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Matthew James and the Galapagos Islands

Matthew James

San Francisco-based scientist and historian Matthew James keeps the flame for one of the most important scientific expeditions in history. James, professor of paleontology and geology at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California, spent 20 years working on his 2017 book, “Collecting Evolution: The Galapagos Expedition That Vindicated Darwin” (Oxford University Press).

This is not the story of the famous 1835 voyage of the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands, during which the British naturalist Charles Darwin made a number of observations that laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution. James’ book is the tale of a later, serendipitously timed expedition, in 1905-1906, in which eight young scientists set sail from San Francisco for Galapagos on the schooner Academy.

On behalf of the California Academy of Sciences (CAS), the expedition gathered, preserved and carried back more than 78,000 animal and plant specimens that would allow later scientists to finish the work Darwin had begun. This, contends James, a past president of the AAAS Pacific Division, is the voyage that made it possible to demonstrate the theory of evolution in concrete, scientific terms.

“There had never before been enough giant tortoises in one place to lay them out on tables to do an island-by-island comparison. Same for the finches. The expedition collected some 3,800 bodies of Darwin’s finches” that were used in key studies later on, and the list goes on and on — lava lizards, snakes, iguanas, land snails and various plants, said James, a CAS Fellow.

Not only that, but the Great San Francisco Earthquake of April 18, 1906, destroyed the CAS building and all its contents, and would have taken the fruits of the expedition with it had the voyage, which ended on Thanksgiving Day 1906, taken place earlier. As it was, the specimens allowed the CAS to rise from its own ashes into a must-visit destination for serious researchers from all over the world.

Modern readers may be shocked at the sheer number of specimens the expedition brought back — 266 giant tortoises alone, including a male the scientists knew to be the last of its kind.

“They set out to get as much of everything as they could,” James said.

It was an attitude of a different time. James notes that at the end of the 19th century, even amateur birders often collected hundreds of bird specimens in the ordinary course of their hobby. “Where now a birder’s guide might say, ‘Get an excellent pair of binoculars,’ the recommendation then was, ‘Buy a really good shotgun,’” James said. A major impetus for the expedition was the dawning sense that nature’s abundance in the Galapagos was running out, he said.

Darwin didn’t actually draw the conclusions that are very often ascribed to him about why, say, finches from different islands in Galapagos had different beaks, said James, who has studied Darwin at Oxford University in England; Darwin was basically a creationist when he visited the archipelago. He did not ever seem to realize that the various beak shapes evolved to help birds successfully forage for the kinds of seeds that grew where they lived, James said.

That fell to later scientists, especially the British evolutionary biologist David Lack, who in his 1947 book, Darwins Finches, gathered together many of the threads of evolution, together with his own epiphany that the beaks had evolved for more specialized feeding, James said. And even Lack, who in 1939 studied specimens from the Academy voyage at the CAS, thought at first that different finches had different beak shapes only so the birds could recognize members of their own species.

“Darwin got a lot of things wrong, and his material from Galapagos was useless,” James said. “He threw finches from different islands into the same bag,” making it impossible to match the birds up with samples of seeds they might have eaten.

That was where the eight young men on the Academy came in. They provided the carefully collected specimens that would allow future scientists to build the case for evolution. What comes through about them from James’ book is the focus they brought to the project.

The expedition leader, Rollo Beck, who grew up on a farm in the San Jose, California, area, had an eighth-grade education but was a first-rate birder and collector. Washington Henry Ochsner, a bright geology student at Stanford University, was the geologist, paleontologist and conchologist on the Academy. All the men endured tropical heat, hard, monotonous work, and months away from home, but appear to have put their work first to a remarkable degree.

“It was a long voyage. They were all capable. There wasn’t a lot of drama. There was a little bit of fighting, but for the most part, they got along pretty well,” James said.

James was raised in Hawaii and did his undergraduate work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. As a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in 1982, he lucked into a spot on the very first paleontology expedition to Galapagos, where he fell under the spell of the rugged archipelago in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. He has never lost his passion for the place.

“We tooled around the islands and found some new localities, but we also went to all localities Ochsner visited. We were walking in his footsteps,” James said.

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