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Darwin to Beebe: Evolving Role of Naturalists and the Galápagos Environment

Updated on March 13, 2008


Published accounts of naturalists’ travels and the displaying of their collections brought the enchanted islands of the Galápagos to the public in part inspiring the modern environmental protection movement. Although the general public did not experience for themselves the places the naturalists wrote about, they could gain a glimpse of the natural world that still existed relatively untouched by humans beyond human civilization by reading naturalist accounts in the 19th and early 20th centuries and visiting museums displaying their collections. One of the most popular destinations of those described by naturalists was the Galápagos Archipelago. The Galápagos Archipelago consists of ten main islands that sit on and near the equator between five hundred and six hundred miles off the western coast of South America.1 The first naturalist published account that brought the Galápagos unique environment to the public was the chapter devoted to the islands in Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. Although Darwin’s time in the Galápagos was just a small part of his five-year voyage, it is often credited as the main experience that eventually led to the development of his controversial evolution theory. In part to further prove Darwin’s theory several scientific expeditions made their focus of study the Galápagos Islands.

In 1923, William Beebe led a New York Zoological Society survey collecting expedition to the Galápagos. Beebe’s scientific expedition is just one of the many natural history expeditions focused to the Galápagos that followed in Darwin’s footsteps with the prospect of making some of the remaining discoveries and fill in research gaps on evolution theory. Like Darwin, Beebe published his naturalist travel account and brought the new discoveries in the Galápagos to the public through his writing. Beebe’s expedition further brought the Galápagos’ nature to the public in that it collected specimen for display at the New York Zoological Society’s park upon their return. By putting the specimens his expedition collection on display, the public became able to see for themselves the unique species of the Galápagos and how they visibly differ by island. Beebe through his travel account also helps to show how changes in the Galápagos Islands environment occurred since the time of Darwin’s visit in 1835. Beebe describes changes in tortoise and other reptile populations by directly relating it to Darwin’s account thus demonstrating that he was aware that the Galápagos islands were being affected by human impacts before and after Darwin, which were beginning to be apparent by the time Beebe visited. This awareness of humans causing changes in the natural environment came to the public’s attention through naturalists travel accounts, which in turn helped to inspire the modern environmental movement to protect remaining pockets of relatively undisturbed nature left in the world, such as the Galápagos Islands, from further destruction by human activities.

In this hub the travel accounts of the naturalists, Charles Darwin and William Beebe, will be used to illustrate how the particular case of the study of natural history in the Galápagos evolved and led to the modern environmental movement. Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle describes more than just the Galápagos, however, a whole chapter is devoted just to describing the unique environment as he saw it in 1835. Darwin’s account exemplifies the age of exploration in the field of natural history in that he focuses mostly on the larger species of animals, especially the tortoises and birds. Darwin’s descriptions of the Galápagos became more important after he published his theory of evolution in 1859. His lack of his own concrete evidence from the islands to support his theory inspired a new wave of natural history, which can be characterized by Beebe’s account.

William Beebe’s account of the 1923 expedition he led to the Galápagos, which is described in Galápagos: World’s End, is used in comparison with Darwin’s account to discover how the islands’ flora and fauna changed over a period of eighty-eight years since Darwin’s visit due to further exploitation by whalers and the scientific expeditions that preceded him. Beebe’s account like Darwin discusses the larger species, but also unlike Darwin’s also focuses on the smaller species, such as insects and fish, which cannot be used for comparison in determining how the environment changed since Darwin’s account does not offer anything to compare Beebe’s observations on insects and fish to. Even without determining for certain if the Galápagos smaller species faced major effects, by comparing Beebe’s descriptions of larger species to Darwin’s shows that humans have had an impact on the Galápagos environment. During Beebe’s time these impacts on the environment began to be seen and brought to the public’s attention through naturalists travel accounts that in part discussed how the environment had changed over time bringing about the modern environmental movement to stop, slow, and reverse human impacts on the natural environment.

