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Portrait of Charles Darwin (J. Cameron)

The Evolution of Charles Darwin

A creationist when he visited the Galápagos Islands, Darwin grasped the significance of the unique wildlife he found there only after he returned to London

Darwin’s first reflections about evolution were an afterthought, written during the last leg of the Beagle voyage, nine months after his Galápagos visit. (I owe this historical insight to a curious fact—Darwin was a lousy speller. In 1982 I was able to date Darwin’s earliest and previously undated writings about possible species transformations by analyzing changes in Darwin’s pattern of misspellings during the voyage.) While in the Galápagos, Darwin was far more interested in the islands’ geology than their zoology. We know, moreover, from the complete record of his unpublished scientific notes that he was personally dubious about evolution. For nearly a year and a half following his Galápagos visit, he believed that the tortoises and mockingbirds were probably “only varieties,” a conclusion that did not threaten creationism, which allowed for animals to differ slightly in response to their environments. According to creationist theory, species were a bit like elastic bands. The environment could induce variation, but the inevitable pull of the immutable “type”—which was thought to be an idea in the mind of God—caused species to revert to their original forms. For the creationist, all variation from the “type” was limited by an impassable barrier between true species.

Darwin’s initial failure to appreciate the case for evolution stems in large part from a widely mistaken assumption about the tortoises. Naturalists thought that giant tortoises had been introduced to the Galápagos by buccaneers who had transported them from the Indian Ocean, where similar tortoises are present on several islands. This confusion explains Darwin’s astonishing failure to collect even a single specimen for scientific purposes. He and his servant did take back to England, as pets, two baby tortoises. Those juvenile tortoises further misled Darwin, because differences among subspecies are evident only in adults. Not realizing the importance of tortoises for the theory he would eventually develop about the origins and diversity of living things, Darwin and his fellow shipmates ate their way through 48 adult tortoise specimens and threw their shells overboard.

Darwin’s famous finches also misled him at first. There are 14 finch species in the Galápagos that have all evolved from a single ancestor over the past few million years. They have become one of the most famous cases of species adapting to different ecological niches. From Darwin’s specimen notebooks, it is clear he was fooled into thinking that some of the unusual finch species belonged to the families they have come to mimic through a process called convergent evolution. For example, Darwin thought the cactus finch, whose long, probing beak is specialized for obtaining nectar from cactus flowers (and dodging cactus spines), might be related to birds with long, pointed bills, such as meadowlarks and orioles. He also mistook the warbler finch for a wren. Not realizing that all of the finches were closely related, Darwin had no reason to suppose that they had evolved from a common ancestor, or that they differed from one island to another.

My own discovery, more than 30 years ago, that Darwin had misidentified some of his famous Galápagos finches led me to the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, in England. There I found a manuscript trail that poked further holes in the legend that these birds precipitated an immediate “aha” moment. It was only after Darwin’s return to England, when experts in herpetology and ornithology began to correct his Galápagos reports, that he realized the extent of his collecting oversights and misidentifications. In particular, Darwin had failed to label most of his Galápagos birds by island, so he lacked the crucial evidence that would allow him to argue that different finch species had evolved separately while isolated on different islands of the Galápagos group.

Five months after his return to England, in March 1837, Darwin met with ornithologist John Gould. Five years older than Darwin, Gould was just beginning to become known for his beautifully illustrated monographs on birds, which today are highly prized collectors’ items. One of my most unexpected discoveries in the Darwin archives was the piece of paper on which Darwin recorded his crucial meeting with Gould. This manuscript clearly shows how Darwin’s thinking began to change as a result of Gould’s astute insights about the Galápagos birds. Unlike Darwin, Gould had instantly recognized the related nature of the Galápagos finches, and he also persuaded Darwin, who questioned him closely on the subject, that three of his four Galápagos mockingbirds were separate species rather than “only varieties.” Gould also informed Darwin that 25 of his 26 land birds from the Galápagos were new to science, as well as unique to those islands.

Gould’s taxonomic judgments finally caused Darwin to embrace the theory of evolution. Stunned by the realization that evolving varieties could break the supposedly fixed barrier that, according to creationism, prevents new species from forming, he quickly sought to rectify his previous collecting oversights by requesting island locality information from the carefully labeled collections of three Beagle shipmates. Two of these collections, by Captain FitzRoy and FitzRoy’s steward,
Harry Fuller, contained 50 Galápagos birds, including more than 20 finches. Even Darwin’s servant, Covington, had done what Darwin had not, labeling by island his own personal collection of finches, which were later acquired by a private collector in England. The birth of the Darwinian revolution was a highly collaborative enterprise.

The case for evolution presented by this shared ornithological evidence nevertheless remained debatable for nearly a decade. Darwin was not entirely convinced Gould was right that all the finches were separate species, or even that they were all finches. Darwin also knew that, without specimens in hand, island-to-island differences among the tortoises were contestable, even though a French herpetologist told a delighted Darwin in 1838 that at least two species of tortoise existed in the islands.

In 1845 Darwin’s botanist friend Joseph Hooker gave Darwin the definitive evidence he needed to support his theory. Hooker analyzed the numerous plants that Darwin had brought back from the Galápagos. Unlike the birds, the plants all had accurate localities attached to them—not because Darwin had collected the plants with evolutionary theory in mind, but because plants have to be preserved in plant presses shortly after being collected. Hence the specimens from each island had all been pressed together, rather than being intermixed. Hooker eventually identified more than 200 species, half of which were unique to the Galápagos. Of these, three-quarters were confined to single islands—yet other islands often possessed closely related forms also found nowhere else on earth. At last, Darwin had the kind of compelling evidence that he felt he could really trust. As he wrote to Hooker: “I cannot tell you how delighted & astonished I am at the results of your examination; how wonderfully they support my assertion on the differences in the animals of the different islands, about which I have always been fearful.”


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