143 – Charles Darwin: Surprising Truths, part 1

With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, there is a lot of attention being paid to this great man. It is a good time to talk about some of the surprising truths about his life and achievements.

When I was growing up, my grandfather had a wonderful collection of books about science. There were books about wildlife, astronomy, geography and anthropology, but the one that really captured my imagination was a book about evolution. Whenever we visited I would be sure to spend time poring over that book.

As I grew up I remained fascinated by evolution and natural selection, but for some reason I wasn’t very interested in Charles Darwin. I knew he was a clever bloke who’d had a very good idea but my interest did not go much further than that. Without trying, mainly from television, I picked up the usual stories and myths about his life and work.

When my grandfather died, I inherited his science books, including a very fat biography of Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. It sat, unread, on my bookshelf for some years until one day, on a whim, I took it down and started to browse through it. Immediately I was hooked. I devoured the book and, when finished, I immediately read it again.

I realised that Darwin was not just clever; he was an amazing person, with an extraordinary story. I also found that many of the stories and impressions that I had collected from the popular media were inaccurate or distorted. The reality was even better, and often surprising.

Darwin was a rather uninspiring character prior to his five-year voyage around the world on the navy ship the Beagle. His performance at school was not outstanding, and he dropped out of medical studies in Edinburgh. His father worried about his apparent aimlessness. The Beagle trip transformed his knowledge, his confidence and his life plans, and his published Journal about the voyage established him as an important figure in natural science.

Darwin was primarily invited on the trip, not as a naturalist, but because of his upper-class background, which would allow him to provide the right sort of companionship to the ship’s captain, Robert Fitzroy. The main purpose of the voyage was to improve maps of the coast and waters of South America. The ship sailed with an official naturalist on board, but it was not Darwin! Nevertheless Captain Fitzroy provided Darwin with a lot of support for him to undertake his research and collect his specimens. Darwin was not paid for the five years of the trip and indeed his father had to cover all his expenses. Then and later, his family wealth and position were crucial to his eventual success.

In reading about his visit to the Galapagos Islands I realised that my impressions about it were quite inaccurate. It was really just a stop off point on the way home from the real work in South America, rather than a main reason for the trip. For Darwin, it was decidedly not the Eureka experience that I had been led to believe. Actually Darwin was hugely homesick throughout the visit and perhaps was not as attentive as he should have been. A key piece of evidence for evolution was the way that turtles varied among the islands, but Darwin himself didn’t even notice this until it was pointed out by others. Even then, he didn’t appreciate the full significance of the observation until back in England over a year later. His first inkling of the idea of natural selection came a further year after that, not while gazing at Galapagos turtles.

Similarly, with the famous Darwin finches, he was two steps behind. The specialised adaptation of finches into many vacant niches on the islands became one of his key illustrations of evolution, but while in the Galapagos Islands, Darwin didn’t even realise that they were all finches. He failed to label the finches he collected properly and later had to rely on better labelled specimens collected by others on the Beagle to sort out the mess.

Continued next week.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Desmond, A. and Moore, J. (1991). Darwin, Michael Joseph, London.