An otherwise good story about Darwin’s work in South America is marred by historical hyperbole.
Reports of the botanist’s round-the-world voyage are dominated by his findings in the Galápagos. The much longer time he spent in Chile and what he saw there have been overlooked – until today.
It’s true that most people think the Galápagos were the big deal in Darwin’s mind — we like that idea of a magical “A-ha!” moment — but it’s not true that his work in the rest of South America was overlooked. They certainly aren’t ignored in any of the biographies or histories I’ve read, and I put a lot of emphasis on South America in my introductory biology classes, and have done so for as long as I’ve been teaching.
Darwin’s deep knowledge of the flora and fauna of South America was essential to Darwin’s insight. He was familiar with the iguanas of the Pacific coast; he knew the birds and other reptiles that lived there; so when he arrived at the Galápagos, what immediately leapt out at him was the strangeness of the place. Everything was different, but at the same time, it was also clearly similar to what he’d seen on the mainland. The Galápagos were the uncanny valley to Chile.
That appreciation of the obvious relatedness was the key to what Darwin figured out, and it required the knowledge he’d acquired on the mainland.
I also talk up the South American expeditions to the students because it runs entirely counter to the stereotype of Darwin the eggheaded invalid — he was a young man who’d get off the boat, get a horse, load it with guns, and charge off on rides of hundreds of miles to explore the interior. He was Cowboy Charlie…with serious scholarly intent.