Charles Darwin at the Galapagos Islands

Charles Darwin and the secrets of the Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands are famous for their abundance of wildlife, which inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Robyn Williams retraces Darwin's footsteps and discovers that not all that much has changed off the coast of Ecuador.

It is staggering to recall how very young both men were: only 22 when they set out. By the time they reached Galapagos in 1835, they were still just 26.

Charles Darwin didn’t embark on the good ship Beagle in 1831to be its official natural historian—he did that to amuse himself. It wasn’t as a priest—Darwin’s theological education didn’t get very far and he was not inclined to be a vicar. In fact, Darwin was there on what turned out to be one of the most famous voyages in human history as a companion for the captain, Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy was upper class and the rest of the crew wasn’t; without Darwin, the captain would have dined every day for five years with no one to talk to. Socialising outside your social position was not permitted.

As it was, despite the proper class alignment, their interaction was strained. FitzRoy was a High Tory (he had, indeed, stood for parliament as a Conservative) and young Darwin even then was much liberal and came from one of the most enlightened families in England. When his views on evolution and the possible absence of God became known to FitzRoy, the relationship became even more tense.

It is staggering to recall how very young both men were: only 22 when they set out. By the time they reached the Galapagos in 1835, they were still just 26. Yet their five weeks on these astonishing volcanic islands an hour’s flight from the coast of Ecuador were to change history and the intellectual life of the modern world forever.

I was intensely aware of this as I set foot on Santiago, my first island, in January this year. ‘Was Charles Darwin really here on this spot, ’ I asked my guide? ‘Assuredly, ’ he replied, ‘we have his diary recording what he did here. It is well understood.’

Image: Sea Lions (Taro Regan Williams) Image: Sullivan Bay (Taro Regan Williams)

The Galapagos, like Machu Picchu in Peru, is a renowned site that’s even more spectacular and enthralling than you expect. And it’s much larger. There are 16 main islands, which are all different because they were formed as the continental plate moved over a hot spot deep in the Earth, shooting volcanic peaks upward, to be worn away over the millennia. Some are now mountainous crags, some have become flattened discs and others mere rims of sunken caldera with most of their abundant life cavorting underwater or in the air. Darwin noticed that each special environment has its own quite different population of creatures and plants. Time had sorted them and done so, it turned out, very quickly. There were few predators to stop the iguanas, giant tortoises and unique birds (such as the famous blue-footed boobies) from multiplying and producing the variety of offspring needed to adapt successfully.

And, yes, they are not only abundant but thrillingly unbothered by the likes of us. You can stroll among them as you please, without getting too close so that you don’t transmit germs or smells. At one island, the one with ferrous red rocks and sand, a sea-lion was giving birth as our rubber boat reached the shore. The pup was licked and gradually moved away from the lapping waves by its energetic mother as a ring of tourists looked on from one side. Meanwhile, a ring of sea lions watched as a mockingbird hopped in and greedily pecked at the crimson afterbirth.

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Tortoises at Dawn, Galapagos Islands, 1984

by sunnydaze4u2

“The Galapagos Islands provide a window on time. In a geological sense, the islands are young, yet they appear ancient. The largest animals native to this famed archipelago are giant tortoises, which can live for more than a century. These are the creatures that provided Charles Darwin with the flash of imagination that led to his theory of evolution. Today their populations are reduced on most islands. But inside the Alcedo volcano on Isabela Island I experienced a world where giant tortoises still roamed in ancient abundance

FREE Darwin Lecture Tonight

by FranklinInstitute

6:30pm TONIGHT (10/24)--FREE
Two, 150-pound Galapagos turtles are on display at The Franklin Institute’s Darwin exhibit. These turtles, along with hundreds of other Galapagos creatures are what sparked Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Nearly 200 years later, the islands still play a crucial part in our environment and evolution. Discover the reasons why the Galapagos Islands still matter and what relevance they have in the 21st century. This 3-part Darwin lecture series begins with a panel discussion featuring Galapagos Conservancy President, Johannah Barry; Dr. Ken Petren, Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Cincinnati, and Dr

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Book (The University of North Carolina Press)


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