Galapagos tours, failed career paths, and the theory that changed everything: 12 weird and wonderful facts about Charles Darwin

He wasn’t the first person to set foot on the islands, but Charles Darwin brought them to the world stage as a result of his Galapagos tours and the ground-breaking discoveries they would inspire in him. From crippling seasickness to his bizarre dislike of marine iguanas, here is everything you need to know about the man credited with the Theory of Evolution.

1. Charles Darwin was born February 12th, 1809, 22 years before he would set off on his legendary Galapagos tours. He was brought up in a Christian household, though one with an open mind: his grandfathers were anti-slavery activist Josiah Wedgewood and controversial doctor and biological theorist Erasmus Darwin, who wrote in his 1794 book ‘Zoonomia’: “Would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?”

2. Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh University but did not take to it well: in these pre-anesthetic days the gory surgery was not for the faint-hearted.

“One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.”
Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection

3. He pursued another failed career path in the clergy – when he was 18 he studied Divinity at Cambridge University, though spent much of his time there collecting beetles and walking in the countryside, a practice that would prepare him for his forthcoming Galapagos tours.

4. A ‘gentleman naturalist’ was how his tutor described him when he recommended him to join a globe-trotting voyage on HMS Beagle. The journey took five years, spanned four continents, and allowed Darwin to investigate specimens and geology. He didn’t enjoy maritime life, writing, “The misery I endured from seasickness is beyond what I ever guessed at.”

“I have stated, that in the thirteen species of ground-finches, a nearly perfect gradation may be traced, from a beak extraordinarily thick, to one so fine, that it may be compared to that of a warbler.”
Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

5. It was 1835 when HMS Beagle arrived in the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin and the crew would spend five weeks. He visited Chatham Island (now San Cristobal), Charles (now Floreana), Albemarle (now Isabela), and James (now Santiago) – islands that now people from around the world can visit on their own Galapagos tours.

6. He was captivated by the finches, giant tortoises and mockingbirds, observing and pondering them – a process that would burgeon into his later theories. His fascination with, and initial observations of, the most iconic Galapagos birds continue to influence thinking today: in Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in our Time, Jonathan Weiner outlines current studies of the finch, specifically that of evolutionary biologists Peter and Rosemary Grants who have observed finches for the last 20 years and watched them “evolve” and “adapt” at an extraordinary rate, reinforcing Darwin’s theories.

“The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself.”
Charles Darwin, Journal of researches

7. The idea of ‘Natural Selection’ formed in Darwin’s mind on his return from his Galapagos tour, and he began to write down his new blossoming theories. But he shared them with few people; instead he published a wildly successful chronicle of his adventures on the seas, The Voyage of ‘The Beagle’.

“The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities, and wallowing in the mud…When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and greedily swallows great mouthfulls, at a rate of about ten in a minute.”
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of ‘The Beagle’

8. In the book, he recounted an experiment he had performed on a marine iguana during his Galapagos tour: “One day I carried one to a deep pool left by the retiring tide, and threw it in several times as far as I was able. It invariably returned in a direct line to the spot where I stood…. As soon as it thought the danger was past, it crawled out on the dry rocks and shuffled away as quickly as it could. I several times caught this same lizard… and though possessed of such perfect powers of diving and swimming, nothing would induce it to enter the water, and so often as I threw it in, it returned…”

9. Darwin sat on his findings for two decades before releasing them to the world, later saying that writing his book On the Origin of Species was “like confessing a murder”. What prompted him to finally publish the hundreds of thousands of words he had written on evolution was a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, a traveler influenced by Darwin’s account of his Beagle adventure who set off on his own voyage, and who had come to his own conclusions on the theory of evolution. Would Darwin beat him to it and publish his own findings before his admirer returned home?

10. In the end, Darwin published his revolutionary theory in July 1858, crediting Wallace in the paper. A year later, he published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a process he likened to “living in Hell” as he wondered whether he would be ostracized as his grandfather Erasmus had.

“[The marine iguana] is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”
Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle

11. Darwin’s studies led him to be concerned about the custom of cousin-marriage, and he feared that inbreeding was the cause of health troubles. He himself had married his cousin Emma, and of their 10 children, three had been lost to illnesses. He lobbied to put a question on the topic on the 1871 census but was refused. The monarch of the time, Queen Victoria, was married to her cousin.

12. In a revisionist biography, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, historian A.N. Wilson claims that Darwin was an egotistical monster capable of killing his own daughter’s cat in the pursuit of his work, who routinely ripped off others’ ideas, and installed a toilet in the corner of his study.

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