Book Review: Darwin In Galapagos Footsteps To A New World

I was somewhat surprised to receive a copy of Darwin in Galapagos: Footsteps to a New World. Since I moved here from ScienceBlogs I haven’t really requested any review copies of books. Mainly because my audience has shrunk dramatically. Darwin in Galapagos: Footsteps to a New World is an interesting book, published this year, that focuses on Darwin’s time in the Galapagos. Written by K. Thalia Grant (daughter of Rosemary and Peter Grant) and Gregory B. Estes, the book attempts to trace Darwin’s path through the Galapagos.

I’ll say at the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It was well written and profusely illustrated. The book is divided into two parts. Part One, containing three chapters provides a historical overview of Darwin, beginning with his birth and ending shortly before the HMS Beagle reaches the Galapagos. Particularly strong are the sections dealing with Darwin’s experiences in Cape Verde, the Falklands, and South America in general. Part Two deals exclusively with tracing Darwin’s footsteps in the islands. The authors have done an exhaustive amount of research – consulting Darwin’s journals, research notes, and letters, as well as historical research by others (Sandra Hebert’s Darwin, Geologist for example) this combined with their own experiences in the Galapagos (both have spent a large amount of time in the Galapagos and have done research there as well) creates a compelling and authoritative narrative.

One of the bits of folklore about Darwin and the Galapagos concerns the finches named after him. According to the folklore (or pop history) Darwin was led to evolution by natural selection when he realized that the finches were different on each island. This is, of course, incorrect but it does reveal something important about the Galapagos. Although the finches are iconic representations of evolution and natural selection the same can be said of the mockingbirds, tortoises, iguanas, lizards, insects, and plants of the Galapagos – all of which display the same patterns of diversification as the finches do (something creationists conveniently ignore when they deride the finch studies). The authors bring out the diversity and geographical distribution, and the implications thereof, of the above species throughout Part Two of the book as they trace Darwin’s footsteps day by day and island by island. It is amazing to discover what Darwin was able to cram into a five week stay in the islands.

The authors also make an interesting case, based to a greater or lesser extent on the work of Sandra Herbert, that Darwin’s work as a geologist through out the voyage was a major influence on how he viewed the biological world and ultimately on his theory of evolution by means of natural selection (and I may do a future post on the subject so I won’t say more here).

The book is illustrated with a large number of drawings and plates, some of them by Darwin himself. Additionally, there are a number of appendixes on such things as island and sites in the Galapagos named after Darwin, a complete list of the crew of the HMS Beagle, and a list of all the vertebrate species collected in the Galapagos by the crew of the Beagle. All in all and interesting and engaging book. I highly recommend it!

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One Response

  1. Thanks for this review.

    Darwin Online has a day-by-day itinerary of the entire voyage:

    http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=text&itemID=A575&pageseq=1

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