IT WAS BLOWING a gale as the ship approached England, but the young man who sat hunched in thought in his cabin scarcely noticed. Four years at sea—all unpaid—on a voyage around the world, he thought, and it hadn’t been easy. Several moments of anxiety, even panic, had occurred. All these had been eclipsed, though, by the wonders he had seen and documented. Now he needed to make some sense of them.

As Charles Darwin collected his thoughts and his specimens on his last few days aboard the Beagle, he reflected on the sights he had seen on the Galapagos islands off the northwest coast of South America. Most amazing had been the finches, all obviously descended from one family, but each island ...

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