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A renowned Darwin scholar leads a tour of the islands where the famed naturalist made his first
evolutionary observations

By TERESA KILLIAN TATE

The story of Charles Darwin and the Galapagos Islands is often misunderstood, said Jim Costa, professor of biology and director of Highlands Biological Station. When Darwin observed the giant tortoises, mockingbirds, and other flora and fauna on the islands in 1835, he did not grasp how important what he saw would be to the work for which he is known – “The Origin of Species.” It was months after Darwin’s visit that, in retrospect, he connected the island observations to the concept of evolution and, even later, to natural selection – the mechanism for evolution presented in his book.

Jim Costa, professor of biology and director of Highlands
Biological Station, recently led a tour to the Galapagos
Islands, where Charles Darwin recorded observations of
animals and plants that proved to be important in his book
“The Origin of Species.”

“What’s interesting is to try to see the specific plants and animals of the Galapagos through Darwin’s eyes at a time when he didn’t realize their uniqueness or the lessons they hold,” said Costa, who led a tour to the Galapagos this fall at the invitation of the Harvard Museum of Natural History in partnership with Lindblad/National Geographic Expeditions. The trip was one of dozens Costa, a renowned Darwin scholar who authored “The Annotated Origin,” took near and far in 2009 to present at celebrations in honor of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “Origin.”

“I was extremely excited to see the Galapagos landscape that Darwin memorialized so evocatively in his book ‘Voyage of the Beagle,’” said Costa. “I was keen to see some of the places and, of course, the fascinating organisms that Darwin saw during his visit and get a sense of the varied landscape that Darwin experienced – from vast desolate lava plains to lush mountaintop forests. In another respect, I was excited to experience the Galapagos as remote island archipelago. Oceanic islands are fascinating natural laboratories for ecological and evolutionary processes.”