Charles Darwin and His Finches

Brad Page
10 August 2014

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was an English Naturalist who played a pivotal role in developing new ideas about evolution that were integrated throughout society during the Enlightenment, and still to this day.

At the age of 22, Darwin had failed out of medical school. Soon after, he set out on the H.M.S. Beagle to embark on a voyage that would change his views on the evolution of living organisms. The voyage began in Plymouth Harbor England on 27 December 1831. Over the next five years Darwin, Captain Robert FitzRoy and the rest of the crew would visit island after island along the coast of South America; including the Galapagos Islands.

During their visits, Darwin recorded his findings and captured species for further study. After gathering information from these islands, Darwin and the H.M.S. Beagle arrived at the Galapagos Islands in September 1835. Over the next two months, Darwin would capture every piece of information he could from the Galapagos where he began to notice how finches and tortoises were different in the Galapagos then they were on the previous islands they explored.

Finches were the species that Darwin became most familiar with during his voyage. Darwin noticed that the finches' beaks on the Galapagos were shaped differently. Darwin came to the conclusion that each species of finch had different shaped beaks to adapt to the types of food available to them, which allows them to survive longer.

Darwin believed evolution was "descent with modification" by means of natural selection. This means there are more complex living organisms that evolved from earlier, simpler organisms (Darwin). Some species of finch had long, thinner beaks, allowing them to catch insects. Other finches had strong, thick beaks for cracking open nuts and seeds. The finches on the Galapagos Islands are now known as "Darwin's Finches." They are named in Darwin's honor because the finches are what are believed to have changed his and the worlds' views on the evolution of new species. Realizing this, Darwin enhanced the theory of evolution by adding natural selection to the mix.

Natural Selection is when a species evolves and gains a functional advantage over earlier species. After so many functional advantages accumulate within a species, a new species is born. In Darwin's case, the finches adapted to their surroundings by means of natural selection because of the food and their surroundings. Darwin liked to use the phrase, "Survival of the fittest." What Darwin meant by this was that the species that had adapted to their environment and reproduced the most were the "fittest" of all species. Darwin was the first person to explain evolution in a way that involved the means of natural selection.

On 2 October 1836, Darwin returned home to England after a five-year voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. During those five-years, Darwin was able to gather a lot of very valuable information that he thought would change how people view evolution, and it did. Darwin took his time getting his work ready for publication. He spent 30 years organizing and getting together all of his the 30 years of research.

It was not until 1859, at the age of 50, that Darwin published his work titled, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Not everyone wanted to believe the facts that Darwin published. Christians still wanted to believe that God created everyone equal no matter when you were born (O'Neil). Darwin's theories actually weakened religious beliefs (Stearns, 409). During this time period, people were still getting used to the fact that new ideas were being introduced and supported by facts and evidence, not just by traditional ideas and myths (1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment). Charles Darwin was able to prove that scientists were able to advance knowledge with their findings (Stearns, 409).

A central European monk, named Gregor Mendel, wanted to elaborate and experiment more on the plant side of evolution, which Darwin had not gathered as much information on. Mendel carried out breeding experiments between generation one and generation two plants to see what the results were. Mendel was seeing if traits from either generation would be passed to the new generation. This was called "genetic inheritance." Mendel was able to prove the plant aspect of genetic inheritance.

With all of his research, Darwin shed light on evolution, which nobody had ever done before. In doing so, Darwin was a major contributing factor to the increased development within the scientific Age of the Enlightenment.

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John Gould's images of Darwin's finches from Voyage of the Beagle.