Specimens from the voyage of the Beagle

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was one of the most significant milestones in the history of the Biological Sciences. It was proposed at a time (the 1850s) when nothing was known about how inheritance worked, or about the nature of genes. Yet subsequent advances in these fields, by Mendel (1860s), Watson and Crick (1950s) and other scientists, have confirmed and enriched Darwin’s theory, rather than coming up with some alternative view of how evolution happens.‌

Darwin’s 5-year voyage on the ship HMS Beagle, from 1831-1836, was to provide much of the evidence for his theory. He studied animals, plants, fossils and rocks in many parts of the world, perhaps most notably on the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. The many species of finches found there are now known as “Darwin’s Finches”; and several books (by various authors) have been devoted entirely to this group of birds, the most recent appearing in 2008.

Guira cuckoo (Guira guira)Following the end of the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin presented his collection of birds and mammals to the Zoological Society of London. In 1855, the Council and Auditors of the Zoological Society decided to dispose of some of their collections, partly on account of inadequate storage facilities. They arranged a sale to the Board of Direction, Queen’s College Galway (now NUI Galway), of a series of specimens, including the four displayed in the Zoology and Marine Biology Museum, which had been presented to the Society by Darwin. The specimens consist of three mammal species: a grison, a cavy and an Azara’s fox; and one bird species, a guira cuckoo (left). All four species were collected from South America.

As is well known, Darwin was reluctant to publish his theory of evolution, and continued to amass evidence in its favour for many years before publishing it. In the end, the stimulus to publish came from his receipt of a letter from a fellow-naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, proposing essentially the same theory. Papers from Darwin and Wallace were read at the Linnean Society of London in 1858, yet neither man was present, and the papers made little impact. But the following year Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which made an enormous impact. The rest, as they say, is history.