat 3) Thus, in 1854 Darwin began to prepare his manuscript on natural selection via an extensive examination of his pre-existing collection of notes, including those on the Galápagos. At this point, the importance of the islands came to light; in the descent of multiple species from a common ancestor, it was necessary for each variety to become "adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature." (Autobiography 72) Hence, the realization of the methodology of speciation of the finches became the classic example of Darwinian evolution. Darwin was still preparing his manuscript in the summer of 1858, when he received a copy of the essay On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, which was written by Alfred Russel Wallace from Malaysia. Essentially containing the same ideas that Darwin had begun formulating twenty years before, Darwin rushed to joint-publish with Wallace in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. Thirteen months later, The Origin of Species was published.

         Possibly the most controversial book ever published, all 1250 copies of the first edition of The Origin of Species were sold on the very first day. In addition to the obvious conflict with the direct account of creation in the book of Genesis, controversy surrounded the work's classification of humans as animals subject to the same forces as the rest of the world's species. The increased role of chance in the development of species also angered some, including men of science like Louis Agassiz, who maintained his criticism of Darwinism until his death in 1873. The work was even controversial within Darwin's own family: his oldest daughter Henrietta threatened on legal grounds to stop publication of the work, as it (supposedly) did not accurately reflect her father's views. Even Robert FitzRoy could not agree with the evolutionary theories, and his inability to prevent Darwin from establishing such a line of thinking may have led to his suicide in 1865. Despite the opposition, however, the treatise began to be embraced by young professional scientists looking for not only a way to jump-start their careers, but also a way to distinguish between the conflict between certain aspects of science and religion. In addition, the rational line of thought involved began to appeal to a growing number of older scientists, and his fluid writing style made the book accessible for the general public. Thus, the fame of Charles Darwin was assured, and his theory of evolution by natural selection began to grow in popularity.

From 1860 to the Present

         Following the publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin continued to write, with The Descent of Man arriving in 1871, The Expression of Emotions in Plants and Animals in 1872 and his autobiography six years before his death in 1882. Of course, the controversy surrounding his theory of evolution by natural selection did not recede; rather, as more people became aware of his writings, the more heightened the debate. Fortunately, in the wake of religious conservatives and skeptics in the general population, there have been Darwin supporters since his theories first came to light. As Darwin aged, Thomas Henry Huxley (grandfather of the writer Aldous Huxley and the Nobel prize winner Andrew Huxley) became known as "Darwin's bulldog" due to the vehemence with which he argued in favor of Darwin's theories. In America, the botanist Asa Gray supported Darwin's later plant studies, and in Germany, Ernst Haeckel not only devised the idea of evolutionary trees to represent the history of a given set of organisms, but also attempted (although unsuccessfully) to fuse Darwinian evolution with religion and philosophy. Back in England, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest", which, while initially scientific in origin, has since been perverted by both social Darwinists and the Nazis in WWII Germany. However, the man who would produce the most important evidence of in favor of Darwinian evolution happened to be an obscure Austrian monk working with peas around the same time The Origin of Species was published.

         Beginning around 1900, the work of the genetics pioneer Gregor Mendel began to be rediscovered, and through genetics the intricate, sub-cellular mechanisms behind evolutionary theory began to be researched. As those intracellular mechanisms have been worked out, especially in dealing with allelic variation and the chromosomal basis of heredity, the theories of Darwin have been given more credence. In recent times, Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould have continued to promote natural selection as fundamental to evolutionary development, the former through synthesis of evolution and Mendelian genetics and the latter through his theory of punctuated equilibrium and the popularization of science in the general public.

         Today, Charles Darwin is remembered throughout the Galápagos Islands: Charles Darwin Avenue, Darwin Bay, Darwin Island, Charles Darwin Research Station, the bust of Charles Darwin on San Crístobal, Darwin's finches. After all, it was the initial fame of Darwin and his voyage around the world that brought attention to the islands, and with attention, tourist and money to the residents and the Ecuadorian government. It is interesting to note that Darwin is honored in this manner, not necessarily as the originator of an evolutionary theory which contains so much evidence present on, in, and around the islands. Ironically, 90% of the residents are Roman Catholic, and despite the evidence around them, many still do not believe in the theory of natural selection that has made their islands so famous.

         "The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career"; so says Darwin in his Autobiography. (76) Thus, his initial foray into natural history resulted in the decisive event of his career, with the Galápagos greatly contributing to this result. For university science students, Charles Darwin stands as a giant, along with the likes of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, in shaping our intellectual beliefs and mode of thinking. Through his work, we have gained a further appreciation of the Galapagos Islands scientifically, not just as a source of awe-inspiring geology and wonder-provoking animals. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, "Darwin did not change the islands, but only people's opinion of them."

Charles Darwin as an Elderly Man
Courtesy of the Interpretation Center
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, Galapagos


Below is a list of material on the Internet containing various information on the life, works, interests, and theories of Charles Darwin. Please feel free to continue browsing...

The Charles Darwin Research Foundation
Urbanowicz on Darwin by Dr. Charles F. Urbanowicz, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California State, Chico
The C. Warren Irvin, Jr. Collection of Charles Darwin and Darwiniana
The Darwin Page by Dr. Robert A. Hatch, University of Florida
The Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin's Finches

The Darwin-Wallace 1858 Evolution Paper, thanks to Drs. Reveal, Bottino, and Delwiche
On the Origin of Species
also On the Origin of Species
1st edition of On the Origin of Species
another copy of On the Origin of Species
The Voyage of the Beagle
also The Voyage of the Beagle
The Descent of Man
The Expression of Emotion in Plants and Animals

Darwin's Obituary, by T.H. Huxley
The Origins of Doubt and Rebirth of Praise, by Charles P. Henderson, Jr.
Darwin the Geologist, by Leo F. Laporte, University of California, Santa Cruz

Additional Reading

Darwin, Charles. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. ed. Nora Barlow. Collins Press: London, 1958.

Darwin, Charles. Diary of the Voyage of the H.M.S. "Beagle". ed. Paul Barrett and R. B. Freeman. NYU Press: New York, 1987.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species. Random House, Inc.: New York, 1993.

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. J.M. Dent & Sons: London, 1955.

Lack, David. Darwin's Finches. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1947.

Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. Harvard University Press, 1993.

Ospovat, Dov. The Development of Darwin's Theory. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 1981.

Pearson, David L. and Les Beletsky. The Ecotravellers' Wildlife Guide: Ecuador and its Galapagos Islands. Academic Press: San Diego, 2000.

Random House. Dictionary of Scientists. Random House: New York, 1997.

Roberts, David. History 174: Introduction to the History of Science. Lecture Notes, 2000.

Sullivan, Walter. "Introduction to The Voyage of the Beagle". Penguin Classics, 1989.

Treherne, J.E. Key Environments: Galapagos. Pergamon Press: Oxford, 1984.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Galapagos. Delta, 1999.

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