Natural History in the 19th and early 20th Century

Naturalists are scientists or hobbyists that participate in the study of natural history. The field of natural history can be broadly described as the study “of all natural phenomena; but an activity more commonly limited to the description of the varieties of plants, animals, and minerals.” In this sense, Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle can be seen as a 19th century naturalist travel account since he devotes his most of his account to describing the plants, animals, and minerals (and geology in general) for the different places he visits including the Galápagos. Darwin’s voyage fits into the historical context of the early 19th century’s age of exploration during which the field of natural history began to flourish, allowing for humans to learn to embrace the natural world by the early 20th century. This embracing of nature was impossible prior to the mid-19th century “because of the lack of understanding of the physical nature of living organisms.” Thus, the descriptive naturalists accounts, such as Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, that dominated the 19th century age of exploration helped expand the human understanding of the natural world and began to define the field of natural history as scientific and not just a hobby.

During natural history’s age of exploration naturalists expanded “the knowledge of existing species” mostly “by the voyages of discovery,” of which the Voyage of the Beagle is a famous example. This age of exploration can be characterized by naturalists, like Darwin, who traveled as guests on expeditions that “served mainly commercial, military, or political ends.” In the specific case of Darwin, he was a guest of the H.M.S. Beagle’s Captain Fitzroy on a voyage that had a main purpose of coastal survey of South America, which had both commercial and political goals, as well as being connected with the military as a naval expedition. Politically, the coastal survey completed by the expedition provided the English government with the information it needed “about natural products, transport routes, staging posts available in mid-ocean, and so forth.” This information served the commercial agenda of aiding in establishing trade links with the undeveloped countries in South America that were recently released from “commitment to trade only with Spain and Brazil.” It was the abundance of natural history knowledge gained by the casual naturalists that tagged along on these types of voyages that made the age between 1830s and 1850s a “period of rapid discovery” with the influx of new species that they identified.

Advances in natural history slowed after the 1850s until a new wave of rapid discovery took place beginning in the 1880s. The period between the 1880s and 1920s was a period when the “pace of finding and naming again quickened” until by the end of the 1920s “a substantial proportion of vertebrate species had been found and named.” Survey colleting expeditions sponsored by museums and their patrons characterized this wave of rapid discovery. This era of survey collecting, in contrast to the age of exploration, consisted of mostly professional naturalists and had the main purpose of adding to the knowledge of natural history. This method of collection with museum curators often leading the expeditions also differed in that they were more intensive studying in depth a small area of the earth rather than being extensive like the exploration voyages that naturalists like Darwin tagged along on. The discovering of large species were mostly complete by the end of the age of exploration, thus survey collecting occurred as expeditions that more intensively focused on particular areas to fill in the gaps that remained in the study of natural history by trying to complete inventories of the species in specific regions, such as Beebe did in the Galápagos. This intensive focus of survey collecting aided in the discovery of smaller species previously overlooked, especially insects, and variations in species by region. This intensive method of collecting specimens also benefited the field of natural history in that it resulted in the collection of the flora and fauna specimen necessary for creating the increasingly popular nature dioramas for museums, which attracted patrons to fund expeditions and brought in revenue from fascinated museum visitors.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin
William Beebe
William Beebe

Two Naturalists in the Galápagos: Charles Darwin and William Beebe

Charles Darwin is probably the world’s most famous naturalist, although his fame is mostly due to his role as an evolutionist and his evolution theory. Natural history is a subject that interested starting in his early life and continued to “fascinate him until the day he died.”14 Darwin began his role as a naturalist as part of his role as the companion to Captain Fitzroy on the five-year naval expedition that began in 1832 to survey the coast of South America aboard the H.M.S. Beagle.15 In joining the expedition Darwin forever left his pursuit of becoming a clergyman, as his father expected him to complete upon his return. Darwin’s father at first did not want to allow his son to go on the expedition, but he supported him after being persuaded that the “pursuit of natural history, although not professional, is very suitable to a clergyman.”16 It was with this Christian upbringing and clerical training that Darwin began his five-year voyage around the world believing that religion and science did not have to be at odds with each other. Because of this belief, Darwin left England in “hope that the voyage would provide evidence of Benevolent Design.”17 Over twenty years after his 1836 return he would publish On the Origin of Species, his most famous work, that would prove quite the opposite of the evolution theory he originally hoped to prove.

