Treasures of Evolution Island

side titlesEvolution islandsProtests at GalápagosScientific bonanzaMocking the finchesHuman side of discovery

Six hundred miles off the coast of South America, the Galápagos are a biologist's paradise.











































The Galápagos giant tortoise looks old and wise in this portrait.
Original photo copyright and courtesy Robert Rothman


A wave of violence in "Birthplace of evolution"
POSTED 11 JAN 2001 Violence is sweeping the Galápagos archipelago, the Ecuadorian islands that, legend has it, played midwife to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Angered by limits on their catch, Ecuadorian fishermen have torched the national park headquarters, blocked a port and harassed tourists, a mainstay of the island economy. Taking aim at the strange wildlife that made the islands a shrine for biologists and tourists alike, they even seized rare, protected Galápagos giant tortoises. Map shows islands, west of Ecuador.

The fishermen are angling for regulatory relief from a 1998 law that limits fishing in the nearby ocean. "They are trying to destroy our livelihood with all of their rules and regulations," the president of a fishing cooperative told The New York Times on Dec. 25 (see "Where Darwin... " in the bibliography).

Scientists and conservationists counter that the real snag is unsustainable fishing. Carl Safina, vice-president of marine conservation at the National Audubon Society, told the Times that "The real issue here is too many people, not enough resources, and the practice of a kind of fishing that takes out those resources much faster than they can recover."

A together collector?
The dispute might be dismissed as another squabble over diminishing resources on a crowded planet, except that it concerns the isolated ecosystem where Darwin supposedly figured out how plants and animals change through time -- how they evolve.

Charles Darwin was interested in every aspect of natural history, and he collected finches at the Galápagos in 1835. Even today popular belief credits those birds as key: "Charles Darwin first became convinced that evolution occurs when he collected a variety of small birds on the Galápagos islands..." explained a headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as recently as 1999.

Darwin was not yet the father of evolution, and he could not conceive that related species of animals lived on neighboring islands. And for that reason, his Galápagos collections were seriously deficient (see "The Beak... " in the bibliography).

photos of the 3 types of finches all differing slightly from each other.
Left: vegetarian finch; center: medium ground finch; right: sharp-beaked ground finch. Copyright and courtesy Robert Rothman

So while Darwin wrote, "The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention," (see "The Voyage..." in the bibliography), he did not devise his theory of evolution by natural selection at the Galápagos.

David Hull, an emeritus science historian in the department of philosophy at Northwestern University, says, "In point of fact, organisms in the Galápagos did not play much role in Darwin's theory." After returning to England, Hull adds, Darwin realized that he'd need to do a much better job of collecting on a subsequent voyage to the islands, which he never took.

He would, for example, have to identify where he shot his birds. Still, for a variety of reasons, the Galápagos have played a key role in the symbolism and substance of evolutionary science.

Nasty history, nasty menu
Darwin was not the first European to experience a rough passage on the austere archipelago, which was formed by volcanic activity four or so million years ago. In 1807, Patrick Watkins was marooned for eight years, until he stole a boat and lit out for the mainland. Herman Melville, who visited on a whaling ship, described the islands as "five-and-twenty heaps of cinders..."
Face is mottled green and brown. We see a thin "smile" as the tortoise looks to the right.

Galápagos living was never easy, even in summertime. Some colonists left after the arrival of nightmarish neighbors at an Ecuadorian prison colony. In 1869, the tyrannical founder of a colony quaintly named Progresso was murdered. A scheme to mine guano for fertilizer flopped due to a shortage of bird droppings, of all things.

Other ventures included burning coral to make lime, mining volcanic sulfur, extracting salt from the sea, butchering giant tortoises, and ranching. Livestock -- particularly the introduction of goats -- had fateful consequences for the island ecosystem. Caprine mowing machines ravaged the islands, stripping trees and gobbling native vegetation. While the goats pigged out on the vegetarian menu, feral dogs, cats and rats explored the meat side, savoring marine iguanas and birds.

(The six-foot-long marine iguanas, incidentally, left a poor impression on Darwin, who called them "a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid, and sluggish in its movements.")

Tremendous tourism
Still, between Darwin's famous finches, the giant tortoises, and those diving iguanas, bizarre biology lures nature tourists to the Galápagos like, well, ice fishermen to a frozen Minnesota lake in January. Tourist numbers have exploded from 1,000 in 1970 to 60,000 today. To minimize environmental damage, tourists live on boats

Meanwhile, the local Ecuadorian population has also soared, from 1,000 in 1950 to 16,000 today. Despite government efforts to reduce migration, that number grows 6 percent per year, bringing conflicts between the desire to conserve a fragile landscape and the human need to grow food and dump waste.

What did Darwin know, and when did he know it?


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