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BOOK REVIEW

Darwin’s Islands

Rick MacPherson

DARWIN IN GALÁPAGOS: Footsteps to a New World. K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes. xiv + 362 pp. Princeton University Press, 2009. $29.95.

GALÁPAGOS AT THE CROSSROADS: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution. Carol Ann Bassett. 302 pp. National Geographic, 2009. $26.

GALÁPAGOS: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy. Tui De Roy, editor and principal photographer. 240 pp. Firefly Books, 2009. $49.95.

2010-07BREVMacPhersonFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe same tropes are used over and over to define and describe the Galápagos Islands: They are the place where Charles Darwin had his eureka moment, a pristine and isolated sanctuary, the living laboratory of evolution, a symbol of the persistence of life under even the harshest of conditions. An excellent trio of recent books revisits these familiar notions, revealing that although they certainly have some validity, they perhaps have more to do with our hopes and assumptions than with reality.

In Darwin in Galápagos: Footsteps to a New World, authors K. Thalia Grant and Gregory B. Estes, both naturalists who have conducted research in the Galápagos for decades, embark on a historic recreation of Darwin’s 1835 visit in which they attempt to literally retrace his steps during the five weeks he spent there. The book doesn’t start with Darwin’s arrival in the Galápagos, however. First come three substantial chapters, one on Darwin’s life before he set sail on H.M.S. Beagle at age 22, and two on his experiences during the first few years of its voyage before reaching the islands. The authors draw on Darwin’s autobiographical writings and letters, as well as works by Janet Browne, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Peter J. Bowler, James Secord, Sandra Herbert and others, to create a revealing personal, professional and psychological profile of the man who would so transform science and our place in the world. Grant and Estes portray Darwin almost as yet another fascinating Galápagos species, rafted to the islands from elsewhere only to undergo an intellectual transformation under their isolating influence.

These early chapters present no new revelations about Darwin’s upbringing and university years, but they are very valuable for the detail with which they illustrate how formative the early years of the Beagle’s voyage were in honing Darwin’s skills as a keen observer. The ship’s first stop was the desolate Cape Verde archipelago off the coast of Africa, where the bleak volcanic landscape foreshadowed what he would find in the Galápagos. Then as the crew of the Beagle spent three years charting the East and West Coasts of South America, Darwin went ashore for weeks and months at a time to explore and collect specimens in the rain forests of Brazil, the Andean elevations between Chile and Argentina, the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego. (Over the course of the entire voyage, prompted in part by miserable bouts of seasickness, he spent about two-thirds of the time—a total of 39 months—on land.)

Darwin’s journals document the changes in his observational style. His florid, often emotionally charged writing at the beginning of the voyage gave way to entries that were more concise and factual, although still intense. By the time Darwin had reached the Galápagos Islands, three years and nine months into the voyage, he was, as the authors point out, primed to make the most of his time there: He was “preoccupied with patterns of species distribution” and “had truly become a master theorizer.”

2010-07BREVMacPhersonFB.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe section of the book detailing Darwin’s time in the Galápagos is divided into four chapters, each devoted to one of the four islands he visited—Chatham (San Cristóbal), Charles (Floreana), Albemarle (Isabela) and James (Santiago). A faithful, detailed recreation of Darwin’s course once ashore on each island had never before been attempted. The authors went about ascertaining what paths Darwin took by referring to his unpublished geology notes, Captain Robert FitzRoy’s log of the Beagle and the nautical charts of the area prepared by the crew, and by relying on their own familiarity with the topography, ecology, habitats and distribution of organisms on each of the four islands. Here they explain their rationale and their goals:

Where Darwin walked determined what he saw and what he saw influenced what he thought. We could identify the sources of his geological insights, the exact features that triggered his understanding of the physical processes governing evolution in Galápagos.

Do they succeed? That’s hard to say; readers will probably differ in their assessments. Having visited the Galápagos myself on several occasions, armed with Darwin’s field and specimen notes, I can attest that the desire to somehow see through his eyes is powerful. My memory of lying on my belly on sharp lava next to a group of salt-spouting marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) on Isabela is vivid, but I’m not convinced that that experience, or the experience of reading this book, brought me any closer to intuiting what triggered Darwin’s understanding.