William Beebe began his career as a naturalist in 1899, “when he was appointed assistant bird keeper” at the New York Zoological Society’s park (now known as the Bronx Zoo).18 Within a few years he received his promotion to bird curator and beginning with his expedition to Mexico in 1903, his career expanded to include going on field expeditions to collect specimen for the park.19 For the next four decades he made several collection expeditions for the Society and published travel accounts about his experiences on the expeditions and the specimens he came in contact with.20 One example of his expeditions and the published travel accounts that came out of them is Beebe’s expedition to the Galápagos and his book Galápagos: World’s End. He gained the role as the Society’s director of the department of tropical research in 1922.21 It was as part of this role that he led the Society’s expedition to the Galápagos that he described in Galápagos: World’s End in 1923. The Galápagos expedition is a great example of how Beebe spent most of his career being a “bird-man’ and tropical naturalist.”22 By publishing his naturalist travel accounts, Beebe became one of “America’s best-known naturalists of his time.”23 However, Beebe is not most remembered for his natural history work on land, such as in the Galápagos, but rather for his later career as a pioneer in deep-sea exploration and his contributions the study of natural history below the sea.

Beebe credits his fascination with the submarine world to his experience aboard the Noma during his first expedition to and from the Galápagos, which he described in Galápagos: World’s End.24 During that expedition, his exploration of the sea was limited to catching fish using a net off the boat or from the shores of the Galápagos. Upon his return Beebe began searching for a way to get further below the surface to make natural history observations. Beebe’s early dives were with a helmet and hose. One of his first dives took place during his second visit to the Galápagos, which he describes in his book, Arcturus Adventure, about the New York Zoological Society’s first oceanographic expedition in 1925.25 In describing his first dive in the Galápagos, Beebe speaks of the only handicap about diving is the inability to take notes about what he saw as he saw it.26 At the time, his idea to solve this problem was to obtain “a made-to-order helmet which shall carry a cheek pouch of sorts, to hold a little writing-paper roll and a pencil, in the dry air of the side of the helmet.”27 No evidence can be found if he ever did develop this helmet to solve his problem, but he did find a solution to the issue with his partnering with Otis Barton to do deep-sea dives in a bathysphere starting with their first dive on May 27, 1930.28 It was the dives he made in the bathysphere that overshadowed his earlier equally important contributions to the study of natural history, such as described in Galápagos: World’s End. His dives, and to a lesser extent his land naturalist accounts, “generated public interest in natural history” and made “him a celebrity of the early 1930s.” 29

Darwin’s Evolution Theory and the Continued Search to Prove It

The development of Darwin’s evolution theory is often considered to have been something that suddenly came to him when while he was observing the unique environment of the Galápagos Islands in 1835. While what he saw in the Galápagos did influence his thoughts on evolution, his evolution theory was something he slowly began to develop as his five-year voyage came to an end in 1836, and came into itself as experts examined the specimens from his voyage and discovered that species he had thought to be the same were in fact variations. One example of these differences in species were the specimens Darwin collected in the Galápagos, which proved to consist of more than one species, which he originally though of as impossible since he believed in he evolution theory of Benevolent Design. During his time in the Galápagos he did notice the difference in the mockingbirds between the islands, but he did not in the case of the plants and tortoises realize “that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar”30 until after he completed his collecting. This failure of Darwin’s to realize the differences between the species on different islands resulted in Darwin not marking his specimens collected in the Galápagos by island, which later caused his differing species of mockingbirds and other specimens to be unreliable evidence for his evolution theory.31 Thus, delaying him publicizing his thoughts on the natural selection evolution theory.

Darwin’s inability to provide his own reliable concrete evidence is considered as one of the main reasons that made him hesitant to publish his evolution theory when he first “wrote out preliminary sketches of his theory and its implications”32 in 1842 and 1844. This hesitation held him back from preparing his drafts for publication for over a decade, however he believed that his theory deserved publication and requested that his wife pursue the publication of his drafts if he should die before he had a chance to publish his theory.33 In the years that followed these first drafts he continued his quest to amass “an overwhelming dossier of data in its supports.”34 By 1856, Darwin’s search for evidence provided him with enough to prove his theory, but it took the real possibility of someone else coming to the same conclusion as him and publishing first to force Darwin to begin “to write his ‘big book.”35 In 1859 he finally published On the Origins of Species that outlined his evolution theory “that new species arise naturally, by a process of evolution, rather than having been created – forever immutable – by God.”36 It was the publication of his theory that influenced a new wave of naturalists to go out in search of evidence to prove (or in some cases disprove) his controversial theory.

