-- A Historical Reflective Piece on the Galapagos Islands and Darwinian Evolution*
By: Vee Sridharan
Posted on: May 9, 2022
Cover Image by Shannon Potter / Unsplash
* The research reference used is “Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands” by Edward J. Larson (2001) unless otherwise cited.
When Captain Diego de Rivadeneira and his crew arrived at the Islas Galápagos in 1546 after a gruelling voyage from Spain, they did not see the archipelago as the marvel of the evolution that Darwin witnessed some three centuries later. Instead, the ragtag team witnessed a strange, barren landscape that seemed otherworldly in its peculiarity. The Galápagos were not kind to them. The currents surrounding the shores volleyed their vessel like a beach ball, stranding them tantalizingly close to land for three days while haunting them with sights of smoking mountains and shifting landscapes. In their minds, these mirages doomed the islands to "fleetingness and unreality" (Larson, 2001, p. 24). Captured by its eerie mysticality, Rivedeneira dubbed the nameless archipelago the Enchanted Isles, Las Encantadas, an alluring but ominous title that encapsulated common consensus on the Galápagos until the arrival of whalers in the late 18th century.
The Spanish conquest of Peru gave little attention to the Galápagos Islands, which were only known as such when European cartographers entered them into maps nearly three decades later. This blatant disinterest in what we now consider testimony to the advancements of biology advancements makes early explorers' intentions perplexing within a post-creationist mindset. However, the story of the Galápagos does not have its beginnings in the tenets of natural selection or Darwinian evolution but rather in creationism and intelligent design.
The face of the scientific community then was much different than it is now. Early explorations of the Galápagos were conducted when theology remained barely distinguishable from biology, and intelligent design theory prevailed for explaining the development of distinct species. Naturalists operated within a rigid framework; species may deteriorate from their optimized forms or variate in minuscule features but never radiate into new species ("speciation," as Darwin uses the term in the Origin of Species). The Royal Society of London neatly illustrated the idea in their 1663 charter, where they explained their mission in exploring the natural world, "the advancement of the knowledge of natural things and useful arts by experiments, to the glory of God the creator and for application to the good of mankind." (Larson, 2001, p. 27) This view persisted until Darwin's theory of natural selection two centuries later. When assuming that nature, from geology to ecology, is the product of intelligent design, it is a logical conclusion that the natural world should first and foremost support the survival of the human species. Whether that was through a sprawling spiritual allegory for theologians to decode or through direct benefit from the land and its animals was mere semantics.
The Galápagos, however, was an oddity; it was utterly incomprehensible through the rose-tinted glasses of the old naturalism. Its erratic onslaughts of droughts and unforgiving terrain led early explorers to curse its lands and bizarre animal inhabitants. Larson captures the bitter revulsion of these sailors perfectly in the first chapter of Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galápagos Islands. Titled "Cursed by God and Nature," it presents many first-person accounts from sailors and naturalists who anchored on the virgin Galápagos to find, in their eyes, an uninhabitable wasteland of scaled monstrosities and brainless birds, which each explorer then proceeded to harass. This was a world entirely foreign to European eyes; absent was the South American mainland's provocative flora and mammalian life, instead teeming with dead-eyed lizards and gargantuan tortoises that roamed the volcanic landscape like eerie sentinels. The islands had little practical use to Rivadeneira and his crew, starved of land and water. Then in 1684, English buccaneer William Dampier dubbed them "fit for no use, not so much as to burn" (Larson, 2001, p. 27) in the spirit of the Royal Society's goal to find human utility within the natural world. In a world view where creationism dominated, the archipelago was a stagnant hell, and its inhabitants were eternally damned to suffer the wrath of its volcanoes and droughts. Indeed, Robert Melville, the author of Moby Dick, called its roaming giants "spectre-tortoises" ageless and bound to the eternal prison of their damned landscape. As Larson puts it, "Melville's tortoises embodied the changelessness of the pre-Darwinian world." (Larson, 2001, p. 10) There were no notions of evolution here, neither of biology nor geology.
