Of the five years that he spends circling the world on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin spends a mere five weeks in the Galápagos islands and, contrary to conventional belief, his greatest epiphanies do not occur on the famed islands. Instead, they are a cultivation of years exploring the wilds of South America where forests become the cathedral of Darwin’s religion.
Encountering a world like he’s never seen before, Darwin’s senses are overwhelmed by a world teeming with life, but what he finds along the way is perplexing to a 19th century naturalist. He questions why do the fossils he discovers look like giant versions of the sloths and armadillos still living nearby; why do the penguins and other birds he sees use their wings as flippers, fins or sails – but not for flying; how could sea shells be found embedded in rock layers more than 100 miles from the sea? It is not until after he leaves the Galápagos – where mockingbirds, not finches capture his attention – that he is able to fully appreciate everything he has encountered and pull together his masterwork: The Origin of Species.