Special Report

How Australia Put Evolution on Darwin’s Mind

The famous naturalist’s revolutionary theory first took shape not in the Galápagos but in the primeval Blue Mountains

“You could say that saving species is in my blood,” says Chris Darwin, a conservationist who lives in the mountains explored by his great-great-grandfather. (Adam Hollingworth / Hired Gun)
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Today, visitors can follow Darwin’s route, beginning at Sydney’s spectacular ferry terminal at Circular Quay, where the Beagle weighed anchor in front of today’s Opera House, and traveling the Great Western Highway into the crisp mountain air. In the village of Wentworth Falls, the old Weatherboard Inn where Darwin spent the night is long gone, although his bush trail has been preserved as the Charles Darwin Walk, and it still makes the most exhilarating introduction to the Blue Mountains. The two-mile path follows a creek through a waterlogged forest, known as “hanging swamp,” that is alive with native birds, including honeyeaters and screeching black cockatoos feasting on banksia trees, whose flowers resemble spiky yellow brushes. It opens up with a flourish above the 614-foot-high waterfall, with untouched views of those golden cliffs.

It’s easy to see why Darwin was taken with the primeval view: One almost expects a long-necked dinosaur to lumber into the scene at any moment. Human settlement has always felt tentative here. The region was thinly populated by early aboriginal inhabitants compared with the warmer hunting grounds of the coast, although the people here did leave their mark in cave paintings of animals and hand prints. With white settlement, a few roadside pubs and mining outposts took hold, and in the Victorian age, scenic villages such as Katoomba and Blackheath became vacation resorts. Honeymooners from Sydney marveled at the Three Sisters, a trio of sandstone sculptural forms rising from the bush, and the Jenolan Caves, the world’s oldest cave complex, its 25 miles of tunnels filled with gleaming white stalactites and stalagmites of unearthly beauty. The American naturalist John Muir stopped by on his 1904 world tour. Today, the Blue Mountains still boast historic hotels like Lilianfels, where you can take tea and scones in rattan chairs, and the Hydro Majestic, a sprawling Art Deco gem reopened last year after a decade-long renovation.

The real attraction—the wilderness—still has a huge following of devoted Australian bushwalkers. Today, seven national parks and an additional reserve are combined into the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, whose 2.5 million acres encompass underground rivers, spectacular waterfalls and natural swimming holes. Some of its slot canyons are so steep that they have reportedly never been visited by humans. There is a sense that anything can still be found here—a feeling that was proven in 1994, when a young fieldworker for the park service stumbled across a plant species that scientists had believed extinct for two million years. 

David Noble was on a weekend hiking trip in a northern park with two friends, rappelling into remote canyons and spelunking. “I wasn’t looking for anything new or unusual,” he recalled. “We picked a gully off the map at random to explore.” As the trio stopped for lunch in a sheltered niche, Noble observed a cluster of unfamiliar trees looming over them 60 to 100 feet tall, and took a clipping back to the park lab. The staff biologist was unable to recognize it, and a more scientific excursion was arranged. It was soon ascertained that the tree, the Wollemi pine, matched fossils from the Jurassic era.

The discovery caused a sensation in scientific circles and among the Australian public, with tabloids calling the pine a “living dinosaur.” The original location of the specimens remains undisclosed to deter souvenir hunters and to protect the vulnerable plants from disease. But the tree has since been cultivated; the public can see the pine in botanical gardens around Australia (including the hugely popular Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney), Europe, Taiwan and Japan and some places in North America, including at the Kingsbrae Garden in New Brunswick, Canada. “Is there anything else out there in the mountains?” Noble mused. “Well, I didn’t expect to find the Wollemi pine! If you look at the sheer [enormousness] of the parks, I wouldn’t be surprised what turns up.”

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From the Jamison Valley, Charles Darwin headed to the frayed edges of colonial settlement, descending the western flanks of the mountains via Victoria Pass. The climax of his trip occurred in an unexpected setting, a lonely sheep station (Australian for ranch) called Wallerawang, where he put up for two nights with the superintendent, an amiable Scot named Andrew Browne. Darwin found the sandstone homestead sorely lacking (“not even one woman resided here”) and the young gent’s sensibilities were offended by the convict farmhands—“hardened, profligate men,” he judged, heavy-drinking, violent and “quite impossible to reform.” But, inspired as ever by nature, he made a horseback day trip on January 19 down into the glorious Wolgan Valley, where he collected rock samples. The fauna fired his imagination, as he noted the kangaroo rat (also called a potoroo), electric-hued rosellas (native birds) and sulphur-crested cockatoos.

But his safari became more profound back at the Wallerawang homestead, when Darwin followed a stream in the cool of dusk and “had the good fortune to see several of the famous Platypus,” playing in the water. These wildly peculiar monotremes (egg-laying mammals) were behaving exactly like the water rats he knew back home in England. His companion, Browne, helpfully shot one so that Darwin could examine it more closely.

