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”



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.


Darwin transmutation fossil vertebrate succession Beagle agouti Megatherium armadillo nineteenth century 


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This paper originated as a project in John Beatty’s “Darwinian Revolution” course at the University of Minnesota. I am most grateful to John, David Sepkoski, Michel Janssen, other Minnesota friends and colleagues, and especially Richard Bellon for many critical discussions of this topic, as well as some very helpful feedback. Three anonymous reviewers also made many valuable suggestions. I am likewise grateful to the Columbia History of Science Group/Friday Harbor meeting participants of 2003 for their lively and (mostly) hostile reaction to an earlier version of this paper. Rick Madden and David Quammen motivated me to take-up this project again after a long hiatus. Thereafter, I benefited from an exciting and enlightening discussion on this subject with Niles Eldredge. Two web resources, “The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online” ( and “Darwin Correspondence Project” ( have been immeasurably helpful in providing easy access to essential Darwiniana. Vince Schneider gave me the time to work on this paper. Lori Belk helped me with the figures. Nancy Loquet translated a difficult French text for me. Darin Croft advised me on the fossils. Janet Edgerton, Librarian at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, filled my unusual book and article requests. Christine Giannoni, Associate Librarian at The Field Museum, provided many helpful services while I worked on this project in Chicago. Finally, thanks to the attentive staff of the Player’s Retreat in Raleigh, where the better part of this paper was written.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.North Carolina Museum of Natural SciencesRaleighUSA

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