Galapagos Islands

Galápagos Role in Darwinism

In thinking about the person who has touched Ecuador and had the greatest impact to this small country in South America, the honour likely goes to a Brit. Charles Darwin and his scientific legacy are known throughout the world, including the work he did in the Galápagos Islands. (Yes, I know some would say Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame–if the Ecuadorian Embassy in London counts!). Interestingly, Darwin’s stature seems to be growing in the Galápagos and in many parts of the world.

Our trip this week to the Galápagos led me to go back and revisit Darwin, bringing back many memories from days studying geology and his various writings involving evolution. In re-reading the Darwin collection and spending time in the Galápagos thinking about his contributions, we learned and noted several new aspects about Darwin and his role in contemporary thought.

The fortuitous nature of his trip. Darwin as a young man had been influenced by his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a noted philosopher and poet, and he had a keen interest in natural history. When Captain Fitzroy came looking for a naturalist to accompany him on a major trip to South America, Professor Henslow (Darwin’s physical sciences teacher) recommended him. This led the young Darwin (fresh out of Cambridge) to accompany him on a five year sailing journey to South America and other points from 1831 to 1835. His trip and many discoveries formed the foundation for his work the rest of his life and gave him the credibility to advance his ideas in a very compelling manner that his colleagues simply did not have.

The collegiality of the scientists of the day. Darwin was surrounded by many leading scientific figures, including Charles Lyell (the leading 19th century geologist and the namesake for the highest point in Yosemite), Jean Baptiste Lamarck (the initial commentator on biological evolution and he coined the term biology), Herbert Spencer (a leading philosophical evolutionist), James Hutton (the father of modern geology), Sir William Herschel (a leading astronomer), and many others. What seems foreign today is that these scientists were all sharing their ideas and working together. It does not appear that they were clamoring for the credit for the many new thoughts of the day, such as evolution or natural selection. Today, I am guessing there would be pressure on Darwin to publish his papers on his trip immediately upon his return. Instead, Darwin published his accounts in the “Voyage of the Beagle” a decade after his return in 1845 and the two seminal works: “The Origin of Species” in 1859 and the “Descent of Man” in 1871. In re-reading these accounts, I was struck by the humble nature of Darwin and his deference to his various colleagues.

Darwin was the great synthesizer. To be sure, Darwin did not discover or found evolutionary hypothesis, although he organized his thoughts based on his trips in a way that advanced these important concepts in many ways. His experience in the Galápagos and South America served him well for the rest of his life in providing empirical support for many of the theories of the day surrounding evolution and it gave him credibility with his peers in advancing these ideas. His major contribution for new thought was natural selection, where he was able to use scientific thought to prove that certain plants and animals have slowly evolved from simpler forms, with specific adaptations to the circumstances surrounding them.

Darwin is growing in stature. According to our naturalist on the trip, Paul McFarling, a Brit who has lived on the Islands for 30 years, the attention given to Darwin has grown in recent years. He attributes this primarily to the world-wide debate around evolution versus creationism.

A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island is interesting. His house in Shrewsbury, England is also preserved as a museum.

Posted by David Guy

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