However, the book did enlarge my understanding in another significant way: by offering numerous examples showing that in 1835 the Galápagos Islands were far from untouched. As the result of equatorial trade winds and the confluence of five ocean currents, the surface waters surrounding the islands receive a massive upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water able to support large numbers of fish, seabirds, sharks and marine mammals. Whalers reached Galápagos shores as early as 1789, having traveled halfway around the world to harvest this bounty. And when they came ashore in search of freshwater, they slaughtered hundreds of thousands of giant Galápagos tortoises (Geochelone spp.) for food. Early whalers shared stories of the bountiful fur seals (Arctocephalus galapagoensis) in the Galápagos, which were prized for their dense pelts, and before long sealing was also rampant. The Beagle encountered at least half a dozen whaling and sealing ships in Galápagos waters. The fur seals had been nearly extirpated by the time Darwin got there; he makes no mention of them in his notes, so few had their numbers become. Fortunately, they were not completely wiped out, and today they are legislatively protected; a 2001 fur seal census found a population of 6,000 to 8,000 in the archipelago.

Darwin was struck by how “tame and unsuspecting” the birds were on the islands he visited, and after watching a boy killing doves and finches with a switch on Charles Island, he mused on “what havoc the introduction of any new beast of prey must cause in a country, before the instincts of the aborigines become adapted to the stranger’s craft or power.” Little did he know how prophetic his words were: Many Galápagos species have been adversely affected by humans and the nonnative species they brought with them to the islands.

Two brief concluding chapters cover the remainder of the Beagle’s voyage and the ways Darwin revisited the Galápagos in his thinking as he considered the diversity of life after he got back home. Ultimately, the book’s focus on the Galápagos as a key window into Darwin’s life and thoughts is rewarding. With its numerous illustrations, photographs, maps, archival notes and sketches, and its day-by-day, step-by-step, island-by-island retracing of Darwin’s Galápagos explorations and thinking, Darwin in Galápagos is an important addition to the history of evolutionary thought.

2010-07BREVMacPhersonFC.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageGalápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution, by Carol Ann Bassett, opens with a short history of the islands. Over the course of the first four chapters, she describes the volcanic origins of the islands and such events as their discovery in the 16th century, subsequent visits by pirates and whalers, and the arrival of settlers from Ecuador in 1833. Darwin visited two years later, and what he wrote about what he found there has attracted scientific interest ever since, in some cases to the islands’ detriment. In 1905 and 1906, for example, an expedition from the California Academy of Sciences cut a broad swath through the Galápagos, collecting a mind-boggling quantity of species, including 266 tortoises, nearly 4,000 other reptiles, more than 8,000 birds, 1,000 invertebrate fossils, 13,000 insects, 10,000 plants and 800 clutches of eggs. “Despite their own actions,” Basset says, “the men were shocked to see how much damage humans and invasive species had already wreaked on the islands.” (I wonder whether they perhaps believed that the Galápagos were beyond hope of in situ conservation and were thus aiming for ex situ preservation as the next-best alternative.) Bassett goes on to describe measures that were eventually taken to protect the islands: Ecuador’s 1936 declaration making the entire archipelago a national park; the organization of the Charles Darwin Foundation in 1959 and the opening of the Charles Darwin Research Station in 1964; the designation of the Galápagos National Park as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1978; and Ecuador’s establishment in 1986 of a Marine Reserve encompassing the 27,000 square miles of ocean surrounding Galápagos.

The Charles Darwin Foundation and the Charles Darwin Research Station were set up to study and conserve what remained of the biological diversity and natural resources of the Galápagos. The goals of the World Heritage site designation were to eradicate invasive species and promote sustainability. These noble aims have proved more slippery and elusive than anyone imagined.

In large part that’s because many of the legal protections established for the national park and the marine reserve exist on paper only—powerful competing interests often thwart their enforcement. The archipelago’s marine bounty has attracted poachers who are not deterred by the area’s protected status. Mainland and foreign fishing interests illegally target marine life within the reserve, going after sharks (for their fins) and sea cucumbers. The National Park staff is occupied with monitoring tourists, who are appearing in increasing numbers, drawn by photographs showing the islands’ stark beauty and by reports of the curiously docile wildlife with whom close yet relatively safe encounters are possible. Since 1991 the number of visitors has soared from 41,000 a year to more than 160,000. The local population has grown by four percent every year and now numbers more than 40,000. Human visitors over the centuries have brought invasive species with them, most significantly goats, dogs and rats, which have depleted or made extinct a number of endemic plant and animal species.

