The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador and straddle the Equator about 600 miles west of the South American Coast.
Importance of the Galapagos to Darwin’s Theory
In his nearly five-year circumnavigation of the globe aboard HMS Beagle,
Darwin spent only a month in the Galapagos Islands in 1835. Yet, in many ways his discoveries there proved pivotal to the development on his theory of evolution by Natural Selection.
Importantly, Darwin recognized that the islands were recently formed, rising up from the seabed. When he first arrived in the Galapagos, and observed it’s inhabitants it was, he said, “like witnessing the appearance of new beings on Earth.”
He particularly liked the giant tortoises – after which the islands were named – and spent a lot of time observing them. But the most significant observation came from the Vice-Governor of the Galapagos, Nicholas Lawson, who informed Darwin that it was possible to tell what island a tortoise came from just by looking at it’s shell.
Darwin didn’t immediately grasp the relevance of this fact. His breakthrough in solving the mystery of evolution would come not from the reptiles but from the birds. It was some decidedly dull finches – now known as Darwin’s Finches – that would help crack the case.
He had collected finches from the different islands, noting that they were similar to one he’d found in South America. But it was the differences between their bills and their behaviour that he found so illuminating. Eventually, after having left the Galapagos, Darwin concluded that one type of finch from South America had arrived on the recently-risen islands and, like the tortoises, had adapted to the different opportunities found on each island.
Darwin would later – when writing On the Origin of Species
– draw heavily on the animals he saw in the Galapagos, to advance his radical notion that their creation was not a single event, but a process of change, from one form, into many different ones.