A brief history of Darwinism: How one man’s trip changed modern thinking
Maybe it’s the broadening of existential horizons that comes with seeing how different folk dwell – or perhaps it’s just long beach-bound days perfectly suited to naval-gazing – but overseas travel has a habit of bedevilling the professional ambitions of even the most career-satisfied.
You know the score: one week you’re perfectly content toiling away in the sensibly chosen industry of your sensibly completed qualification, the next you’re in Cuba ruminating that your true calling may be as an antique watch-repairer. And while such whimsical wanderings usually last no longer than the evening’s final mojito, overseas adventurings can on occasion herald vocational redirections of the most drastic variety. Take Charles Darwin for instance.
When the 21-year-old naturalist left the port of Plymouth on a boat named The Beagle in December 1831, it was with the firm intention of returning home to become a pastor, which he did. Fast-forward five years, several continents and countless biological specimens later, however, and his travel musings would do more to debunk certain areas of religion than any other thinking had before – or has since. What could possibly inspire such a drastic career turn? Well, some time spent in the islands of the Galapagos played a pretty big part in it all.
To summarise in a few hundred words Darwin’s theory on, well… how life came to be… may seem somewhat injudicious. But even a basic grounding in the tenets of evolutionary biology will make for a far more enriching encounter with this intriguing archipelago.
So here goes:
In travelling between the different islands of the Galapagos, Darwin was struck by the various biological quirks of the creatures that inhabited them. Iguanas that had learnt to swim and cormorants that no longer knew how to fly were curious enough, but what really intrigued him was the birds – in particular the finches.
Initially believing the twelve different finch specimens he’d collected were varieties of the same species, consultation with the ornithologist John Gould led him to conclude that they were in fact 12 different species descending from the same origin. And while this may not sound particularly earth shattering, what it implied was that species could change (or evolve) so significantly as to become something new – and that was a game-changer.
Thinking back on the unique habitats in which the birds lived, Darwin eventually theorised that, given enough time and geographic seclusion, environmental factors could influence a species’ development. Essentially, while some of the chance genetic mutations that individual animals were born with would hinder their survival, in some situations it could in fact aid it.
For example, abnormally big beaks that would have proven too unwieldy for catching bugs in some environments would prove handy (or beaky) in piercing certain nutshells in other environments. And by cracking more nuts, it’s these big-beaked guys who would be healthier, look buffer, live longer and pick up more – thereby passing on their big beak genes in the process. In time, with enough big-beaked birds interbreeding with each other, the gene pool would weed out the lesser-beaked beings among them to the extent that they would effectively constitute a new species – a process Darwin termed ‘Natural Selection’.
So what was so controversial about some birds having bigger beaks then others? Nothing when it comes to birds. But when extended to all other life forms? Well it kind of implied that we were all mutants. And remember that monkey you spied at the zoo eating his own poop? Yep, somewhere along the family tree you guys were swinging from the same branch. Oh, and not only this, but some divine creator apparently hadn’t fashioned you, possessed no great plans for you nor cared for your wellbeing, and possibly didn’t even exist. Roasted to the extreme.
Fast-forward another 150-something years and Charlie’s ideas are still hotly contested and fiercely debated by religious and scientific folk across the globe. By the man’s own admission, his theory did not piece together every segment of the evolutionary puzzle, but it did make a pretty compelling case. What certainly can’t be refuted is that a voyage through the Galapagos Islands is immensely more fascinating for his visit.