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Pulling Lizards’ Tails at the Birthplace of Darwin’s Big Idea

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 15, 2010

Charles Darwin when he was still just Chucky D, likable bloke.

On September 15, 1835, 175 years ago today, Charles Darwin first set foot in the Galapagos Islands.  He seems to have been struck at first mainly by the starkness of the landscape.  In his diary, he wrote:  “These islands at a distance have a sloping uniform outline, excepting where broken by sundry paps & hillocks. — The whole is black Lava, completely covered by small leafless brushwood & low trees.”

But the species he saw and collected in the Galapagos–particularly those finches–began slowly to move his thinking toward the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin tends to get remembered these days as a gloomy old man with an earth-shaking idea.  So I like the portrait of him at left, from 1840, a few years after the Beagle’s return home, when he had happily married, and the evolution controversy lay far in his future.  And I like the curious, whimsical character he reveals in this excerpt from his notes in the Galapagos, after watching a lizard partly bury itself in the sand:  “I watched one for a long time, till half its body was buried; I then walked up and pulled it by the tail; at this it was greatly astonished, and soon shuffled up to see what was the matter; and then stared me in the face, as much as to say, “What made you pull my tail?”‘

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