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CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

The finches of the Galápagos archipelago, commonly called “Darwin’s finches,” are among the most famous and studied groups of birds in the world. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that those finches – extraordinary examples of adaptive radiation – were singularly important to Darwin in the development of his theories. As it turns out, that isn’t true. It is, however, one of the more persistent legends in the history of science, largely the result of crediting to Darwin, as coming during his time on the Beagle and shortly afterward, insights that he did not formulate until much later. “Darwin’s finches do not appear to have inspired his earliest theoretical views on evolution . . . rather it was his evolutionary views that allowed him, retrospectively, to understand the complex case of the finches” (Sulloway 1982, 32).

Darwin did not think much of the finches when he collected them, not even bothering to note the island where each specimen was taken. He would later regret that, after he turned to John Gould to describe the birds when he returned to England in 1836. Gould determined that the finches represented a series of previously undescribed forms, twelve species in all. Darwin subsequently used specimens collected by Captain Robert Fitz Roy and another member of the crew to try to sort out and understand the finches for himself, but even then he did not rely on them for his ideas on evolution. They are not mentioned in his earliest notebooks on evolution and are mentioned only in passing in the first published account of his voyage (Darwin 1839). One provocative sentence was added to the second edition: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species has been taken and modified for different ends” (Darwin 1845). In The Origin of Species, published in 1859, the finches are again unmentioned (Sulloway 1982, 39).

In an 1858 letter to Charles Lyell, Darwin wrote, “I was led to my views from what artificial selection has done for domestic animals” (Montgomerie 2009). The generally despised domesticated pigeon (Columba livia) played an important role in developing the ideas in his Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication, published in 1869. Darwin had become a “pigeon fancier” in 1855 and “at the height of his pigeon work . . . had more than 90 birds in his flock and regularly attended fanciers’ meetings and pigeon shows to learn more about the process of artificial selection” (Montgomerie 2009, 479). Captive-bred birds, rather than wild birds, appear to have made the greatest contribution to Darwin’s evolutionary theory (Steinheimer 2004), and it might simply be said that ornithology was more affected by Darwin than Darwin was by ornithology.