Darwin and the Voyages of the Beagle

Charles Darwin (1809–1882)


There is little to suggest that prior to 1859, Charles Darwin would rank among the most important biologists, and that his Origin of Species (1859) perhaps would be the most significant book written on science. His father was a financially and socially successful physician, and his mother was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the pottery company bearing his family name. Charles’s grandfather was Erasmus Darwin, a distinguished eighteenth-century intellectual. Neither his year of medical studies nor his bachelor’s studies at Cambridge were marked with distinction. His time was spent exploring nature and hunting.

Captain Robert FitzRoy was looking for a “gentleman passenger” who could serve as a recorder and collector of biological samples on a five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle that was intended to circumnavigate the globe, with emphasis on charting the South American coastline. The twenty-two-year-old Darwin was selected for this unpaid position because of his keen interest in the natural sciences but, as important, he could serve as a socially equal companion to the captain who was but four years his senior. When Darwin set sail in 1831, he shared the belief of most Europeans in the divine creation of the world and the unchanging nature of its inhabitants.

When not seasick, Darwin was diligently observing and collecting animals, marine invertebrates, insects, and fossils of extinct animals. He also experienced an earthquake in Chile. The most memorable segment of his voyage was the five weeks he spent on the Galápagos Islands, ten volcanic islands some 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) west of Ecuador. Among his many collectables were four mockingbirds caught on four islands; he noted that each was different. He also brought back to England fourteen finches whose beaks differed in size and shape. When Darwin returned to England in 1835, he was a well-recognized naturalist, a reputation enhanced by his presentations, papers, and a popular work entitled Journal of Researches (renamed The Voyage of the Beagle).

SEE ALSO: Fossil Record and Evolution (1836), Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (1859), Continental Drift (1912).

Topographical and bathymetric map of the Galápagos Islands, located west of Ecuador, where Darwin found fourteen finches whose beaks were different in size and shape—an observation that proved to be a major building block in his theory of natural selection (1859).