Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 43, Issue 2, pp 363–399 | Cite as

Charles Darwin’s Beagle Voyage, Fossil Vertebrate Succession, and “The Gradual Birth & Death of Species”

Article

Abstract

The prevailing view among historians of science holds that Charles Darwin became a convinced transmutationist only in the early spring of 1837, after his Beagle collections had been examined by expert British naturalists. With respect to the fossil vertebrate evidence, some historians believe that Darwin was incapable of seeing or understanding the transmutationist implications of his specimens without the help of Richard Owen. There is ample evidence, however, that he clearly recognized the similarities between several of the fossil vertebrates he collected and some of the extant fauna of South America before he returned to Britain. These comparisons, recorded in his correspondence, his diary and his notebooks during the voyage, were instances of a phenomenon that he later called the “law of the succession of types.” Moreover, on the Beagle, he was following a geological research agenda outlined in the second volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which implies that paleontological data alone could provide an insight into the laws which govern the appearance of new species. Since Darwin claims in On the Origin of Species that fossil vertebrate succession was one of the key lines of evidence that led him to question the fixity of species, it seems certain that he was seriously contemplating transmutation during the Beagle voyage. If so, historians of science need to reconsider both the role of Britain’s expert naturalists and the importance of the fossil vertebrate evidence in the development of Darwin’s ideas on transmutation.

Keywords

Darwin transmutation fossil vertebrate succession Beagle agouti Megatherium armadillo nineteenth century 

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.North Carolina Museum of Natural SciencesRaleighUSA

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