Charles Darwin and Galapagos Islands


On our Galapagos cruise you cannot but help hear the name Charles Darwin. Every day we are reminded of his notable voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the H.M.S Beagle in 1835.

Born of well-to-do parents on February 12, 1809, he was the second son of Robert Waring Darwin II and Susannah Wedgewood, and the fifth of six children. Robert Darwin, a successful country doctor, also showed considerable talent at increasing the finances of the family fortune as a money-lender to nobility and others of the same social standing. This later allowed Charles Darwin the time to pursue his passion in natural history rather than work to make a living. Robert’s own father, Charles’ grandfather, was Erasmus Darwin, a notable physician and philosopher of the late eighteenth century who wrote the two-volume 1,400 page Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, an attempt to organize life into classes, orders, families, genera and species. Evolutionary ideas were not new in the Darwin household.

An unremarkable student in his early years, Charles Darwin was described by one biographer to have had “a youth unmarked by the slightest trace of genius.” The children lost their mother when Charles Darwin was eight years old, and in his own autobiography, Darwin remembers virtually nothing of his early years and the time spent at the local preparatory school in Shrewsbury. Much clearer are his memories of lessons self-taught, such as Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne, an account of the wildlife in and around a Hampshire village. Along with his cousin William Darwin Fox he became an avid collector of beetles, a passion that remained with him for his entire life. In fact this all-consuming determination to focus on the job at hand turned out to be characteristic of Darwin, later seen in his extraordinary dedication of years spent perfecting and finding supporting evidence for his theory of natural selection.

In time, Robert Darwin sent his youngest son Charles to learn medicine in the company of his older brother, Erasmus, to Edinburgh, Scotland. However, his first sight of surgery performed without anesthesia was enough to deter him from following in the family footsteps; besides which he felt confident his father would leave him enough land and means to survive comfortably without a profession, as many country gentlemen of means were want to do. Darwin showed considerable skill with a gun, and enjoyed his time out in the country, and so in this way passed his spare time to such an extent his father made the famous statement “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

At the suggestion of his father, Darwin finally ended up at Christ’s College, Cambridge University in the autumn of 1827. Throughout his years of study, whether in Edinburgh or Cambridge, Darwin was influenced by some of the top intellectual and scientific minds of the time. Through their writings or in their classrooms, Darwin became familiar with the latest thoughts and ideas. Of particular influence on his developing mind were exposure to Charles Lyell, geologist, and William Paley who argued for evidence of heavenly design. A strong friendship was also developed with Adam Sedgewick, Joseph Hooker and John Henslow, and it was this last that offered to Darwin the opportunity of a lifetime.

The letter had come through several hands to finally capture the attention of Henslow. The position of gentleman companion was being proposed by Capt. Robert FitzRoy for a hydrographic survey of South America organized under the auspices of the royal navy. The captain was looking for someone who could also help with the understanding of geological anomalies he had come across during his earlier visit to the region of Tierra del Fuego. Darwin also came from a social standing acceptable to the captain (essential for good mealtime conversations), and he had the finances available to pay his way as expected for a supernumerary passenger.

As is well known, the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle took five years to complete. It was only during the last year of the voyage that Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands where they stayed a grand total of five weeks. Of those five weeks, Darwin was allowed only 19 days on land. It was only on the return leg across the Pacific that Darwin opened some notebooks to start writing down some of his thoughts on what he had seen, and the conflict with much of what was understood to be the truth at the time.

Once back in England, Charles Darwin set himself the task of publishing scientific papers in order to become accepted in the scientific circles of the time. His career as a country clergyman was over before it even began. Darwin also married a woman from the Wedgewood family, his first cousin Emma, and they had ten children. He was forty-nine in 1858, a gentleman scientist living quietly in the Kent countryside respected by fellow biologists and well-liked by his wide and distinguished circle of acquaintances. After 20 years of studious and detailed experiments, correspondence, discussion and thought, he had formulated a theory on the origin of species by means of natural selection. He had already shared these thoughts with his closest friends, and so could ask their advice when he received a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace was in the Malay Archipelago, a self-made scientist who collected for a living. He had been ruminating on the same question as Darwin about the origin of species, had the right ideas, but no supporting evidence for his theory. In his letter he explained his idea to Darwin, who was horrified to realize it could have been used as an abstract for his own theory. Darwin advised him to write up a summary of his own work, and both papers were presented to the Linnean Society where not much attention was paid to either, at first.

Today, credit is given to both men for expressing clearly the role of natural selection in the origin of species. Charles Darwin, however, had 20 years of study and evidence to support his arguments and was present in England at the time it was published and subsequently discussed, threatened, cheered, and abhorred. Wallace was away on the other side of the world and of a different socioeconomic class with few supporters on the ground when it could have made a difference. Wallace, however, was pleased to have Charles Darwin champion the theory and never resented this arrangement during his lifetime.

Much can be read about Charles Darwin following the publication of the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. Much can also be read about what possible influences led up to his formation of the theory, how he went about putting his ideas together in a coherent manner and the effect publishing had on his life afterwards. Darwin wrote hundreds if not thousands of letters over his lifetime, and published numerous books and papers on various topics such as earthworms, orchids, the descent of man, expressions, and variations of animals and plants, to name just a few.

Darwin passed away on April 19, 1882 at 73 years of age. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, and although he would have preferred to stay in his beloved Shrewsbury, it was not to be. Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, of whom seven survived to adulthood. Only three provided Darwin with grandchildren, but subsequent generations have improved on the numbers. Of Darwin's five sons, three received knighthoods for services to science, botany, and engineering. Others linked to his family include the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and the novelist E. M. Forster. Today, there are an estimated 100 living descendants of Darwin. They include a novelist, a screenwriter, an expert in exotic tomatoes, and a church deacon.

In the Galapagos Islands many features are named after Charles Darwin: Darwin Volcano, Isla Darwin, and Darwin Bay, not to mention the numerous species named in honor of his being the first to recognize them as unique to the islands. The H.M.S Beagle as well as Captain Robert FitzRoy were not forgotten either, as various islands, and rocks testify. On our Galapagos cruise you will hear their names….frequently!

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