In the waning sun, Darwin sat by the creek and pondered why the animals of Australia were so eccentric in appearance. The kangaroo rats had behaved just like English rabbits, and even as he considered this, a fierce-looking Australian ant lion dug the same conical pit before his eyes as the smaller English ant lion would do. According to Frank Nicholas, a now-retired animal geneticist and co-author (with his wife, Jan) of Charles Darwin in Australia, this was a key moment: “The obvious question was, if you were an omnipotent creator, why would you bother going to all the trouble of designing two different species to occupy very similar ecological niches?”

Darwin’s diary entry for this day has become widely studied: “A Disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim, ‘Surely two distinct creators must have been (at) work; their object however has been the same & certainly in each case the end is complete.’” But the radical difference between the species was baffling: “Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance?” The remarks were expressed in cautious terms, Nicholas argues, because Darwin knew his notebooks would be read by Christian relatives back home. (He adds a hasty Creationist disclaimer: “I cannot think so. —The one hand has worked over the whole world.”) But one thing is certain, Nicholas says: “This was the first time that Darwin put such a question on paper.” Only when writing On the Origin of Species did he accept the implications of his heretical thought—that different species had in fact evolved from the same origin over millions of years, changing their characteristics to suit their environments. 

“It would be one of the great understatements to call this a portentous moment,” writes University of Sydney professor Iain McCalman in Darwin’s Armada. “At no other time on the Beagle voyage did Darwin raise the issue, and afterwards he buried it for a further twenty years.” In retrospect, it is as much of a eureka moment as Isaac Newton’s storied encounter with an apple. “One thinks of Charles Darwin as a cold scientist,” adds Chris Darwin, “but there was real passion there. He could stare for hours at an ant’s nest, or a rose in a garden. In Wallerawang, he sat by himself, gazing at the dead platypus for hour after hour, thinking ‘It just doesn’t make sense.’ Why had God made the water rat for Europe and North America, and the platypus for Australia? It’s terrifying, really.”

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Today, Wallerawang is a drowsy pastoral town with a pub or two. Instead of the farm where Darwin stayed, there is now a muddy dam. It was created in 1979 to supply a power station, sadly submerging the colonial homestead. Since then, local pride in the connection to Charles Darwin has blossomed. An elderly woman living in a caravan tended a small municipal park named after the naturalist, dominated by a sign: “Please Do Not Steal the Plants.” A few rocks have been arranged as an official memorial to the 1836 visit, complete with a bronze platypus statue. 

The nearby Wolgan Valley, however, which Darwin saw on his day trip, still offers an unchanged view of the 1836 frontier. It’s Australia’s answer to Monument Valley, an otherworldly plain surrounded by mesas, like an arena of the gods. The core 4,000 acres are now a nature reserve as part of the luxurious Emirates Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, where guests have their own bungalows, each with a private swimming pool. The facility was created (surreally enough) by Emirates Group, the parent company of the airlines, to offset the carbon footprint of its aircraft. (It also has a grove of Wollemi pine saplings, not far from a stream where platypuses can sometimes be spotted at dusk.)

My ultimate goal was one of the oldest structures in the Blue Mountains—a farmhouse dating from 1832 still nestled in a pasture with stunning views of the valley. As the only white habitation in the valley at the time of Darwin’s trip, the naturalist would almost certainly have visited. One of the tour guides now employed at the property, Nicholas Burrell, wearing an Akubra hat and R.M. Williams work boots, opened up the doors to the empty homestead for me, as wind whistled through the wooden boards, and opened a dark shed that had housed the farm’s ten convicts. “I’ve got convicts on two sides of my family,” Burrell assured me. Most modern Australians take pride in tracing criminal ancestors: Convicts were usually deported for petty theft or other minor offenses, and they are now seen as victims of an unfair system, creating a reverse aristocracy. Burrell then showed me the mummified corpse of a rabbit, discovered by archaeologists when the foundations of the homestead were raised during restoration. It had been buried under a corner post, an old Scottish tradition, he says, to protect the house from evil spirits. 

In a country that once gave little heed to its past, the homestead is a rare survivor. For me, standing on the creaking porch hung with rusty tools, I could finally imagine the young Darwin gazing out at this same ancient landscape, his imagination racing.

***

One of the many astute observations Charles Darwin made on his 1836 Australian tour was that the country’s native wildlife was in long-term peril. While staying at Wallerawang, he saw English greyhounds easily chase down a potoroo, and noted that, thanks to overhunting, farming and introduced predators, settled areas around Sydney were already devoid of marsupials and emus. In a startling continuity across the generations, Darwin’s great-great-grandson Chris has joined the campaign to halt extinction in Australia. “My ancestor Charles discovered the origin of species,” Chris told me. “I want to stop their mass disappearance.” 

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