“Hooker’s Arch”: A post by Andrew Berry

May 21, 2021 • 1:00 pm

My friend Andrew Berry, a lecturer and advisor at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology, sent me a nice email that I asked him to turn into a post for me. He kindly obliged. Darwin’s Arch, which recently collapsed in the Galápagos Islands, was described in a NYT article. Here’s the original landmark

. . . and after its collapse on May 17:

Andrew knew a bit of a parallel, which he describes below. Andrew’s words are indented.

by Andrew Berry

I saw your mention of the recent collapse of ‘Darwin’s Arch’ in the Galápagos.

Here’s a nice parallel.  One of Darwin’s key offsiders was Joseph Dalton Hooker (the middle name serves to distinguish him from the US Civil War general—definitely not a Darwin confidant). Hooker was one the era’s leading botanists, and was for many years the director of Kew Gardens.  In 1844, Darwin chose to confide in Hooker about his heretical ideas. This, for Darwin, was a big deal: he had been quietly and privately nurturing his evolutionary schemes more or less since the return of the Beagle in 1836 and he felt in need of a scientific sounding board.  He was still a long way from being ready to go public: it wasn’t until 1858, 14 years later, that A. R. Wallace’s intervention forced his hand on this.  Darwin’s famous letter to Hooker states, “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable”.


One of the reasons Darwin picked Hooker for this role was that, like Darwin, Hooker had considerable expedition experience.  They both accordingly had a global perspective on biogeography.  Specifically, Hooker had gone on the James Clark Ross Erebus/Terror expedition (1839-43) that established a key early benchmark for the exploration of Antarctica. Roald Amundsen, the great Norwegian polar explorer (who beat Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole in 1911) pulled no punches about the expedition’s significance:

“Few people of the present day are capable of rightly appreciating this heroic deed, this brilliant proof of human courage and energy. With two ponderous craft – regular “tubs” according to our ideas – these men sailed right into the heart of the pack [ice], which all previous explorers had regarded as certain death … These men were heroes – heroes in the highest sense of the word.”

En route to Antarctica, the expedition’s first major port of call was Kerguelen Island, which is about as far from anywhere as you can get on planet Earth — central far south Indian Ocean.

Arriving in May 1840, the expedition spent two and a half months there before heading on to Tasmania, and, from there, Antarctica.  Kerguelen was thus the first place in which the young Hooker (he was 22 at the time) got to analyze and describe a previously largely undescribed flora.  That things turned out this way is a truly remarkable coincidence.  Late in life, Hooker recalled being raised as a boy on tales from James Cook’s voyages.  In particular, little Hooker had been impressed by this image from Cook’s 1776 visit to Kerguelen (the islands were formally discovered four years previously by a Frenchman, Yves-Joseph de Kerguelen-Trémarec). Note the impressive natural arch on the horizon at the far left of the image.

Here’s what Hooker wrote:

“When still a child, I was very fond of Voyages and Travels; and my great delight was to sit on my grandfather’s knee and look at the pictures in Cook’s ‘Voyages.’ The one that took my fancy most was the plate of Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, with the arched rock standing out to sea, and the sailors killing penguins; and I thought I should be the happiest boy alive if ever I would see that wonderful arched rock, and knock penguins on the head. [JAC: Hooker should be canceled for thinking that!] By a singular coincidence, Christmas Harbour, Kerguelen Land, was one of the very first places of interest visited by me, in the Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Ross.”

What is the relevance of all this? Because, some time between 1908 and 1913, the arch on Kerguelen that so thrilled Hooker went the way of Darwin’s Arch.  Happily the ideas of both Darwin and Hooker have proved more resilient than the landmarks they’re associated with.

19 thoughts on ““Hooker’s Arch”: A post by Andrew Berry

  1. I reckon i ought to plan a trip to western Virginia to see Natural Bridge, once owned by Thomas Jefferson, before it exceeds its shelf life. I have driven the highway that is just a few miles away a number of times but never took the hour or so to detour and view it. Though these formations seem to be immutable, this week’s Darwin collapse reminds us of their fragility.

  2. Completely off topic but…

    Has Dorothy kicked one of her ducklings out of the brood, with the outcast spending some time with Honey’s brood?

    I’m dying for a duck update.

    1. Yes, she’s expelled a duckling for no apparent reason, and the poor thing, whom we call “The Longer” is rejected by every duck in the pond, including Honey and Honey’s brood. We are trying to feed it and keep it safe, but it’s hard. It breaks my heart, which is why I don’t like to right about it. Things are not all beer and skittles on Botany Pond this year.

  3. So what might happen to the name of the arches now they are no longer arches? It seems arguable that one could give each pillar a new name.
    There is precedence, of sort, with Krakatoa.

        1. In a thoroughly non-religious sense, plantar fasciatis is a real pain in the sole.

  4. Re Hooker’s penguinicidal urges: one of the things that struck me when reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle was how many of the new animals he described, he ate.

    1. Let us not forget his membership in the Cambridge Glutton Club. He had a thing for eating odd, exotic, and foul creatures. Hawk, bittern, and an old brown owl…yummy.

  5. Bits fall off the scenery all the time. There was a substantial sea arch off the Mediterranean island of Gozo which collapsed a year or two ago and led to a deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the diving community.
    It’s worth checking out the local coastline if there’s a big storm coming in. Reciting King Lear into the teeth of a force 10 is good enough entertainment itself, but you might just manage to catch one of the sea stacks, cliffs, arches, whatever putting on a final performance.
    Just don’t be standing on or under it when it comes down.

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