Darwin and Latin America (1831-1900)

In 1835, after nearly four years of botanical, ethnological, paleontological, zoological, and geological observation throughout South America, a little-known twenty-six year old British naturalist named Charles Darwin began to explore and collect samples from the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador (see source 'Map of tortoise distribution'). He found it interesting that the species of these isles were similar to those of the continent, yet the biota of each island were unique in their details. Odd species such as the flightless cormorant and giant tortoises, as in the source 'Sailor with Tortoise,' made him rethink the meaning of the many fossils he saw and collected throughout South America. Although the bones belonged to extinct species, like the megatherium skeleton in the sources, they were always found near the habitat of extant related ones, such as the smaller tree sloth. It would take another twenty-four years for Darwin to fully appreciate and publicize the significance of these observations, but the 1859 On the Origin of Species would prove to be one of the most influential scientific writings of all time.

Like his hero, Alexander von Humboldt, Darwin found inspiration in the wilderness of Latin America which, at the time, was still largely unknown to North Europeans. He studied the jungles of Brazil, the grasslands of Argentina, the mountains of Chile (where he drew 'fossil sea shells') and all of the peoples he encountered along the way. Even before publishing his theory of evolution, his collections and observations earned him renown as a naturalist, especially in geology, a field in which foreign travel was considered necessary for novel discoveries.

Darwin's international fame came with the publication of On the Origin of Species, which catalyzed a paradigm shift that eventually made a tremendous impact on both the scientific community and Western civilization in general. For one, it challenged long-held notions that humans were God's elect, made to be superior to all other creatures. Once seen as a mere product of evolution from a single primitive ancestor through an ongoing process of natural selection, the primacy of man, and even our permanence as a species, no longer seemed self-evident. Furthermore, Darwinism disproved contemporary racist theories because, as members of evolving populations, each individual is unique, making it impossible to qualitatively classify an entire race (Mayr 1995).

Nevertheless, the term Social Darwinism came to define an ideology of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that claimed society, like nature, would naturally exclude those less fit to thrive. 'Survival of the fittest,' a term coined by Herbert Spencer but largely associated with Darwinian evolution, prompted elitists from Britain to Argentina to legitimize disenfranchising the undesirable groups within their country based on biological laws. Gregory Claeys, historian of political thought, found that the ideologies of Social Darwinism actually existed before The Origins of Species was published, growing not from Darwin, but an intellectual milieu intent on legitimizing imperialism and white superiority. Although proponents of the eugenics movements near the turn-of-the-century cited Darwin to legitimize their belief that whites were the most intelligent people and thus the most fit, their notions had no foundations in Darwin's writings (Claeys 2000).

As in all scientific paradigm shifts, Darwinism was accepted by degrees and various countries received evolution at different times and in different ways. In Latin American and Iberian countries during the 1870s and 80s, Darwinism was the subject of much debate between religionists and positivists, the former promoting divine creation while the latter saw evolution as scientific proof of their ideas about progress. In fact, reformers like Argentina's 'Generation of 1880' used Darwin and Spencer's theories to distance themselves from conservatives. For those promoting the improvement of Latin American society, government, and--less fortunately--race, Darwin was a hero who provided proof that humanity's destiny was inevitably to evolve for the better (Glick 1999).

The fact that Darwinian evolution has been a subject of intense debate and controversy from 1859 until the present day gives credence to just how revolutionary and influential this concept has been. Charles Darwin's innovative and compelling theories, inspired by empirical observations of geology and existing and extinct biota, changed the world forever.

Questions for further exploration:

1. Examine a lesser known aspect of Darwin's observations in Latin America, such as geology, paleontology, or ethnography (all of which are partially addressed in this unit's sources). Did this particular part of his work influence his famous theory of evolution?

2. What do the satirical cartoons in this topic's sources tell us about Darwin's legacy in the late nineteenth century? How do theses British reactions to Darwinism compare with those of Latin American countries? (See Thomas F. Glick et al., eds., The Reception of Darwinism in the Iberian World for studies of country-specific reactions).

