Charles Darwin’s Observations in the Galápagos Islands

HMS Beagle by Conrad Martens

Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 was a groundbreaking adventure because it served as the catalyst for his writings on the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s findings on the Galápagos Islands were instrumental to his insights from the 5-year journey. Its volcanic profile prompted the species in the area to adapt to survive in their environment. Observations of this phenomenon led Darwin to gather more information on his theory of evolution and compile his evidence from more locations in the book On the Origin of Species. The naturalist’s idea that all species came from a common ancestor contrasted with the more accepted belief in Creationism which describes God as the sole creator of life on earth. 

Prior to the Trip on the HMS Beagle

In 1831, Darwin had just left Cambridge, where he studied the work Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity written by William Paley. The Christian clergyman and philosopher forwarded the idea that nature was designed by the divine. In addition, Darwin also read Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy by John Herschel, released that same year. He was immersed in his education and aimed to prepare for his career after graduation. To do so, he enrolled in a geology course taught by Adam Sedgwick, one of the pioneering figures in modern geology. Through this course, Darwin joined Sedgwick in his travels to map strata in Wales. 

Once Darwin came home from Wales, he received a letter from his botany professor and close friend, John Stevens Henslow. The man was looking for a gentleman and naturalist to join captain Robert FitzRoy in his journey on the HMS Beagle; however, Darwin’s father, Robert Waring Darwin, was against the idea of his son going on the trip. Josiah Wedgwood II, Robert Darwin’s brother-in-law, convinced Robert to acquiesce to his son’s passion. The younger Darwin enjoyed collecting specimens of living creatures, plants, rocks, and other artifacts. Wedgwood went so far as to pay for Charles Darwin’s fees for the voyage.

Journey on the HMS Beagle

The HMS Beagle left Portsmouth on December 27, 1831. Darwin wrote about the voyage in his correspondence and journals found in his archives. He suffered from seasickness and argued with the captain, FitzRoy, several times. They differed in their beliefs about the captivity of slaves from Brazil. Darwin was vehemently opposed to this decision. 

Arrival at the Galápagos Islands

Despite the fame that the Galápagos Islands received after Darwin’s writings, it was only nearing the 3rd year that the HMS Beagle was at sea when the group arrived at the Galápagos Islands. They mapped the islands and surveyed the area. They first stepped on San Crístobal Island (referred to as “Chatham Island” by English travelers).

Darwin took extensive notes regarding his time on the different islands. The main islands are Baltra Island, Bartolomé Island, Chinese Hat Islet, Eden Islet, Española Island, Fernandina Island, Floreana Island, Genovesa Island, Isabela Island, Mosquera Islet, North Seymour Island, Rábida Island, San Cristóbal Island, Santa Cruz Island, Santa Fe Island, ,Santiago Island, South Plaza Island. These places had varying wildlife and geography, which was what instigated Darwin’s discovery of the theory of evolution by natural selection. 

The English voyagers stayed on the islands for five weeks. Specifically, they only went to Floreana, Isabella, San Cristobal, and Santiago islands. Darwin wrote down significant details regarding the eating patterns, weights, pacing, weight, and height of the species of different animals. The Galápagos tortoises were massive, and he and the crew often ate the animals in their soup. He also noted that the location had aquatic iguanas, a piece of information that pointed toward his theory. 

Many of his notes discussed the birds and terrain of the area. In particular, he wrote about 13 finches from different islands but had mistaken them for different species of birds, still influenced by the more popularly held belief favoring creationism at the time. Another bird of interest for him was the mockingbird. There were 4 species of mockingbirds across the islands. He collected samples of all the kinds of birds he could find, and later on, the ornithologist John Gould analyzed their bodies. Despite their importance, the birds were not mentioned in On the Origin of Species.

Regarding the tortoises on the islands, Darwin gathered from the people on the islands that they could tell which island the tortoise came from based on their shells. However, Darwin did not think to preserve any shells to bring home despite the group consuming 48 tortoises. His contemporaries thought that the buccaneers brought tortoises to the Galápagos Islands as there were also similar tortoises in the Indian Ocean. Darwin brought two newly hatched tortoises back to their homeland, but observations of them were futile as variations in their shell patterns were more evident in their adult forms. Although the tortoises from the islands were also of great importance to Darwin’s work, his book eventually only dedicated a short portion to them. After the group completed their objective of collecting specimens on the islands, they traveled to Tahiti and arrived in November 1835. Darwin would reach English soil on October 2, 1836. He then went home to Shrewsbury. 

Back Home

It took Darwin some years and much reading to write On the Origin of Species and formulate his theory on natural selection. He studied Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology which tackled the changes to the earth’s crust. Lyell’s purported that these changes happened over long periods of time, affirming Darwin’s thoughts that species also spent long periods of time in their transmutation. His data from the Galápagos Islands were integral to these observations as the species from different environments were both similar but had multiple variations. 

Modern-Day Connections

The Charles Darwin Research Station, or CDRS, was inaugurated in 1964. It can be found in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island of the Galápagos Islands. The facility helps conserve and restore the biodiversity in the archipelago. The non-profit organization, Charles Darwin Foundation, organizes wildlife preservation and sustainable development projects in the area. Both are named after the esteemed biologist Charles Darwin.