Darwin and Paleontology

Date: 1831
Owner: Wellcome Library, London
Source Type: Images


Many consider Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to stem from revelations following his visit to the Galapagos Islands, yet he explored the Galapagos after nearly four years of observing other South American species, both living and extinct. The remains of long-dead fauna found in odd places, like these ancient conchs from the Andes, raised difficult questions about how these species had ceased to exist and what, if any, connection they might have to present-day species. It was this question, which Darwin first encountered in the Southern Cone, that may have sparked his early notions of successive evolution and natural selection.

While he traveled with the Beagle during this early stage of his career, Darwin was primarily a geologist; international travel, like the Beagle's voyage around the world, was considered integral in the 19th century to developing a larger (extra-European) picture of the earth's history. Darwin hoped that his observations and collections in South America could help to elaborate the bourgeoning theory of geographic strata, determining the relative age of the different eras by examining both rocks and the various fossils contained therein.

His greatest discovery, however, did not prove much about stratigraphy. He realized that creatures like the glyptodont (an extinct huge mammal with a hard shell) were not direct ancestors of modern fauna like armadillos, a tenet of some pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories. Furthermore, all similar species in the Americas that were found in the fossil record and among modern creatures were native only to the Americas. As he eventually articulated in The Origin of Species, what occurred was a succession of types, each more fit to thrive during (drastically changing) contemporary circumstances. The fact that 2 of the 10 chapters in the original edition of the Origin dealt with fossils reflects how important his paleontological discoveries were to his mature theory.

As in other scientific expeditions of the nineteenth century (and beyond), Darwin simply took what he found and sent it to Europe. There were no laws governing the "theft" of natural history specimens, and Darwin's use of South America as a "field" for doing science contributed little to South America at the time. In the late nineteenth century, however, the seminal theory that literaly had its roots in South American soil would have a massive impact on many aspects of Latin American science and society: evolutionism shaped how positivists understood biology, criminology, racial sciences (and eugenics), tropical diseases, and, of course, paleontology. The scientific rhetoric of Darwinian evolution was even used to evince the development of "backwards" Latin American nations into modern, Western-style states.

References: Herbert, Sandra. Charles Darwin, Geologist. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Simpson, George Gaylord. Discoverers of the Lost World: An account of some of those who brought back to life South American mammals long buried in the abyss of time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

CITATION: Conchology: shells. Engraving. From: Darwin, Charles. Geological Observations on South America. London: Smith and Elder, 1846. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. L0003828.