The Atlantic Forest, Carlos Botelho State Park, Brazil
"The day has past delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest."—The Voyage of the Beagle, February 29, 1832
The journey of young Charles Darwin aboard His Majesty's Ship Beagle, during the years 1831-36, is one of the best known and most neatly mythologized episodes in the history of science. As the legend goes, Darwin sailed as ship's naturalist on the Beagle, visited the Galápagos archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean, and there beheld giant tortoises and finches. The finches, many species of them, were distinguishable by differently shaped beaks, suggesting adaptations to particular diets. The tortoises, island by island, carried differently shaped shells.
These clues from the Galápagos led Darwin (immediately? long afterward? here the mythic story is vague) to conclude that Earth's living diversity has arisen by an organic process of descent with modification—evolution, as it's now known—and that natural selection is the mechanism. He wrote a book called The Origin of Species and persuaded everyone, except the Anglican Church establishment, that it was so.
Well, yes and no. This cartoonish account of the Beagle voyage and its consequences contains a fair bit of truth, but it also confuses, distorts, and omits much. For instance, the finches weren't as illuminating as the diversity of the islands' mockingbirds, at least not initially, and Darwin couldn't make sense of them until a bird expert back in England helped. The Galápagos stopover was a brief anomaly near the end of an expedition devoted mostly to surveying the South American coastline. Darwin hadn't signed on to the Beagle as its official naturalist; he was a 22-year-old Cambridge graduate pointed rather indifferently toward a career as a country clergyman, invited on the voyage as a dining companion for the captain, a mercurial young aristocrat named Robert Fitzroy. Darwin did assume the role of naturalist, and think of himself that way, as time went on. But his theory developed slowly, secretively, and The Origin of Species (full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life) didn't appear until 1859. Many scientists, along with some Victorian clergymen, resisted its evidence and arguments for decades afterward. The reality of evolution became widely accepted during Darwin's lifetime, but his particular theory—with natural selection as prime cause—didn't triumph until about 1940, after it had been successfully integrated with genetics.