Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Like many famous men over the course of history, Charles Darwin gets his name attached to a lot of things that he had nothing to do with.
The great naturalist certainly never came up with the Darwin Awards. And he didn’t coin the phrase “survival of the fittest.” So, what are we to make of his relationship to Darwin Island, exactly? Did he even set foot on the Galápagos island that bears his name?
Darwin traveled to the Galápagos, of course. He remains the most famous scientist and historical figure ever to visit the remote archipelago. His experiences there as a young man in the 1830s would ultimately inform his theory of evolution via natural selection, which he published in 1859’s On the Origin of Species, one of the greatest science books of all time.
That theory, which would come to be known as Darwinism, changed how we think about the development of life on earth — including humanity’s — and remains controversial in some circles to this day.
But Darwin didn’t go to the Galápagos to change the world or get his name on an island. In hindsight, his arrival there seems like a great stroke of luck, both for himself — and for science.
(Credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Long before he would develop his theory of evolution, young Charles Darwin, like so many of us in our 20s, was somewhat at loose ends. He was the despair of his father, who worried that his feckless son would be a disgrace to the family name. Charles had been pressured to become a doctor, but hated the sight of blood, so he dropped out of medical school.
Although interested in other sciences — geology and botany were two particular passions — Darwin would ultimately get his degree from Cambridge University in, of all things, theology. After graduating in 1831, the 22-year-old Darwin found himself aboard the H.M.S. Beagle by the end of that year.
(Credit: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
Most histories record that Darwin was the survey ship’s naturalist, assigned to collect unusual samples and to generally make scientific observations. But it’s also been noted that what the captain really wanted was a gentleman of equivalent social status to himself, and so brought on Darwin (who came from a well-known family) to keep him company. Darwin’s experience as a geologist and botanist was useful, but perhaps somewhat incidental.
Either way, Darwin did his duty, joining the ship’s company for a round-the-world voyage that would see the crew surveying the coast of South America for a few years. But part of the survey mission included a voyage to the Galápagos Islands, which the Beagle reached in 1835.
Read More: The 10 Greatest Scientists of All Time
Even if Darwin had never set eyes on the place, the Galápagos Islands would rightly deserve a spot on any list of the most amazing destinations on Earth.
On their own merit, and by dint of their unique ecosystems and plant and animal species that exist nowhere else, the islands were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, one of the first such locations to earn that distinction.
Well, aside from the above, they are a remote group of volcanic islands, some 550 miles west of South America, part of what is now the republic of Ecuador. The name itself comes from the varied large tortoises who reside on the islands.
Galápago is derived from an old Iberian word that essentially means turtle, although the term was later used to describe a type of saddle, which the tortoises’ shells somewhat resemble. Those tortoises were readymade sources of food for early mariners, and they were harvested from the islands so aggressively that today some of the tortoise species who once lived there are extinct (or nearly so), while others are threatened but have been recovering.
Read More: Galápagos Tortoises Make a Comeback
The islands also are home to numerous other plants and animals: penguins, marine iguanas and several species of birds, including those known collectively as Darwin’s finches. These birds, whose beaks vary widely in form and function from island to island (because they adapted to suit their environment), would ultimately help shape Darwin’s thinking as he formed his theory of evolution.
(Credit: Rene Holtslag/Shutterstock)
The actual number of islands in this remote spot was likely a question that the crew of the Beagle had when they finally arrived at the Galápagos in 1835. The ship spent five weeks surveying the archipelago, and landed Darwin and other crew members on just four of the islands, but there are many more.
Today, UNESCO says that, collectively, the Galápagos archipelago includes 127 islands, islets and rocks. Less than 20 are of any notable size and only a mere handful are inhabited. When Darwin arrived, the islands were little more than a stopover for privateers, whalers and other sailing vessels, although at the time, at least one island was a penal colony.
During his relatively brief visit to the islands, Darwin would collect numerous plant and animal samples, including his famous finches. When the Beagle retrieved him from his adventures, the ship went on to survey the northernmost reaches of the chain.
This included two of the most remote islands: Wenham Island (or Wolf Island, as it is now known) and the variously spelled Culpepper Island (named for a 17th-century English lord and naturalist). This particular island was barely worthy of the name; most of it was underwater, with only one square kilometer above the waves. It was notable, however, for a natural rock arch that was home to numerous birds.
Darwin Island and the famous arch, before its 2021 collapse. (Credit: HakBak/Shutterstock)
Ironically, Darwin never put so much as one toe on this island. No one did, as the place offered no good landing sites. As far as we know, the first recorded instance of a human setting foot there wasn’t until 1964, and that was with the aid of a helicopter.
The waters around Darwin Island, however, have long attracted an inordinate amount of attention. That’s because they teem with an abundance of marine life, including an arresting number of hammerhead sharks. The island today ranks among underwater enthusiasts as one of the best diving spots in the world.
Back in the 1800s, however, this tiny rock was known mostly for being near good fishing waters, and for its landmark stone arch. That natural feature, and indeed the entire island, would come to be named for its most famous almost-visitor. But that wouldn’t happen for many years.
Eventually, in 1836, Darwin made his way back to England, and would never travel the world again. He did, however, shake the world when he eventually brought his experiences to bear with the theory that he would publish more than 20 years later in On the Origin of Species. The book was an instant if contentious bestseller.
Darwin died in 1882, but by then his legacy as a great naturalist and thinker was secure. In fact, his name was so well-known, and his connection to the Galápagos so profound, that British mariners and the still-young republic of Ecuador decided to commemorate him.
According to the Galápagos Conservancy, the first names of the islands generally celebrated English kings, statesmen and scientists. Ecuador later renamed the islands to be more reflective of the language and history of the country. However, certain islands, including little Culpepper, renamed around 1892 as Darwin Island, were allowed to keep their Anglicized names.
Read More: 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time
Today, Darwin Island remains a bucket-list destination for divers eager to view the rich marine life around its edges. For landlubbers, though, the attraction of the minuscule spot has always been subdued. Visitors are largely forbidden on the tiny island, although it remains a habitat for seabirds.
However, even as a visual attraction from a boat, nature itself seems to want to maintain the island’s low profile. Erosion turned out to be the location’s arch enemy, literally, when Darwin’s Arch collapsed in 2021 and the world at large hasn’t paid much attention to the small spit of land since. In this case, perhaps a kind of natural selection has triumphed once again.
Read More: 7 Things You May Not Know About Charles Darwin