This search for evidence to further understand and prove Darwin’s evolution theory made one of the main regions of naturalist research the Galápagos Islands. From the late 1800s to the “early 1900s, a series of scientific expeditions visited the archipelago from the United States and Britain to try to resolve outstanding questions in evolution theory.”37 One example of these scientific expeditions was the New York Zoological Society expedition led by William Beebe in 1923, and described in his book Galápagos: World’s End. The drive behind Beebe’s work as a naturalist was his desire “to find clues to how evolution” worked.38 It was during the expedition that Beebe added to the knowledge of the flora and fauna of the unique Galápagos Islands ecosystem by bringing back “a number of living creatures” some of which “had never been in captivity before.”39 These specimens added to the growing inventory of flora and fauna present in the Galápagos and helped provide evidence of how the same species differed by island, thus providing verifiable concrete evidence of Darwin’s evolution theory of natural selection.

Unique Galápagos Islands Environment Threatened by Humans

The Galápagos Islands, especially in the time of Beebe’s voyage, have often been considered as “one of the few spots of undisturbed mystery.”40 While the mysteries of the island certainly continued to exist through the period of survey collecting in the Galápagos in the early 20th century, the islands’ environment was certainly not undisturbed. Ever since Spaniards first discovered the islands in the 1500s, humans had been leaving their negative impacts on the islands. The effects of humans on the Galápagos environment threaten the uniqueness of the Galápagos environment. The uniqueness of the environment is linked to the fact that when discovered the islands were isolated and of relatively recent origin that had not yet allowed for much soil development, thus the islands possessed the quality of being in an early stage of evolution of flora and fauna.41 The actions causing the changes in the environment, especially the use of tortoises as meat, had already begun to occur when Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, but the implications were not yet very obvious, as they would become by the time of Beebe’s visit in 1923.

The biggest change in the Galápagos environment from the time of Darwin to the time of Beebe is the extreme population reduction of the Galápagos tortoises. It was the abundance of these land tortoises that inspired the Spanish to name the islands the Galápagos after them.42 Darwin describes the tortoises as being present on “all islands of the Archipelago; certainly in the greater number”43 of islands and them being quite numerous. By the time of Beebe’s visit in 1923, the populations of tortoises drastically declined to the point that they only saw one tortoise during their visit, which they captured and in doing so continued to add to the actions of humans affecting the environment.44 Although, Beebe and other scientific expeditions captured many of the few remaining tortoises for scientific purposes, the main action that contributed to the decline in the Galápagos tortoise populations were the centuries prior to the scientific expeditions when ships sailing in the region anchored at the Galápagos to capture the tortoises to provide the ship travelers with fresh meat. By 1906, of the fifteen known species of tortoises on the Galápagos two were extinct, one was nearly extinct, three were very rare, and three were rare.45

Besides tortoises, several other reptiles species are described by both Darwin and Beebe and the comparison between the two descriptions have the potential to show how their populations have changed over a period of nearly ninety years. One of these reptiles is the group of snake species found on the islands. Snakes are only briefly mentioned by Darwin as there being several species, which are all harmless.46 This suggests that although Darwin may not have seen an abundance of snakes, he did at least see more than one species. Beebe also only briefly mentions snakes, but in contrast to Darwin he only discusses finding one species, which he carefully captured since he considered it as a rare find.47 This suggests that the snake populations may have declined at least in respect to the number of species between the time of Darwin and Beebe. Another species of reptiles described by both naturalists is the black iguanas, Amblyrhynchus cristatus. Darwin describes this species of iguana as being “extremely common on all the islands.”48 According to Beebe, his expedition still “found hundreds of Amblyrhynchus on various islands,”49 however they are visibly not as abundant as there were only a few decades before when one of Beebe’s shipmates had visited and even less abundant in comparison to the amount that Darwin saw back in 1835. Thus through the two accounts the change in reptile populations in the Galápagos is seen as not only occurring among the tortoises, but also among the black iguanas and possibly the snake species, as well.

