RECORD: Barlow, Nora. 1935. Charles Darwin and the Galapagos Islands. Nature 136 (7 September): 391.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by John van Wyhe 2004, corrections by Kees Rookmaaker 1.2011. RN1

[page] 391

Letters to the Editor [...]

Charles Darwin and the Galapagos Islands

It seemed possible that an examination of some of the unpublished Darwin manuscripts dealing with material collected during the weeks spent on the Galapagos Islands might bring fresh light to bear on the much discussed manner of growth of his evolutionary outlook. At what period during the Beagle voyage did his views crystallise?

We know that in 1837 Darwin opened his first notebook on the transmutation of species, and made especial tribute to the Galapagos species as the origin of all his views, together with the South American fossils. But little sign of such a revolution found its way on to paper at the time. I have therefore been fortunate in finding among the contemporary ornithological notes a passage bearing directly on the subject, where the significant phrase "for such facts would undermine the stability of species" occurs. Here we have the earliest date yet obtained, I think, for an admitted upheaval of his thoughts along evolutionary lines. The ferment had already begun to work in September 1835.1

As the passage in the manuscript differs widely from what was printed, both in the "Voyage of the Beagle" (1870, pp. 394-5), and in the "Birds of the Voyage" (Part 3, "Zoology of the Voyage", 1841, 4to) it may be worth quoting it at greater length.

"Thenca. [Mimus Thenca.] These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile. They are lively, inquisitive, active, run fast, frequent houses to pick the meat of the tortoise which is hung up, - sing tolerably well, - are said to build a simple open nest, - are very tame, a character in common with other birds. I imagined, however, its note or cry was rather different from the Thenca of Chile-- ? Are very abundant over the whole Island; are chiefly tempted up into the high and damp parts by the houses and cleared ground.

"I have specimens from four of the larger Islands; the specimens from Chatham and Albemarle Isd. appear to be the same, but the other two are different. In each Isd. each kind is exclusively found; habits of all are indistinguishable.

"When I recollect the fact, that from the form of the body, shape of scales and general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce from which Isd. any tortoise may have been brought:- when I see these Islands in sight of each other and possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds but slightly differing in structure and filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware is the constant asserted difference between the wolf-like Fox of East and West Falkland Isds.If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the Zoology of Archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species."

Yet this profound change of view is scarcely discernible in the different editions of "Voyage of the Beagle". Even in the second edition of 1845, the words "creation" and "creative force" are used in the Galapagos discussion in the traditional sense. Darwin took no pleasure in overthrowing preconceived doctrines; he entered the new road cautiously, determined to pave it with solid accumulated evidence. Probably a certain deference to Capt. FitzRoy's views, emphatically creationist, helped to delay the unfolding of Darwin's divergent opinions.

In this respect, FitzRoy's description of the birds of the Archipelago is in interesting contrast to the quotation from Darwin. "All the birds that live on these lava-covered islands have short beaks, very thick at the base, like that of a bull-finch. This appears to be one of those admirable provisions of Infinite Wisdom by which each created thing is adapted to the place for which it was intended. In picking up insects or seeds which lie on hard ironlike lava, the superiority of such beaks over delicate ones, cannot, I think, be doubted ...."

It is sad to learn from Ecuadorian sources that the Galapagos Archipelago is no more; it is now the Archipielago de Colón. Moreover, Chatham Island has become San Cristobal, Hood and Charles are Española and Santa Maria Floreana, whilst Albemarle is Isabella. Perhaps in all truth as fitting a collection of names for the Pacific Ocean as our old ones of British kings, admirals and statesmen; but saddening to insular tradition.

Nora Barlow.


1 Note that this dating was incorrect. The passage by Darwin was written on the Beagle around mid-June to August 1836 between South Africa and Britain. It is hardly surprising that Barlow took notes about Galapagos birds to be written during his 1835 visit, especially in the year of commemoration of the Galapagos visit. It is important to remember, however, that the passage cited by Barlow referred to mocking birds (Mimus thenca), not finches. John van Wyhe

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