Charles Darwin Galapagos

Solving Darwin’s Evolutionary Puzzle

On the occasion of Darwin’s birthday we examine his contribution to the Galapagos islands and the impact of the islands on his Theory of Evolution.

Charles Darwin is the most famous person in Galapagos history. The international scientific research station is named for him, as is Puerto Ayora’s main avenue (both on Santa Cruz Island). Wherever you look while visiting the isles, Darwin’s face appears on shop signs, t-shirts, coffee mugs and menus.

Darwin visited the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835. This short stay is credited with sparking his Theory of Evolution, published in On the Origin of Species. This was no Ah-ha! experience, however. Darwin’s development of this theory was more like a jigsaw puzzle.

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and ministry at Cambridge University. His studies suffered because of his true passion, natural history. During this time he was introduced to the blasphemous evolutionary ideas of French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and of his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

One of Darwin’s tutors, John Stevens Henslow, recommended him to be geologist for the Beagle’s new expedition. Upon reaching Brazil, Darwin also became the ship’s natural historian. While the Beagle surveyed the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, Darwin took excursions into the interior of the continent. He encountered many things that piqued his curiosity: dinosaur bones, giant oyster fossils, and evidence of ancient sea beds high in the Andes.

Upon arriving in the Galapagos, more pieces of the puzzle presented themselves. He landed on Chatham (San Cristobal), Charles (Floreana), Albemarle (Isabela) and James (Santiago) islands. Darwin began noticing that mockingbirds differed from island to island. He also made note of a comment by English Vice-Governor, Nicholas Lawson, who was also in the Galapagos: giant tortoise shells differed enough that he could “on seeing a tortoise, pronounce with certainty from which island it has been brought.”

After returning to England, Darwin reviewed the specimens collected during the Beagle’s five-year expedition. Classification of the Galapagos Mockingbirds revealed more pieces to the evolutionary puzzle – and it was these birds (not the Darwin’s finches) that helped to make the picture clearer in Darwin’s mind. It was then that he also realized he should have paid closer attention to what Vice-Governor Lawson had stated about species differing from island to island. As Darwin later wrote, “It never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.”

It would be several more decades of research before Darwin published his findings in On the Origin of Species (1859) and faced the backlash of the Anglican Church, which controlled the field of science and promoted Creationism.

How do you think we should celebrate Darwin’s contribution to Galapagos on his birthday? Leave your comment below.


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