3. What forms did the local interpretation of Darwinism and its language take in the modernizing policies of any single Latin American country?

4. What were some of the impacts of Darwin's theories on the work of Latin American scientists, such as Carlos Monge Medrano or Bernardo Houssay, the first Latin American to win a Nobel Prize for science?

5. Compare Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution: which had a greater impact on social institutions in Latin America?

Further Reading:

Claeys, Gregory. "The 'Survival of the Fittest' and the Origins of Social Darwinism." Journal of the History of Ideas. 61: 2 (April 2000): 223-240.

Darwin, Charles. On Evolution: The Development of the Theory of Natural Selection. Eds. Thomas F. Glick and David Kohn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

Glick, T.F. and Miguel Angel Puig-Smaper, and R. Ruiz. The Reception of Darwinism in the Iberian World: Spain, Spanish America and Brazil. New York: Springer Press, 2001.

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

darwin-online.org.uk

Hopkins, Robert S. Darwin's South America. New York: The John Day Company, 1969.

Darwin Cartoon

Date: 1871
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Cartoons

 

This 1871 cartoon by Thomas Nast uses satire to make light of the controversy surrounding Darwin's theory of evolution. Since the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, evolution had caused an enormous controversy both among naturalists who debated the validity of the theory and, more importantly, the general public. While theories concerning natural history were not often popular topics, Darwin cast doubt on beliefs that were fundamental to the Judeo-Christian West, not only that God created each species and man individually, but also that the world was made in a week sometime around 4000 BCE. The clergy, led by Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, took the offensive against Darwin at the so called Oxford Meeting, a debate between pro and anti-Darwinists that left the clergy deflated.

The "Defrauded Gorilla" in this cartoon complains to Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), that Darwin has insulted his dignity by claiming humans are related to him. Nast, apparently, did not have the highest regard for mankind. This is only one of several satirical cartoons about Darwin and his theory that spanned many years. Perhaps more than any scientist in history, his work has entered the public consciousness and changed how we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

CITATION: Nast, Thomas. Darwin Cartoon. 1871. The Granger Collection, New York. 0009813

DIGITAL ID: 12416

 

Fossil Sea-Shells

Date: 1890
Owner: D. Appleton and Company
Source Type: Images

 

Darwin collected these fossils in 1834 while exploring the Andes Mountains of Chile for six weeks with two local guides. He was fascinated by the fauna that lived at such high altitudes, such as pumas, condors, and a 2000 foot cloud of locusts, but his most remarkable discoveries in the mountains were geological. Darwin questioned where these (and all) mountains came from and when they were formed, and he suspected (correctly) that these fossils held a clue to the answer.

He found shells like these at 12,000 feet above sea level, causing him to ponder how marine fossils existed so far inland and at such high altitudes. Darwin concluded that the southern region of South America must have been submersed in the ocean before being elevated above water. Deposits of ocean sediment in the valleys between the Andean peaks inspired the idea that, for a time, the apexes of the range were individual islands in the southern ocean, and only the continuous process of elevation brought them to their contemporary grandeur. Plate tectonics, the modern theory that explains how mountain ranges are raised by the collision and subduction of huge pieces of the lithosphere, did not fully develop until the early 1960s, but the observations of nineteenth century naturalists like Darwin brought such fundamental questions to the fore.

CITATION: Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. 'Beagle' Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy. R.N. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890.

DIGITAL ID: 12890

 

Fuegians and Wigwams

Date: 1833
Owner: D. Appleton and Company
Source Type: Images

 

Darwin drew this sketch of six Indians from Tierra del Fuego. The Beagle brought three Fuegians back to their homeland who, after being kidnapped a few years earlier, had been living in England. Jemmy Button (a young man), Fuegia Basket (a young woman), and York Minister (an older man) had all adopted European dress and spoke some English. Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle, hoped that these three would serve as an example of "civilized" ways and help bring the Fuegians out of "savagery." But when the Beagle returned to Tierra del Fuego one year after dropping the Indians back home, Fitzroy and Darwin found that Button, Basket, and Minister had all reverted to their native dress, language and customs. Darwin wrote in his journal that "we could hardly recognize poor Jemmy, instead of the clean, well dressed, stout lad we left him, we found him a naked thin squalid savage" (quoted in Moorehead 1982).

