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
By Frank J. Sulloway, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE , DECEMBER 2005, 531612212.5K
From the nine times I have made the 5,000-mile journey to the Galápagos Islands, to follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, the most enduring impression I have gained is of life’s fragility. The minute a person steps off any of the tourist trails created by the Galápagos National Park Service and heads into the untamed interior of one of these islands, there is the risk of death under the intense, equatorial sun. On Santa Cruz Island, where the Charles Darwin Research Station is located, 17 people have disappeared since 1990. Most were subsequently found alive after having become hopelessly lost in dense underbrush and rugged volcanic terrain. But some perished. One was a young Israeli tourist who lost his way in Santa Cruz’s Tortoise Reserve in 1991. A massive, two-month search failed to find him. In fact, some of the searchers themselves became lost and had to be rescued. In the end, fishermen discovered the young man’s body. A former Israeli tank commander, he had been in top physical condition, yet had managed to go only six miles before succumbing to the searing heat and lack of fresh water. A sign in the Tortoise Reserve says bluntly: “Stop. Do not go beyond this point. You could die.”
This is the deceptively treacherous world of sun-baked lava, spiny cactus and tangled brushwood into which Charles Darwin stepped in September 1835, when he reached the Galápagos Islands with fellow crew members of the HMS Beagle. The Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, described the barren volcanic landscape as “a shore fit for Pandemonium.” At 26, Darwin had come to the archipelago, which straddles the Equator some 600 miles west of Ecuador, as part of the Beagle’s five-year mission to survey the coast of South America and to conduct a series of longitudinal measurements around the globe. Darwin’s five-week visit to these remarkable islands catalyzed the scientific revolution that now bears his name.
Darwin’s revolutionary theory was that new species arise naturally, by a process of evolution, rather than having been created—forever immutable—by God. According to the well-established creationist theory of Darwin’s day, the exquisite adaptations of many species—such as the hinges of the bivalve shell and the wings and plumes on seeds dispersed by air—were compelling evidence that a “designer” had created each species for its intended place in the economy of nature. Darwin had wholeheartedly accepted this theory, which was bolstered by the biblical account in Genesis, until his experiences in the Galápagos Islands began to undermine this way of thinking about the biological world.
The Galápagos Islands were formed by volcanic eruptions in the recent geological past (the oldest of the islands emerged from...