lørdag 10. juni 2017

The Norwegian who knew his tortoises so well that he changed the course of history

This article has previously been published in Norwegian in Aftenposten Historie no. 6, 2015 and Biolog no, 1, 2014. Due to several requests, I have now also translated it into English.

Two days after Christmas in 1831 the frigate HMS Beagle left Plymouth on a five year journey around the globe. The purpose of the expedition was to update the British Navy's charts using new technology. But that's not why this journey is still remembered today. Captain Robert FitzRoy also wanted a naturalist on board, and -- quite by chance -- he commissioned the 22 year old geologist Charles Darwin.

Hunting Galápagos tortoises.
(Engraving by J. Berjeau, ca. 1888, based on a drawing by Albert Günther.)

According to the popular account of what followed, on the Galápagos Islands off Ecuador Darwin became aware of how the giant tortoises looked slightly different on each island, corresponding to its humidity or aridness, tall or low vegetation. And so he was struck by the revolutionary realisation that living beings, over the course of generations, adapt to survive in varying surroundings and so they branch out into what we call species.

What actually happened was, of course, not that simple.

Nothing rules the world more than mere chance, and a long chain of events led to Darwin's groundbreaking discovery. One of these coincidences was his meeting with a mysterious man braving the elements on a remote island on the Equator. A man who just like Darwin grew up not knowing what a tortoise was.