Treasures of Evolution Island

side titlesEvolution islandsProtests at GalápagosScientific bonanzaMocking the finchesHuman side of discovery














Left: red-footed booby. Right: blue-footed booby. Now that's logical, but what are they doing? They are "skypointing," and that's mating behavior, if you have to know.
Photo copyright and courtesy Robert Rothman








Lucky Chucky
portrait of Charles DarwinThe mission of Darwin's ship, the HMS Beagle, was to map the East and West Coasts of South America, and to determine accurate local time at Pacific islands for navigational purposes.

Along the way, Beagle was to return three natives of Tierra del Fuego who'd been taken to England. Fuegans had the nasty habit of killing shipwrecked British sailors, and it was hoped that some exposure to fish and chips and Victorian England, would change all that.

Darwin's presence on the Beagle owes to a series of historical oddities. He was not, for example, the first choice as naturalist. Choice #1 -- an elderly ichthyologist, or fish scientist, declined. Choice #2, John Stevens Henslow, who taught botany at Cambridge University, cited family obligations and bowed out and proposed his 21-year-old student in his stead.

So Charles Darwin, famed evolutionist, was actually choice #3... Darwin (read a short bio) had coasted through life until that point. Aristocratic and aimless, he'd already dropped out of medical school and while he'd graduated divinity school, he was never ordained.

The search for a naturalist did not stem from purely scientific motivation. The Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy, had received his commission when the captain of the previous mission killed himself in the perilous seas around Tierra del Fuego. Although FitzRoy was eager to return, and because British Navy rules divided officers from sailors, he sought to include a companion of equal social standing for the long voyage.

Red-footed booby is tan, with darker wings and a bluish-white bill. The blue-footed booby is white, with charcoal wings. Both birds are standing, with wings behind their back, and beaks almost vertical."FitzRoy was really terrified about being alone," says Rothman. "He did have a nervous breakdown, was kind of mentally unstable, his uncle committed suicide." Later FitzRoy himself committed suicide.

Darwin, the grandson of biologist, poet and dilettante Erasmus Darwin, leaped for the chance to "punch his ticket" as expedition naturalist. (Curiously, Erasmus had come close to explaining evolution -- by noting that organisms do change through time. He was one of many naturalists who had recognized the reality of change but could not explain what they saw.)

And the rest, as they say, is history. It's history that's not always accurately told, and it's history that is still evolving, if one final pun can be forgiven...

Galápagos 'n evolution: read all about 'em!

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