Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World is a readable, scholarly account of Charles Darwin's adventures in the Galápagos Islands. Unlike some of the other Darwin-related books of the past two years, Darwin in Galápagos covers new ground; it is the only book to meticulously retrace Darwin's five-week tour of Galápagos from 15 September to 20 October 1835. If you want to understand how Darwin became an evolutionary biologist, this book is for you.
This is an authoritative book, and the authors are exceedingly well qualified to tell their story. Grant arrived in Galápagos in 1973 when her parents (Rosemary and Peter Grant) began their landmark studies of finches, and Estes – a Galápagos guide – arrived nearly 10 years later. Their work is based not only on their firsthand experiences in Galápagos, but also on their thorough examinations of Darwin's extensive letters, notes, journals, and related documents (e.g., naval charts, Captain Robert FitzRoy's logs, other research). Darwin in Galápagos has three parts: “Before Galápagos” (Part 1), “Galápagos” (Part 2), and ”After Galápagos“ (Part 3).
“Before Galápagos” consists of three chapters that provide a biographical overview of Darwin's life, from his birth to the days just before he arrived in Galápagos. These chapters engagingly introduce readers to the myriad experiences that prepared Darwin for Galápagos, including his time in the Andes, in the rainforests of Brazil, at the Falkland Islands, and at Tierra del Fuego. Grant and Estes also stress the importance of Darwin's geological training. Biologists often overlook the fact that “it was as a geologist that Darwin entered the Galápagos archipelago, geology that determined his footsteps within the islands, geology that framed his contemplation of the living world, and geology that set the stage for his illustrious future” (p. 72).
“Galápagos” is the centerpiece of Darwin in Galápagos; it is the most thoroughly researched description available of Darwin's day-by-day and island-by-island experiences in the archipelago. Darwin got to Galápagos three years and nine months into the Beagle's voyage, and, contrary to public opinion, he visited only four of the archipelago's 13 major islands: Chatham (San Cristóbal), Charles (Floreana), Albermarle (Isabella), and James (Santiago). Darwin's days on each of these islands are treated in separate chapters of Part 2 of Darwin in Galápagos. This part of the book is remarkable, and the authors' experience, enthusiasm, and knowledge give readers the sense of “being there.” For example, readers learn about what Darwin saw (and didn't see) on each island, as well as about each island's natural history (e.g., Chatham's importance in whaling) and how that history is related to Darwin's visit (e.g., the Beagle encountered whalers and sealing ships during its Galápagos visit). Readers will also learn many accompanying details, including the site where Darwin first set foot on the islands he made famous (Figure 1).
But the “Galápagos” section is not just a recitation of Darwin's tour (although that would be an important contribution in and of itself). Indeed, readers are reminded that although “Darwin's finches” are the archipelago's iconic birds, one can distinguish many of the islands by other animals as well (e.g., mockingbirds, iguanas, lizards, tortoises, and many plants). In fact, Darwin learned of geographic variation in the archipelago from mockingbirds, not finches. Darwin mentioned mockingbirds, but not finches, in On the Origin of Species (1859), and it was David Lack's classic, Darwin's Finches (1947), that made Darwin's name synonymous with the Galápagos finches. Grant and Estes use abundant photos to illustrate the geographic differences among finches and other organisms of Galápagos. The authors also remind readers that Darwin did not have an epiphany about evolution while in Galápagos. His days there were important, but he realized their significance only later.
After Galápagos consists of two chapters that summarize how Darwin used his observations from Galápagos and elsewhere to formulate his ideas about evolution by natural selection. These chapters are relatively brief; readers wanting more information about this period of Darwin's life should consult any of the many good books about Darwin.
There are contemporary lessons to be learned from Darwin's experiences in Galápagos. For example, Darwin was impressed by how “tame and unsuspecting” the birds were. After watching a kid on Charles Island kill several birds with a stick, Darwin noted “what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the aborigines become adapted to the stranger's craft or power.” Today, Galápagos and other habitats continue to be threatened by invasive species.
Darwin in Galápagos includes 201 color and 73 black-and-white drawings and illustrations (some from Darwin's original notebooks), as well as several excellent appendices (e.g., the names of islands and important sites in Galápagos, places and things bearing Darwin's name in Galápagos, and the entire crew of the Beagle).
I visit Galápagos three or four times a year with students and friends. On every visit, I overhear someone ask or wonder where Darwin was, and what he saw, in the archipelago. Thanks to Grant and Estes, we now know.
If you plan to go to Galápagos, read Darwin in Galápagos before you go; it will enhance your trip immeasurably. If you don't plan on going, read Darwin in Galápagos; it's an important book that may convince you to go.