Charles Darwin and the Galapagos
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was born into a wealthy Shropshire family - his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the eponymous pottery firm. He was an unimpressive student. Having failed his medical studies at Edinburgh University he read theology at Christ’s College Cambridge. He planned to become a country clergyman so that he would have plenty of free time to pursue his growing interest in natural history but his theological studies failed too.
Fortunately in 1831 Captain Robert Fitzroy of the survey ship HMS Beagle was seeking a well educated naturalist and gentleman’s dining companion to join him and keep him sane on his forthcoming two-year, round-the-world surveying mission. Darwin was recommended and set out on this great adventure at the age of 22.
The Beagle’s voyage actually took nearer five years during which time Darwin investigated the geology and life of the places they visited, especially South America, the Galapagos Islands and Pacific coral reefs. For reading material he had taken with him works by Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Lyell’s new book, Principles of Geology, which proposed a new philosophy of science - that the world had been shaped by slow gradual cumulative processes over a long period of time, such as weathering by wind erosion, rather than great catastrophes like floods. Darwin also collected plant and animal specimens and fossils. He began to wonder why it was that some species found as fossils had become extinct in a region while others had not. There was evidence that the environment had sometimes changed but where had the new species come from?
Darwin did not come up with the answer during the Beagle voyage. This came a few years later, back in London while he was writing books about his travels and studying the specimens he had collected.
Darwin came to accept the then highly controversial view that life evolves and then he tried to understand how evolution worked. He was already familiar with the evolutionary theories proposed by his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and the French zoologist J.B. Lamarck and was greatly influenced by Rev Thomas Malthus’ writings on the relationship between population growth and food production. All species could breed enough to fill the earth – yet did not. Clearly many offspring did not survive. Darwin now thought in terms of the differences between those individuals who, for whatever reasons, left offspring and those who did not. He realised that if checks killed off some individuals but not others, the survivors would pass on their own form and abilities. This principle of inheritance led him to believe that the existing species in the world were related on a geological family tree through descent with modification. Darwin called this mechanism natural selection.
In the Galapagos Islands Darwin collected mockingbirds, barnacles and finches. He knew that slightly different species inhabited each specific island. Indeed the English Governor had remarked he could tell which island a tortoise came from by the shape of its shell. With his ideas of inheritance and divergence from an ancestral stock Darwin could show that the isolation provided by the Galapagos Islands allowed animal populations to diverge from the ancestral stock while adapting themselves to the local conditions of each island. Thus speciation, or the splitting into new species, could occur simply by ongoing variation, selection and inheritance in isolation from the ancestral population.
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Darwin & the Galapagos
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