John Gould’s influence in the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection

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Gould had a lot of experience in identifying birds and mammals and did this also with the Darwin finches of the Galapagos Islands. Gould’s work is referenced in Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species.

John Gould was the most celebrated British ornothologist of the 19th century, famed for his folios featuring vividly colored pictures of rare birds. Known als ‘The Bird Man,’ Gould was at the cutting edge of evolutionary science discovering hundred of new bird species on his travels around Australia and Europe, and helping Charles Darwin develop his theory of natural selection. A master of arranging birds and mammals in tasteful compositions, Gould employed the most accomplished artists of his day to turn his sketches into these beautiful paintings.

When Charles Darwin presented his bird specimens to the Zoological Society of London in 1837, the specimens were given to Gould for identification. He set aside his paying work and at the next meeting with Darwin reported that the birds from the Galápagos Islands, which Darwin had thought were blackbirds, gross-bills and finches were in fact ‘a series of ground finches which are so peculiar’ as to form ‘an entirely new group, containing twelve species.’ This story made the newspapers.

A few month later Darwin met Gould again, learning that his ‘Galápagos Wren’ was another species of finch and the mockingbirds he had labelled by island were separate species, rather than just varieties, with relatives on the South American mainland. Subsequently, Gould advised that the smaller southern Rhea specimen, that had been rescued from a Christmas dinner, was a separate species, which he named Rhea darwinii, whose territory overlapped with the northern rheas.

Darwin had not bothered to label his finches by island, but others on the expedition had taken more care. Darwin now sought specimens collected by captain Robert FitzRoy and crewmen. From them he was able to establish that the species were unique to islands, an important step on the inception of his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Gould’s work on the birds was published between 1838 and 1842 in five numbers as Part 3 of Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Charles Darwin. Gould’s wife Elizabeth, a very skilled artist, illustrated all the plates for Part 3.

John Gould's influence in the development of Charles Darwin's theory
John Gould's influence in the development of Charles Darwin's theory

Sources

  • Sulloway, F.J. (1982). The Beagle collections of Darwin’s finches.  
  • Sulloway, F.J. (1982). Darwin and his finches: the evolution of a legend. 
  • Ashley, M. (2013). Elizabeth Gould, Zoological Artist.