Darwin was studying theology in name, but his true passion lay with natural history. These subjects were far from incompatible in the early 19th century when creationist ideas permeated even the debates of those who spoke for evolutionary theory. Darwin was not a distinguished naturalist nor an exceptional scientist. However, his zeal and passion for discovery made him a suitable candidate for a position aboard the HMS Beagle, a modest ship tasked with surveying the South American coastline following its independence from Spain and the subsequent opening for international trade. The seeds of evolutionary theory had already been planted in Darwin when he left for the voyage in 1835. Upon arrival, his primary focus had been on the archipelago's unique landscape, owing to his close reading of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology. Lyell had recently divided the geological community with his controversial ideas. Instead of supernatural catastrophes causing widespread destruction with the subsequent rebuilding of the world, Lyell's uniformitarianism posited that known geological processes, such as tides, were sufficient to explain drastic changes in the landscape (Encyclopedia Britannica., n.d.). The parallels to biological evolution are uncanny, challenging the traditional idea of a perfectly designed world. Lyell's theories undoubtedly inspired natural selection in Darwin's mind, immutable natural laws driving the evolution and speciation of organisms over large timescales instead of miraculous creation events.
Like the formation of the Galápagos' landscape and ecosystems, Darwin's decoding of the archipelago came slowly. While his contributions to biology are unparalleled in their influence, a close reading of history shows the gradual evolution of Darwin's thinking from the staunch creationism that Lyell himself refused to abandon to a Lamarckian view of evolution. Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution differ primarily in their modes of action. Lamarck believed that adaptation occurred due to the phenotypic behaviours of animals (Galera, 2016), while Darwin went further and removed the will of the organism entirely, instead opting for a natural law that acted on the species as a whole. Lamarck's famous example of phenotypic evolution is a giraffe born with a longer neck due to its ambitious progenitor reaching up for the trees. Nevertheless, within the theory of natural selection, the giraffe with the smaller neck would fail to pass on its genes due to competition with larger-neck giraffes.
Darwin recognized the radical implications of his theory, "I am well aware that this doctrine of natural selection (...) is open to the same objections which were at first urged against Sir Charles Lyell's noble views." (Larson, 2001, p. 93) However, he goes on, "but we now very seldom hear the action (...) of the coast-waves, called a trifling and insignificant cause, when applied to the excavation of gigantic valleys or to the formation of the longest lines of inland cliffs. (...) and as modern geology has almost banished such views (...) so will natural selection, if it be a true principle, banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings" (Larson, 2001, p. 93). Indeed, Darwin argued a strong case for evolution, codifying evidence that has since only been solidified and expanded upon.
Upon first inspection, the theory of evolution through natural selection is cold and thankless. Creationism, with its intelligent design and motive, inherently appeals to our human values; we want to believe that the natural world has some underlying motive. While Darwin's theory has not been definitively proven (otherwise, it would be the law of evolution), the evidence is numerous, and the story of its birth is a fascinating tale in itself. Biological evolution can be terrifying when seen as an affirmation of a mindless universe, but a deeper understanding of its story makes it intensely captivating. Darwin's doctrines encapsulate the evolution of human understanding and the deep connection between Earth and its inhabitants. It completed a revolutionary world view, decades in the making, that the world is in flux and constantly changing. It talks about the power of perseverance and change, bottlenecks, natural disasters, and climate change dangers. It unites geology and biology in beautiful harmony; like a coastal wave carving the Earth, the Earth carves its wildlife in return. Las Encantadas is not only the ghost of creationism's past but the birthplace of a new world. This is what Darwin speaks to in the last paragraph of his ode to evolution, On the Origin of Species:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” (Darwin, 1859, p. 427)
Darwin, C. R. (1859).On the Origin of Species. (Bynum, W., Ed. 2009). Penguin Random House. ISBN: 9780140439120
Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Uniformitarianism. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/uniformitarianism
Galera, A. (2016). The Impact of Lamarck’s Theory of Evolution Before Darwin’s Theory. Journal of the History of Biology, 50 (1), 53–70. doi:10.1007/s10739- 015-9432-5
Larson, E. J. (2001). Evolution's Workshop: God & Science on the Galápagos Islands. Basic Books. ISBN: 9780465038107