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Why did Charles Darwin find his inspiration in the Galapagos Islands?

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Charles Darwin, born on February 12th, 1809, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England - died on April 19th, 1882, Downe, Kent, English naturalist whose scientific theory of evolution by natural selection became the foundation of modern evolutionary studies.

An affable country gentleman, Darwin at first shocked religious Victorian society by suggesting that animals and humans shared a common ancestry. However, his nonreligious biology appealed to the rising class of professional scientists, and by the time of his death evolutionary imagery had spread through all of science, literature, and politics.

The young Darwin learned much in Edinburgh’s rich intellectual environment, but not medicine: he loathed anatomy, and (pre-chloroform) surgery sickened him. His freethinking father, shrewdly realizing that the church was a better calling for an aimless naturalist, switched him to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1828. In a complete change of environment, Darwin was now educated as an Anglican gentleman. He took his horse, indulged his drinking, shooting, and beetle-collecting passions with other squires’ sons, and managed 10th place in the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1831. Here he was shown the conservative side of botany by a young professor, the Reverend John Stevens Henslow, while that doyen of Providential design in the animal world, the Reverend Adam Sedgwick, took Darwin to Walesin 1831 on a geologic field trip.

Fired by Alexander von Humboldt’s account of the South American jungles in his Personal Narrative of Travels, Darwin jumped at Henslow’s suggestion of a voyage to Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, aboard a rebuilt brig, HMS Beagle. Darwin would not sail as a lowly surgeon-naturalist but as a self-financed gentleman companion to the 26-year-old captain, Robert Fitzroy, an aristocrat who feared the loneliness of command. Fitzroy’s was to be an imperial-evangelical voyage: he planned to survey coastal Patagonia to facilitate British trade and return three “savages” previously brought to England from Tierra del Fuego and Christianized. Darwin equipped himself with weapons, books (Fitzroy gave him the first volume of Principles of Geology, by Charles Lyell), and advice on preserving carcasses from London Zoo’s experts. The Beagle sailed from England on December 27, 1831.

182345 004 E1A39516Onboard of the HMS Beagle

The circumnavigation of the globe would be the making of the 22-year-old Darwin. Five years of physical hardship and mental rigour, imprisoned within a ship’s walls, offset by wide-open opportunities in the Brazilian jungles and the Andes Mountains, were to give Darwin a new seriousness. As a gentleman naturalist, he could leave the ship for extended periods, pursuing his own interests. As a result, he spent only 18 months of the voyage aboard the ship.

On 1835, Darwin landed on the “frying hot” Galapagos Islands. Those were volcanic prison islands, crawling with marine iguanas and giant tortoises. 

Darwin observed the giant tortoises (and, unfortunately, ate many of them), iguanas and sea lions on the Galapagos, but it was the enormous variety of birds on the islands that especially captured his attention. Eighty-five percent of Galapagos birds can't be found anywhere else, including the famous finches. Thirteen species of finch are endemic to the Galapagos Islands, similar in look except for the distinct shapes and sizes of their beaks. The different beaks allow them to take advantage of the unique food sources of their particular island. Some eat like woodpeckers, others use sticks to dig insects out of holes, and still others are nourished by ticks and mites plucked from the backs of tortoises.

Theory of evolution

Darwin made careful observations of the peculiar birds on each island, but did not have his great eureka! moment about evolution while on the Galapagos, contrary to popular belief. It was only in 1839, after comparing his notes with fellow scientists, that Darwin's observations jelled into a theory with a name - natural selection. Each living thing that Darwin cataloged had adapted to its specific environment over many generations because its ancestor possessed characteristics favorable to its survival and the survival of its offspring, he supposed.

The idea that animals develop gradually from simpler to more complex organisms was not a new one - naturalists had proposed that theory in the late 18th century - but it was the ""how"" of this transformation that eluded scientists. Natural selection, as displayed in real time in the Galapagos Islands connected the dots. With the groundwork essentially laid, Darwin went about collecting evidence to support the then heretical notion that his observations in the Galapagos could be applied to all animals, including humans. It took 20 more years before he felt comfortable enough to publish his work in "The Origin of Species."

What did he discover?

The explanation proposed by Darwin of The Origin of Species and the mechanism of natural selection, in the light of the scientific knowledge of the time, constitutes a great step in the coherence of the knowledge of the living world and of the ideas on evolution present previously. It was a theory composed of a wide range of sub-theories that neither conceptually nor historically were inseparable. Fundamentally, the two great theories defended about the origin were: on one hand, the theory of the common origin or community of descent, in which very varied evidence is integrated into the favor of the fact of evolution, and, on the other hand, the theory of natural selection, which establishes the mechanism of evolutionary change. Darwin sought to solve the two great problems of natural history: the unity of type and the conditions of existence.

Why are the islands an Ecuadorian iconic destination?

Galapagos Islands are rightly famous but one further reason is that because of the lack of natural predators due to the volcanic origin of the islands and their remoteness, the animals are extremely tame and without instinctual fear. You can literally sit down next to a sea lion on a beach or pose for a photo next to an iguana and the animals will not budge.

There are extremely few places in the world where you can get so close to the animals which in turn leads to amazing photo opportunities. Stunning landscapes, obliging animals and azure seas in the background mean that the Galapagos is also a world-class destination for photography.

When you read more generally about the Galapagos Islands one word keeps popping up and that word is “unique”. It is an over-used adjective to the point that these days it almost crops up on a daily basis and we can hear about the unique beauty of a person or place or the unique properties of some technology. But in the case of the Galapagos islands the mixture of geography, geology, large number of endemic animals and above all the scientific history connecting the islands to Darwin and the theory of evolution combines to make the Galapagos a truly unique destination which is exactly why UNESCO refers to them as a “..unique living museum”.

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