The introduction of non-native species to the Galápagos is another change in the Galápagos environment caused by humans. The introduction of these species mostly occurred before Darwin’s visit, but the effects they had on the islands’ environment were still relatively minimal and not obvious enough for changes in the ecosystem to be easily noticed. Darwin makes only a passing mention of there being wild goats and pigs on Charles Island that served as only a minor food source for the inhabitants since at this time tortoises remained abundant enough to satisfy the small human population.50 By the time Beebe visited the Galápagos eight-eight years later introduced species, such as goats, pigs, cattle, cats, and dogs, became much more prominent resulting in Beebe frequently mentioning introduced species and their effects on the native fauna. Beebe describes finding hundreds of “cloven footprints of wild pigs” and disturbed sea turtle nests on James Island that he interpreted as evidence that the pigs preyed on the sea turtle eggs.51 Beebe also discusses the pigs, along with dogs, as becoming “established on several islands” and being responsible for the decrease in Conolophus subcristaus land iguanas by preying on their young and eggs.52 Beebe explains the presence of introduced species by attributing the goat and pig populations to the buccaneers who in the sixteenth to nineteenth century left them in the Galápagos for future use as resupplying their fresh meat and the introduction of cattle, cats, and dogs to the attempts at colonization on the various islands.53 Thus, Darwin did see the species beginning to be introduced to the islands and the domestic species reverting to being wild, but it was not until later that the species really began to take their place in the Galápagos ecosystem above the native species, who could not quickly adapt to the new situation of having predators.

Naturalists Accounts Sparking the Modern Environmental Protection Movement

Naturalists like Darwin and Beebe brought the knowledge of exotic natural places to the general public helping to inspire the movement to protect the remaining pieces of nature that exist, including the Galápagos. Darwin’s account of the natural world as he saw on his five-year around the world voyage brought to the general public the mysteries of the unknown areas of the world that most Europeans could not visit for themselves during that period. Beebe is credited by some as laying “the foundations for the environmental movement”54 through his many travel account, such as Galápagos: World’s End, and the collections of specimens he brought back for display by the New York Zoological Society that brought the natural world of far off places straight to the public. Beebe’s writings and the exhibits his collections helped to create “generated public interest in natural history.”55 It was the public interest in natural history inspired by naturalists, mostly through their writings like Darwin and Beebe did, that allowed for the movement to protect the environment to become influential.

The protection aspect of the environmental movement evolved after the age of survey collecting, but without this age the idea of protecting the environment is likely to have taken longer to occur. Survey collecting created a surge in the amount of natural history museums across the United States from the Field Museum in Chicago to Beebe’s New York Zoological Society to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This increase in natural history museums actively expanding their collections brought the findings of the field of natural history to more of the general public. By bringing the specimen live in the case of the New York Zoological Society and as stuffed specimen in nature dioramas that recreated the animals’ natural environments the general public were able to gain glimpses of the natural environment that still existed in some places beyond urban human civilization. The naturalist travel accounts that also came out of these survey collecting expeditions helped the public, who had a new found interest in nature, to understand that the environment in these places were beginning to also be affected by humans. This new realization that the remaining relatively undisturbed parts of the world were being affected by humans led to the development of the modern environmental movement and the aspect of conservation and protection.


Between the time of Darwin and Beebe many things changed including the role of naturalists, the Galápagos environment, and humans understanding and appreciation for nature. Darwin was a naturalist that was just a companion on a naval mapping expedition while Beebe was a naturalist that led his own expeditions solely with the goal of adding to the world’s knowledge on natural history. Although Darwin was not part of the era of survey collecting, his most famous work On the Origin of Species can be credited with at least partially inspiring the survey collecting era of the study of natural history. It was the naturalists, including Beebe, desires to prove (or disprove) his theory that led them on expeditions for the main purpose of finding evidence to support Darwin’s (or Creationist) theory of evolution. The Galápagos became one of the focuses of such expeditions with its credit for influencing Darwin’s development of the theory and the continued mysteries that it held. The expeditions of the age of survey collecting not only added to the evidence that proved Darwin’s theory, but it also resulted in bringing the interest in natural history to the public through travel accounts and museum diorama displays. The travel accounts, especially Beebe’s, also helped show how the environment in the Galápagos was changing due to the negative impacts of humans. Thus, it was through their contributions to these writings and displays that naturalists played an important role in sparking the modern environmental protection movement.


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    • actionbronson profile image

      actionbronson 4 years ago

      Great hub! Very well written and extensive. Proves that Darwin was actually more of a "naturalist" instead of what he more commonly known as, a "evolutionist".


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