The Making of Darwin

Galapagos is an extraordinary place. Unique, austere, wilderness at its best. Nature up close. Yet it cannot be denied that the world of Galapagos is intimately related to one man, the son of industrial England and a Doctor. That man is Charles Darwin. 

His fame is worldwide; his scientific publications are of universal importance. His wonderful Voyage of the Beagle, described as “one of the greatest scientific travel adventure tales ever written”, gives us a glimpse of a 23 year old man, fascinated by natural history, inspired by some of the greatest scientific minds in England, his mind a sponge for detail and enquiry.

If we should want to depict Darwin, where should we look? Would it be to the bearded sage, after a lifetime of family life, endless writings and rewritings of the most profound theory that has originated in a human mind, or would it be at the Origin of all these works of later years. Would it be found in his Voyage?

Charles Darwin was an observer  “par excellence” who noted all things and magnified them through a lens, which forever lay slung around his neck. He was immensely curious about the world and was bathed in it, in the widest sense, on the worldwide voyage of the Beagle.  

The resulting book is full of engaging and detailed descriptions of life, people, places, and natural phenomena. In my personal volume, published in 1964 by Doubleday, 381 pages of a total of 501 are dedicated to South America, then a wild continent giving Darwin almost continuous views of the snow capped mountains of the vast Andean chain, now known to be caused by the jostling of tectonic plates.

Cavalli Al Pascolo Ai Piedi Del Massiccio Del Fitz Roy, Patagonia - di Annalisa Parisi

The Patagonian Plains – Annalisa Parisi

It may be fairly said that South America was young Charles Darwin, riding at a canter across the Patagonian plains, digging out fossils from cliffs, climbing mountains, recognizing the seeds of natural selection in the relationship between living and extinct species, and then between closely related living species in Galapagos, Darwin’s “satellite” of South America.

When the Charles Darwin Foundation was working on the new ideas for a visitor trail the subject of Darwin was never far from our minds, and considering that the station was named after him, he is essential to it. But if we were to portray him what would bring people closer to him?

The bearded man whose life works line library shelves, fill web pages and CD’s, feels distant from us, deep in a world he created for himself, but, as a young man, he represents youth, enthusiasm, enquiry, capable of mistakes, applying a frightful logic to what he observed. And, in a great way, and perhaps most importantly, wondering at the extraordinary nature of life, its beauty, and its coexistence in so many forms.

Wasn’t this a young man we could identify with, sit with, talk to, even banter with? Would somehow his remarkable talents be still present for us and be an example to us all – to be observant, think about those observations, draw conclusions based on a logic, even on intuition, and then have the strength to not deviate from the conclusions of these processes!

So we decided to make a figure, not in a classic pose, but as he probably would have looked and dressed whilst sitting on a boulder, resting on a bench outside a small village in Argentina, cold but thrilled to be on the top of the Andes amongst marine fossils, or observing people, or an armadillo.

Blog, Darwin 1940, 1954

But it’s not that easy, because contrary to what one would expect, there are very few photographs, drawings, or paintings of Darwin during his whole life, and particularly when young. On the voyage there is not a single one! A well-known 1840 watercolour by George Richmond (above left) is believed to be somewhat beautified and the next image is a photograph from 1854 when Darwin was 45 and distinctly middle aged (above right). Not much to go on! What would he have worn, did shoes or boots have laces, and how are breeches constructed? We do know he carried two things all his life, a notebook and a hand lens, his tools of remembering, in the search for detail, and providing food for later thought.

Given these difficulties I considered that as the years passed on board the Beagle, we might find a man with a rather lean and hungry look, not the well fed man of England’s “green and pleasant land”. As well, don’t forget he was seasick during the whole voyage. His clothes might have been few and well worn; perhaps he even obtained some local apparel as used by the gaucho! Yet surely he would have had well toned muscles and rough hands?

Thus the vision of a man sitting on a bench, leaning slightly forward, interested in his surroundings, absorbing the wider picture, and willing to talk, grew toward reality.  Around his neck the lens; a notebook in his hand with a finger marking the place would be appropriate. His hair curving over his forehead, sideburns descend to his jaw line as in the mode of the day. Sit with him in the sea breeze moving in from the south between the two science buildings of the Charles Darwin Research Station – a fitting place for this unique Man of Science.

Blog, Darwin with GM

Godfrey Merlen (left) and sculptor Patricio Ruales (right) sitting with Darwin. Image ©CDF

The search was then on to find a sculptor capable of raising this figure. Since Darwin was a traveller in the Andes it seemed appropriate to concentrate the search in Quito, a city surrounded by snow peaked volcanoes. Detail and craftsmanship were important and time too for we wished to have it on display during the 50th anniversary of the Charles Darwin foundation. In this capital of Ecuador the Cultural Centre provided the answer. Patricio Ruales, a man on a 1200cc Yamaha “pseudo” Harley. He had made a number of casts of historic figures for the Centre and was accustomed to using resin as a casting material, which is light in weight and highly weather resistant! I discussed the ideas with him and finally we came to the conclusion that this was indeed possible. He would be 10% larger than life for impact reasons (known only to specialists in the field). The arms would have to be anchored to the body to avoid breakages as the “children of Darwin” might want to sit in his embrace! He would be seated on a curved wooden bench under a canopy of wood, a view behind him over the sea. There is space there to allow a group of visitors to sit with him and discuss not only his contribution to human knowledge but many other wide ranging subjects.

Blog, Darwin Statue Closeup ©CDF

We hope he will be an inspiration to visitors and local people alike.

by Godfrey Merlen

GCT Ambassador