The 180th Anniversary of Charles Darwin in the Galápagos

Charles Darwin painted by g. richomnd

Charles Darwin painted by g. richomnd

On September 15th 1835, Charles Darwin arrived in the Galápagos aboard the HMS Beagle.  His experiences in the islands revolutionized our understanding of the natural sciences.  

The grandson of two famous Englishmen: Erasmus Darwin, physician and early evolutionary theorist, and Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the Wedgwood pottery works, both abolitionists.. Darwin’s views on slavery contrasted with many of his peers.

Although Charles showed an early passion for natural history, formal schooling was not to his liking.  Charles Darwin abandoned medical school and by his own account, his three years at Cambridge were mostly wasted. He preferred hunting and riding to studying.  At Cambridge he became friends with noted botanist John Sevens Henslow.

It was Henslow who suggested Darwin travel aboard the HMS Beagle as an intellectual companion for Captain Robert FitzRoy.  The original mission of the Beagle was to map the coastline of South America.  Darwin and Fitzroy got along during the voyage, but as a staunch Biblical literalist, FitzRoy was acutely pained by The Origins of Species.

While in Cape Verde, Darwin started collecting specimens of rock and marine invertebrates. He impressed the ship's doctor and the voyage's official naturalist Robert McCormick to such a degree that by the time HMS Beagle reached Brazil, McCormick quit the expedition, leaving Darwin as the official naturalist.

In the Galapagos, it was the mockingbird not the finch which first attracted Darwin's attention. Together with the land tortoise, Darwin noted the unique distinctions of shape and size which varied from island to island.

The HMS Beagle eventually returned to England after 5 years and circling the southern hemisphere. Darwin suffered from horrible sea sickness the entire voyage. Once home, he never again left England.

Darwin's first book, The Voyage of the Beagle, was published shortly after his return to England and contained a vivid account of his travels and scientific observations, but did not advance any theories. His now famous On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life was published 20 years later, after Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay describing the same idea. 

Darwin published scientific studies until his death in 1882. In addition to natural selection, he wrote on coral reefs, volcanic islands, geology, barnacles, insectivorous plants, plant fertilization, domesticated plants and animals, flowers, expressions of emotions in man and animal, orchids, and earthworms. 

He expected to be buried at his family home, however at the petition of the Royal Society, Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, his funeral attended by thousands.