Although Darwin saw all people as the same biological species, the Indians he met in South America who promoted cannibalism and went about naked did appall his English sensibilities. His anthropological observations of Fuegian life were far from objective and he saw Indians as a less developed order of human, a thought which may have helped to formulate his ideas about evolution. Great as he was as both a naturalist and abolitionist, Darwin's notions were not always in accordance with those that are politically correct today.
 

CITATION: "Fuegians and Wigwams." Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. 'Beagle' Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890.

DIGITAL ID: 12878

 

Map of South America

Date: 1835
Owner: D. Appleton and Company
Source Type: Maps

 

This map traces the route of the Beagle around South America during that ship's trip around the world in the early 1830s. At these ports of call, Darwin was able to make excursions during which he collected fossils, observed local people and customs, and took notes and drew sketches of what he saw. Although Darwin was able to make some trips inland (with the help of guides), it is worth noting that most of his observations were limited to the coast of the Southern Cone of South America, and Darwin never visited the area further north nor the continent's vast interior. He no doubt would have been eager to explore the Amazon region as Humboldt had thirty years earlier.

Darwin's observations about nature are, with good reason, his most well known notes, but--as this map makes clear--Darwin visited several of South America's largest cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Lima. At these ports, he was able to conduct amateur ethnographic studies of the urban populations in the years directly following the independence of Latin America. He noted everything from the strict social hierarchies of Rio and the harsh slavery it engendered to the beauty of the women in Buenos Aires (he was, after all, a man in his early twenties).

South America's size and ecological diversity gave Darwin a chance to observe and compare a great variety of species, both living and extinct, and piece together a larger picture of how these life forms could be related to each other. It was a continental project, one that relied on visiting the many distant locales noted on this map.
    

CITATION: Map of South America. Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. 'Beagle' Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890.

DIGITAL ID: 13056

 

Mylodon

Date: 1833
Owner: D. Appleton and Company
Source Type: Images

 

This diagram from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle shows the bones of a mylodon, an extinct kind of giant sloth, that Darwin excavated in Bahia Blanca. Very little paleontological work had been done in South America prior to Darwin's visit (Humboldt had done a small amount of bone collecting), so Darwin was amazed to discover how the animals in the fossil record differed significantly from those then living on the continent. For one thing, the ancient species were much larger, yet there was ample evidence that ancient and modern species had much in common, like the extinct giant sloth and the modern tree sloth. Darwin also discovered the fossils of an ancient toed horse, though it was previously thought that there was nothing resembling a horse in South America prior to the Spanish conquest.

These fossils presented many problems. What killed off all of the animals? Was creation a continuous process or had it all been done in a week? Did these species fail to board Noah's Ark before the flood? Why do they share so many characteristics with living species?
The long-extinct species of South America, just like the insular diversity found on the Galapagos Islands, were essential to the formulation of the concept of natural selection. Darwin, perhaps more famously than any other scientist, benefited from using South America as a "field" for work in the natural sciences.

CITATION:  Mylodon. Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. 'Beagle' Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890. pp. 140.
 
DIGITAL ID: 12883

 

Portrait of Charles Darwin

Date: 1870
Owner: Library of Congress
Source Type: Images

 

Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the famous scientist known for his theory of evolution, studied many subjects throughout his academic career, including medicine, theology, and geology. In 1838, after five years of working on the HMS Beagle, he developed his theory of natural selection. He was not yet thirty years old. In 1859, he used this theory as the basis for a book, The Origin of Species; the book introduced the theory of evolution, which shook the scientific community and forever changed ideas concerning nature and human existence. His theory was highly controversial and threw the scientific communities into disarray for many years. It continues to be hotly contested today. Despite the controversy he caused, Darwin continued writing scientific treatises until his death in 1882.

