In the 200th anniversary of his birth, Kathleen Wyatt takes a boat to the islands where it all began for Darwin
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Meester Chucky Dee, why is it always Meester Chucky Dee?” Martín, our impassioned guide, had just explained the finer points of evolution and geology on the Galápagos in ten minutes flat, and now he had a question for us.
“Beeecause …?” Silence. We all looked at the child in the front row, hoping that once again she would know the answer.
Many others had been there before, he said, and many after. “Mr Dee” spent less than a month on the islands; others even developed the same theories. So why was it always Charles Darwin who got the headlines?
“Beeecause …?” Silence. Either the sea air had rusted our brains or we had all turned into schoolchildren thanks to the amount of information we were absorbing.
“Because of his theory of natural selection,” said Martín, waving his hand in the air. Darwin’s book was the one that proved beyond doubt how species adapted to survive, and evolved. He jabbed the air again. “Survival of the fittest! And it’s on the Galápagos that you can see it all.”
Here we were, 40 of us on a boat, slowly grasping one of the biggest revolutions in thought, 150 years on. We all knew the headlines, and some had done research, but this was different.
Day after day we were being shown the pieces of evidence that would lead us clumsily to Darwin’s sophisticated conclusion. I was in the best classroom in the world. Never before had I been able to follow a theory from beginning to end simply by being in one place.
Darwin was born 200 years ago and published On the Origin of Species 150 years ago in November, so the Darwin Society can be forgiven for being a little excited this year. The islands, however, are unperturbed – drifting at a rate of 3in a year, still evolving on their own terms.
These are volcanic outcrops, magma that burst through the Earth’s crust millions of years ago and grew into a cluster of mesmerising and distinct shapes – all different ages and all moving as the tectonic plates shift. As they move, they change, and rather than colliding with South America on their southeasterly journey, the oldest will erode, disappearing again beneath the ocean. It was like being on the edge of the world.
We were afloat off the coast of Isabela, the largest of the islands, on the cruise ship Eclipse, and, apart from one couple who were more interested in their own version of natural selection, we all turned up night after night to be talked through the day’s activities by one of the four naturalists on board. The young, enthusiastic guides, all from the Galápagos or mainland Ecuador, were the best ambassadors the islands could have.
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