COS 68-8 - Charles Darwin's experience in Chile: The importance of contingency and analytical observation in science

Wednesday, August 5, 2009: 4:00 PM
La Cienega, Albuquerque Convention Center
Juan J. Armesto, Ecology, Universidad Católica de Chile, Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, Santiago, Chile, Mary F. Willson, Fundacion Senda Darwin, Juneau, AK, Nelida Pohl, Fundacion Senda Darwin and Instituto de Ecologia y Biodiversidad, Santiago, Chile, Iván A. Díaz, Instituto de Silvicultura, Facultad de Ciencias Forestales y Recursos Naturales, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Chile, Wara Marcelo, Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra y Evolución, Universidad Austral de Chile, Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, Valdivia, Chile and Ricardo Rozzi, Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, IEB-UMAG-UNT
Background/Question/Methods The voyage of the Beagle was in Darwin's own words, an event that determined his whole career as a scientist and represented “the first real training of (his) mind.” The path to revolutionary scientific ideas is not a linear and smooth accumulation of supporting evidence to reach a novel conclusion, but rather a meandering and rocky road, to get around the dominant worldviews of the time. In many cases, fortunate events or contingencies may facilitate the development of successful scientific theory. Here, we revisit the path that led Charles Darwin to the voyage around the world and identify the main contingencies that were determinant for this significant event in Darwin's life. We also examine Darwin's Chilean experience and discuss how field observations helped or hindered new insights about geological and biological processes that were critical to his theory. Our work is based on a literature review and our own experience revisiting the places described by Darwin in his travel Diary through Chile. This presentation showcases the relevance that passing through Chile had on the development of Darwin's ideas.

Results/Conclusions Darwin's presence on the Beagle resulted from three main contingencies. a) As member of a wealthy English family, he was a candidate to accompany the aristocrat Robert Fitzroy in this five-year trip. b) After arriving at Cambridge he befriended Professor John Henslow, who recommended him to Fitzroy. c) Fitzroy's favorite for the post renounced unexpectedly. Moreover, Darwin's father was instrumental by financing his expeditions on land. Darwin's Chilean experience was largely geological. He missed some peculiarities of the Chilean flora and fauna that could have contributed to his theory. Darwin's first publication ("Proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chile", 1838) argued for the gradual build up of the massive Andes that so much impressed him. These observations suggested to him that the history of Earth was longer than previously conceived. A most important direct contribution was the monograph on the Cirripedia, a “most curious form” found in the coast of Chile, that “was of considerable use to me, when I had to discuss in The Origin of Species the principles of a natural classification” (Autobiography). Darwin's passing through Chile yet often overlooked by his biographers lasted 13 months, and provided many crucial observations for his theory.

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