It is important to note, however, that Darwin's notion of evolution was not unique at the time. Over fifty years prior to The Origin of Species, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had posited his theory of evolution in which acquired characteristics could be passed down through generations, thus changing species. (Lamarckian evolution would continue to have an important impact on Latin American science throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially in the "science" of Eugenics). Darwinian evolution was based on the theory of natural selection, yet Darwin was not the only naturalist to forward this notion; the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was formulating his own theory of natural selection based on the biogeographical distribution of plants and animals. In 1858, Wallace sent a copy of his essay "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type" to Darwin for Review. Darwin was in the process of articulating his own theory but was preoccupied by his son's illness, so he forwarded Wallace's manuscript to naturalist Charles Lyell who arranged for a joint presentation of the work of both men at a meeting of the Linnean Society.  Wallace did not have the same social or scientific clout as Darwin, and he accepted his role as the secondary co-discoverer of natural selection.

Darwin still deserves credit for formulating natural selection, but the work of contemporaries like Wallace does much to demystify Darwin's legacy as a genius who stood alone among his peers. No scientist ever works in isolation from either the scientific community or his/her society, and even the most groundbreaking theories must be understood in context.
          
CITATION: Charles Darwin. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-104.

DIGITAL ID: 12419

 

Source References

Web Sites

"The Voyage of the Beagle" by Charles Darwin (The Online Literature Library): Text of Charles' Darwin's "The Voyage of the Beagle."

Charles Darwin Foundation (Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands )

undefined (Instituto Darwinion)

Publications

Claeys, Gregory. "The 'Survival of the Fittest' and the Origins of Social Darwinism." Journal of the History of Ideas. 61: 2 (April 2000): 223-240.

Darwin, Charles and Frederick Burkhardt. Charles Darwin's Letters: A Selection, 1825-1859. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Darwin, Charles. Geological Observations on the Volcanic Island and Parts of South America Visited During the Voyage of H M S Beagle. New York: Ams Pr Inc, 1972.

Darwin, Charles. On Evolution: The Development of the Theory of Natural Selection. Eds. Thomas F. Glick and David Kohn. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1996.

Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches. New York: Penguin, 1989. 

Glick, T.F. and Miguel Angel Puig-Smaper, and R. Ruiz. The Reception of Darwinism in the Iberian World: Spain, Spanish America and Brazil. New York: Springer Press, 2001.

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

Hopkins, Robert S. Darwin's South America. New York: The John Day Company, 1969.

Mayr, Ernst. "Darwin's Impact on Modern Thought." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 139: 4 (December 1995): 317-325.

Moorehead, Alan. Darwin and the Beagle. New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1971.

Pruna, Pedro M. and Armando Garcia Gonzalez. Darwinismo y sociedad en Cuba: Siglo XIX. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1989.

Stamos, David N. Darwin and the Nature of Species. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.

Films and Videos

Galapagos: Beyond Darwin (The Discovery Channel, 1996)

The Mixed Legacy of Darwin

Date: 1892
Owner: Benjamin Lara
Source Type: Images

 

Darwinian evolution had a massive impact on science and society in Latin America (and, for that matter, the entire world). A quick look at some of the other topics on this website will give some sense as to just how influential natural selection was on a wide variety of Latin American sciences. Some of these influences were rather benign: botanists looked to Darwinism to explain the abundance of various forms of plant life and paleontologists used natural selection to make sense of the region's unique fossil record.

Social scientists and reform-minded elites, however, found in Darwinism a useful tool for legitimizing their own biased opinions about society and the various peoples within it. Herbert Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism--the idea that a society on the whole could evolve like a species--became popular among many Latin American elites. Although some Latin Americans used this theory to claim that miscegenation had improved their societies (see the source on Silvio Romero in the Social Science topic), most agreed with the Eurocentric idea that any loss of whiteness was a kind of de-evolution, both for the mixed-race offspring and the society as a whole.

