Darwin on the Galapagos

Author: Stephen Caesar
Subject: Biology
Date: 12/31/2007

Science writer Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of the book Why Darwin Matters, writes a regular monthly column entitled “Skeptic” in the journal Scientific American. In the February 2006 issue of that journal, he recounted his personal trip to the Galápagos Islands, famous as the place where Darwin first formulated his theory of evolution. As the name of both his column and his magazine suggest, Shermer is a strong skeptic of all religious claims, including creation and/or intelligent design. While touring the Galápagos, he “was struck by how clear the solution [to the debate over origins] is in these islands: creation by intelligent design is absurd” (Shermer 2006: 34).
Nevertheless, he was forthright enough to debunk a famous misconception regarding the story of how Darwin first began to formulate his now-famous theory. According to what is taught in schools, Darwin studied the various finch species on the numerous islands that comprise the Galápagos Archipelago and concluded that their unique characteristics, each suited to the specific island on which they lived, could only be the result of evolution through natural selection. On the long sea journey back to England, he came up with his monumental theory. Shermer comments on this legend:

“The iconic myth is that Darwin became an evolutionist in the Galápagos when he discovered natural selection operating on finch beaks and tortoise carapaces [top shells], each species uniquely adapted by food type or island ecology. The notion is ubiquitous, appearing in everything from biology textbooks to travel brochures, the latter inveigling potential travelers to visit the mecca of evolutionary theory and walk in the tracks of St. Darwin the Divine” (Ibid.)

In June 2004, Shermer did exactly that, accompanied by Frank Sulloway, a historian of science at the University of California at Berkeley. Sulloway had scrutinized Darwin’s personal records and found the following statement written by Darwin nine months after he had left the Galápagos: “When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds [mockingbirds, not finches], but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties” (Ibid.) Shermer immediately follows this passage with his own commentary:

“That is, similar VARIETIES of fixed kinds, rather than the myth that he already knew that EVOLUTION was responsible for the creation of separate species. Darwin was still a creationist! This quotation explains why Darwin did not even bother to record the island locations of the few finches he collected (and in some cases mislabeled) and why, as Sulloway has pointed out, these now famous ‘Darwin finches’ were never specifically mentioned in On the Origin of Species” (Ibid. 34-5 [emphases original]).

Shermer further observes, “Darwin similarly botched his tortoise observations” (Ibid. 35).

In his writings, Darwin referred back to a conversation he had had with the vice governor of the islands, Nicholas Lawson, who told him that he

“could with  certainty tell from which island any [tortoise] was brought. I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I had already partially mingled together the collections from two of the islands” (Ibid.).

In other words, Darwin used neither the finches nor the tortoises of the Galápagos Islands to formulate his theory. As Shermer points out, this stands in direct contradiction to the traditional stories regarding how Darwin came to believe that evolution via natural selection was the method by which species came into being. These are remarkable observations coming from someone who dismissed any non-Darwinian theory of origins as “absurd.”

Shermer, M. 2006. “It’s Dogged as Does It.” Scientific American 294, no. 2.
Stephen Caesar holds his master’s degree in anthropology/archaeology from Harvard. He is a staff
member at Associates for Biblical Research.

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