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  • Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World
  • Frank W. Nicholas (bio)
Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World, by K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes; pp. xi + 362. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, $29.95, £20.95.

That Charles Darwin spent several weeks visiting the Galápagos Islands during a voyage on H. M. S. Beagle is one of the best-known facts of Victorian history. As Darwin himself later stated, his Galápagos observations, specimens, and experiences were seminal in the development of the revolutionary concepts that are now associated with his name. It is, therefore, somewhat surprising that until the Darwin commemorative year of 2009, a thorough account of Darwin’s visit to Galápagos had never been published. This excellent book plugs the Darwinian Galápagos gap. Indeed, it is one of the gems to have emerged from the publishing frenzy that heralded the Darwin commemorative year.

The authors are ideally suited to the task: they are naturalists who have been researching on Galápagos for decades (K. Thalia Grant since 1973, and Gregory B. Estes since 1982); they are also patient and thorough historians. In the latter guise, they assembled every relevant manuscript, including Darwin’s extensive Galápagos notes (the geological portions of which they had to transcribe), the Galápagos section of his diary, and the Galápagos section of Robert FitzRoy’s invaluable Beagle log (together with the Beagle’s Galápagos charts). The authors then combined these rich primary sources with the Galápagos sections of all the relevant publications that arose from the [End Page 145] voyage. Having worked out in meticulous detail the wheres and whens of Darwin’s Galápagos sojourn, in 1996 they retraced Darwin’s footsteps during his five-week stay and in 2001 published a paper describing this venture. Darwin in Galápagos extends the 2001 account and presents Darwin’s Galápagos visit in the broader context of his life and work. The book evaluates critically Darwin’s Galápagos observations and specimens, and places them correctly in the context of all the evidence that Darwin brought to bear on the question of evolution. In doing so, the authors present a convincing view of the importance of Darwin’s Galápagos experience while at the same time gently warning those tempted to see Galápagos as the site of a Darwin eureka moment.

The central and main part of the book comprises four chapters: one for each of the four islands—Chatham, Charles, Albemarle, and James—visited by Darwin. Each of these chapters commences with a modern map showing the locations visited by Darwin. The well-written text enables readers to share Darwin’s excitement when confronted with the extraordinary geological and biological sights.

The authors have done an excellent job in evaluating the Galápagos evidence and describing how Darwin put it to such fruitful use. Drawing wisely from the extensive detective work of Frank Sulloway, the authors show that it was the Galápagos mockingbirds, not the finches, that were critical to the development and presentation of Darwin’s ideas. The authors also place Darwin’s frustratingly meagre Galápagos tortoise evidence in its correct context. In doing so, they summarise the facts and speculations concerning Harriet, known as “Darwin’s tortoise,” which died in Australia in 2006. This antipodean reviewer was pleased to see the authors confirm his own conclusion that, while Darwin and his servant, Syms Covington, did each take a young Galápagos tortoise back to England (and FitzRoy took two), the available evidence does not support the claim that any of these tortoises ended up in Australia.

Inevitably, there are some aspects of the book about which one can quibble. For example, the authors fail to mention that one of the principle goals of the Beagle’s voyage was to circumnavigate the globe. This is directly relevant to Darwin in Galápagos because in fulfilling this goal, the Beagle was not obliged to visit Galápagos. Indeed, in the Admiralty’s official instructions to FitzRoy, visiting Galápagos is mentioned as only one of several possible routes by which the...


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