The drive to improve their nations led many Latin American governments (circa 1880-1940) to impose various measures to ensure that the genetic constitution of the nation continued to improve and the "degenerative" genetic elements were relegated to society's periphery. Criminologists and eugenicists were at the forefront of these efforts. As in the image of Mexican criminals seen here, professional criminologists thought they could identify the genetic traits of criminals; usually, these studies simply reinforced old stereotypes that Indians and blacks were inferior and prone to criminal behavior. Eugenicists and social hygienists then attempted to remove such destructive elements from the national "germ plasm."

It is interesting how Darwin's theory, which derived from observations he made in Latin America, returned to that region in such a different form. Certainly Darwin did not have the evolutionary divergence of born criminals in mind when he studied the finches and iguanas of the Galapagos. Although all scientific ideas are subject to manipulation, Darwinism is a particularly powerful theory because it revolutionized the idea of what it means to exist as a species. In Latin America, a region of incredible diversity in plant, animal, and human life, "survival of the fittest" was too often transformed from a theory into a national policy.
 

CITATION: Martinez Baca, Francisco and Manuel Vergara. Estudios de antropologia criminal. Puebla: Imprenta, litografia y Encuadernacion de Benjamin Lara, 1892.

DIGITAL ID: 13133

 

Tortoise

Date: 1835
Owner: D. Appleton and Company
Source Type: Images

On the Galapagos Islands (galapago is Spanish for giant tortoise), Darwin saw tortoises that had shells over a yard long and weighed up to 500 pounds (he even noted how he rode on the back of one without slowing the behemoth's progress). He captured a few young ones and brought them back to England, along with a small menagerie of birds, plants, insects, and reptiles.

The giant tortoises are but one example of the striking oddity of life on the Galapagos, which are home to several species of plants, reptiles, birds, and crustaceans found no where else in the world, including other isles in that archipelago. Although he did not publish his theory of evolution for many years after his 1835 excursion at Galapagos, the diversity of life he observed and collected there was instrumental to its development. He reasoned that an ancestor of each unique species--such as the black iguana or flightless cormorant--made its way to the Galapagos at some ancient point in history, and adapted over millennia to its surroundings. The random adaptations that proved most conducive to survival became widespread while those varieties that developed less efficiently became extinct.

Empirical observations on a remote Ecuadorian island catalyzed a theory that would force Western civilization to rethink its most fundamental axioms. Although Darwin's theory has itself evolved since the mid nineteenth century, many of his assertions still hold sway in modern biology.

CITATION: Tortoise. Darwin, Charles. Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage Round the World of H.M.S. 'Beagle' Under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy, R.N. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890.

DIGITAL ID: 12894

 

Voyage of the Beagle

Date: 1899
Owner: D. Appleton & Co. 
Source Type: Publications

 

These excerpts were taken from the journal that Charles Darwin kept while sailing around the world on the Beagle, which was first published in 1839 under the title Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries visited during the Voyage of the H.M.S. "Beagle" Round the World, Under the Command of Capt. FitzRoy, R.N.. Although he had not yet formulated fully his theory of evolution, it is evident in many of the chapters (such as "Relation of the Fossil and recent Quadrupeds of North and South America") that he was beginning to work it out.The chapters on the Galapagos, extinction, and paleontology also bear witness to his evolving ideas. For insights into Darwin's ethnological studies, the chapter on the Fuegians is the most revealing. The chapter written on the Brazilian rainforest just after first arriving in South America is the best illustration of Darwin's general enthusiasm as a naturalist, a sentiment shared in Humboldt's writings about South America's eastern jungles. Darwin's formal works, especially On the Origins of Species and The Descent of Man include the mature form of his theory of evolution and are essential reading for anyone interested in Darwin or biology in general. This journal, though, captures the passion of a young naturalist who knows he is acquiring the pieces necessary to formulate one of the grandest theories of all time.

CITATION: Darwin, Charles. The Voyage of the Beagle. New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1899.

DIGITAL ID: 12963