Roz Wade, Learning Officer, writes:
One of the stories I love to tell to our school groups is the story of Darwin’s octopus. We think of Darwin as being the wise old man with the big grey beard, full of knowledge about the natural world. But even Darwin had to learn, and the tale of this specimen shows this beautifully.
Charles Darwin was just 22 when he stepped aboard H.M.S. Beagle in December 1831. A recent graduate of the University of Cambridge, it was his mentor John Stevens Henslow and friend Leonard Jenyns who suggested Darwin would be the perfect fit for this five-year expedition.
In January 1832, after three weeks at sea, the Beagle made its first landfall in St Jago in the Cape Verde Islands. Having spent all his life so far in Britain, Darwin was overwhelmed by how different the landscape was, writing in his diary:
“It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes… he is overwhelmed with what he sees & cannot justly comprehend it… Such are my feelings, & such may they remain.”
On the Cape Verde islands Darwin collected everything he could find, particularly the sea animals he saw in the rock pools. On January 28 and January 30 he writes of collecting specimens of octopus, two of which are in this jar, preserved in alcohol. In his first letter to Henslow since starting the voyage, Darwin wrote:
“I took several specimens of an Octopus, which possessed a most marvellous power of changing its colours; equaling any chamaelion, & evidently accommodating the changes to the colour of the ground which it passed over. – yellowish green, dark brown & red were the prevailing colours: this fact appears to be new, as far as I can find out.”
Darwin thought he had made an observation new to science, and was very excited by it. Henslow, his mentor back in Cambridge, knew more about the natural world, and gently wrote in reply:
“I myself caught an Octopus at Weymouth this summer & observed the change of color whenever I opened the tin box in which I put it, but not in such great perfection as you seem to have done – The fact is not new, but any fresh observations will be highly important.”
It just goes to show that even Darwin had to learn. He had to make observations, make mistakes, and use them to build his understanding of the world around him – an understanding important in the development of his ideas of natural selection that resonate in biology to this day.