Finches and Evolution on the Galapagos Islands

This story was not known at Darwin’s own time at all, but arose in the 1930s as the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s visit to the islands was being celebrated. It is true that he visited the Galapagos Islands during his voyage with the HMS Beagle. It is also true that he collected different kinds of finches, but it is not true that they immediately made him think about evolution through natural selection.

In fact, he was neither very careful registering the finches nor studying them. It was not untill after his return to England that his colleague John Gould was able to sort the collected and brought the different characteristics of the finches to Darwin’s attention.

There were many other things which made Darwin think of evolution. He collected an impressive geological, paleontological, zoological and botanical material from all over the world, which he studied and compared to what other scientists had collected and described. All of this material showed signs of the development having some distinct common features. Today, we call this converging evidence. This, in the end, made Darwin think of evolution.

So the idea arose on the basis of a long study of a very extensive material. Now all he needed was a mechanism to explain it. He found this in natural selection. The finch-myth has become very popular, because it is very simple and confirms the widespread image of the development of science as the result of the mad scientist’s sudden eureka moment. That is rarely the case, and it was definitely not the case for Darwin.

Since the year 2000, a peculiar version of the finch-myth has appeared. That year, Bank of England, under great media attention, introduced the new 10-pound note. On one side, on the right, you find Darwin’s very recognizable and characteristic profile with the white beard. Also included on the note is the HMS Beagle, a magnifying glass, some flowers and to the left, just as significant as Darwin’s profile, in the words of the bank, “a hummingbird characteristic of the Galapagos Islands”.

Darwin did not see any hummingbirds on the Galapagos Islands, because there aren’t any. He does not even mention hummingbirds in On the Origin of Species and there are very few references to them in his others books. In his private field journals, you also only find a few references to hummingbirds among the long lists of animals he registered in South America. He had only seen hummingbirds in the eastern part of Chile and therefore did not know if they were different in the western part. In addition to this, there is also a single hummingbird on the list of finds from Valparaiso and Tierra del Fuega. That’s it. But now – everytime you pay with a 10-pound note, you connect hummingbirds to Darwin.

The editors

Extended knowledge

You can read more about Darwin's impression of the Galápagos Islands here in Danish or in English.