Conservation efforts have been so eroded by these threats that in 2007 UNESCO designated the Galápagos Islands a World Heritage Site in Danger. The islands are in need of help. A Canadian organization, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, came to their aid in 2007, stepping in to assist the Ecuadorian Environmental Police in busting a major shark-fin cartel based on the mainland. Sea Shepherd also partnered with the Galápagos National Park to hound poachers within the Marine Reserve and confiscate or destroy their gear and vessels. However, Sea Shepherd’s direct-action activities ground to a halt in 2008 when their vessel fell into disrepair. Even after an overhaul, the ship has no crew and remains anchored in the harbor on Santa Cruz Island. Members of Sea Shepherd call themselves “eco-pirates,” and the FBI has accused them of ecoterrorism, but in 2007 the group’s founder received the Amazon Peace Prize for his work in Latin America. Bassett clearly admires the organization’s mission.

Although I don’t agree with her enthusiastic support of Sea Shepherd (I have serious reservations about their methods), I do share Bassett’s dismay that some local biblical creationists have infiltrated the ranks of those serving as naturalist guides in the Galápagos. Her description of her run-ins with them had me wondering what it would take to convince Sea Shepherd to confront these proselytizing landlubbers.

Bassett’s book could have easily been called Galápagos in the Crosshairs. She makes a passionate case for the preservation of these incredible islands.

2010-07BREVMacPhersonFD.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe spectacular photographs in Tui De Roy’s Galápagos: Preserving Darwin’s Legacy capture the islands at their best. This large-format book is utterly beautiful and also quite substantive. De Roy, a photographer, writer and conservationist who grew up in the Galápagos, has assembled a series of essays about scientific fieldwork in the Galápagos written by geologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and of course researchers from nearly every subfield of biology, from botany to animal behavior. Many are highly respected experts. For example, Rosemary and Peter Grant (who happen to be K. Thalia Grant’s parents) have contributed an article on Darwin’s finches. Other topics covered include the archipelago’s peculiar water cycle, geologic hotspot mapping, lichens, snail speciation, fish extinctions, shark migrations, giant tortoise genetics, a new species of land iguana, flightless cormorants and invasive-species management. All of the articles are lavishly illustrated and written in an easily accessible, jargon-free style.

I caught myself smiling as I paged through the book and revisited memories of snorkeling with curious Galápagos penguins. Reminded of the fitness-enhancing significance of obligate siblicide practiced by first-born Nazca booby chicks, who evict and starve their nest mates, I wondered how those Galápagos creationist guides explain that with intelligent design. And I learned that since my last visit to the islands, the Galápagos sea lion, which was long thought to be a subspecies of the California sea lion, has been redesignated a genetically separate species (Zalophus wollebaeki).

The book’s text and photographs communicate well the stark beauty of the landscape and the amazing species that inhabit it. They are truly “endless forms most beautiful.”

What ultimately becomes of the Galápagos Islands is in our hands. Change, however much we resist it, is inevitable. We will undoubtedly see more species lost. But we must do what we can to conserve what remains. De Roy’s book closes with an essay by Godfrey Merlen, a naturalist and longtime resident of the Galápagos. The last few sentences could easily serve as epigraph to any of the books I’ve discussed:

This is a place of unparalleled surprises, both for the mind and the senses. It has a raw beauty that takes one’s breath away, causing the heart to beat a little harder. We have no right to the resources of Galápagos if we do not accept the total responsibility to reflect deeply on the actions of our own species and its effect upon the planet, and use our technological ability to ease the encroaching threats that beset Darwin’s Islands.

Rick MacPherson is a marine ecologist and is Conservation Programs Director for the Coral Reef Alliance, an international biodiversity conservation organization working exclusively to protect coral reefs. His interests include the history and philosophy of science and evolutionary theory.


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