Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islandsby Edward J. Larson
More than any other place on Earth, the Galápagos Islands are the workshop of evolution. Isolated and desolate, they were largely overlooked by early explorers until Charles Darwin arrived there in the 1830's. It was Darwin who recognized that Galápagos' isolation and desolation were advantages: the paucity of species and lack of outside influences… See more details below
More than any other place on Earth, the Galápagos Islands are the workshop of evolution. Isolated and desolate, they were largely overlooked by early explorers until Charles Darwin arrived there in the 1830's. It was Darwin who recognized that Galápagos' isolation and desolation were advantages: the paucity of species and lack of outside influences made the workings of natural selection crystal clear. Since then, every important advance and controversy in evolutionary thinking has had its reflection on the Galápagos. In every sense-intellectually, institutionally, and culturally-the history of science on these islands is a history of the way evolutionary science was done for the past 150 years.Evolution's Workshop tells the story of Darwin's explorations there; the fabulous Gilded Age expeditions, run from rich men's gigantic yachts, that featured rough-and-ready science during the day and black-tie dinners every night; the struggle for control of research on the Galápagos; the current efforts by "creation scientists" to use the Galápagos to undercut evolutionary teaching; and many other compelling stories.
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Cursed by God
REMOTE ISLANDS CAN PUZZLE SCIENTISTS, and none have puzzled them more than the Galápagos. How, for example, did the native plants and animals get there? Consider the alternatives. Suppose God created all plant and animal species at one time and in one place, as suggested by the Book of Genesis. How then were remote islands stocked with plants and animalsparticularly those types that seem unable to swim, fly or float from the mainland? Or suppose there were multiple creations in different places or, more simply, that species always existed where they now reside. Why then are island species similar to, but not necessary the same as, mainland ones? Finally, suppose current species developed from preexisting organic forms by some natural or supernatural mechanisms. What then do the island species reveal of the larger scheme?
Scientists have considered all these alternatives. Among the ancient Greeks, for example, Aristotle assumed the eternity of species while Anaximander suggested evolutionary origins. Yet for Western science the issue remained largely academic until the sixteenth century, when voyages of discovery began broadening European horizons to include new worlds and remote islands. Then the question of origins became inescapable for European scientists seeking to understand the strange species they found. Nowhere did they find stranger species than on the Galápagos.
The archipelago actually posed a puzzle within a puzzle. The larger puzzle was America.
Convinced thathe had reached the Far East by sailing west, Christopher Columbus never fully comprehended what he found. "No animals of any kind," he wrote of his first American landfall in 1492clearly meaning no land mammals. Four days later, after a more complete reconnaissance, he repeated in his journal, "I have seen no land animals of any kind except parrots and lizards." He interpreted this to mean simply that he had not yet reached the Asian mainland, where he knew many land mammals lived. Yet he wondered about his other discoveries. "Fish of such different kinds from ours that it is a marvel," he observed, and "trees of very different kinds from ours." Fish could swim to these islands and seeds could floatso the presence of sea life and plants made sense to himbut why so unlike European kinds? He soon made the observation universal: "The trees are as different from ours as the day from the night, and the fruits too and the grass and the stones and everything else." He could only attribute their unfamiliarity to his ignorance of Asia. "I am the saddest man in the world at not recognizing them," he lamented in his journal, "because I am certain that they are all of value."
As he extended his explorations in the "Indies," Columbus began finding some familiar types, but nagging differences remained. On Cuba, for example, his sailors "saw no four-legged animals except dogs that did not bark." As he approached Hispaniola, which became his base for operations, Columbus happily noted that "a mullet just like those in Spain jumped into the boat"the first local fish that he recognized. Only on a later voyage, when he reached the South American continent, did he finally encounter large mammalsevidence, he thought, of his having at last found the Asian mainland; but even these animals, which he compared to European deer, boar and wildcats, struck him as "very different from ours."
Columbus's mute Caribbean dogs symbolized the challenge that American nature posed for European naturalists. Since medieval times, Europeans had seen the natural world as a vast spiritual allegory created by God to instruct humansa kind of tangible revelation. Perhaps the best known of these allegories involved dogs, of which St. Ambrose wrote, "To dogs is given the ability to bark in defense of their masters and their homes. Thus you should learn to use your voice for the sake of Christ, when ravening wolves attack His sheepfold." Under this view, muteness deprived dogs of both function and instructive value, making their presence all but incomprehensible. Other American animals raised similar difficulties. "Prior to the age of discovery, a symbolic world had existed in which a discrete set of natural objects had provided a ground for the composition of unlimited variations on eternal themes," historian Peter Harrison notes. "Now, however, what had once been a coherent universal language was inundated by an influx of new and potentially unintelligible symbols." The very structure by which Europeans understood nature began to collapse under the collective weight of exotic animals and plants.
Collapse took time, however. Following Columbus, other Spanish explorers returned to Europe with similar reports. Plants, birds, reptiles and fish abounded, but inevitably they differed from Europeans kinds; and still there remained a disquieting scarcity of large land animals. From Central America, conquistador Martín Fernàndez de Enciso wrote of "tailed cats, which are like monkeys except that they have long tails," and of alligators as big as "bullocks." Of the latter he proudly added, "I myself succeeded in killing the first that was killed." From North America, Giovanni da Verrazzano told of "wild animals that are considerably more wild than in our land of Europe." Yet neither explorer reported many large mammals; mostly rabbits, deer, wolves and the likenone of which impressed them. "This bitter observation," historian Antonello Gerbi wrote, "was to hang like a millstone on the fauna of all America over the ensuing centuries. It seemed to point to some organic inferiority or deep-rooted poverty, and in some cases prompted the formulation of theories of physical decadence or immaturity." In Rome, the Pontiff characterized the native American peoples as vegetarian on the assumption that they had no proper meat to eat. Inferiority and decadence would dominate European views of the Americas until the 1800s.
Among the first to recognize Columbus's Indies as part of a New World, Amerigo Vespucci firmly asserted that the territory contained plants and animals unknown to Europe. Together with Old World types, they would constitute so many different kinds that he wondered how a pair of each could have fit on Noah's ark. Indeed, he added, "If I have to attempt to write all the species of animals [in America], it would be a tedious tale." Tedious perhaps, but not repetitious of European listings. Referring to the ancient Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, who assembled over 20,000 separate observations about nature into a massive "natural history" of the world that (in 1500) still seemed comprehensive to many in Europe, Vespucci asserted about America, "I believe certainly that our Pliny did not touch upon a thousandth part of the animals and birds that exist in this region."
Once Europeans realized that America represented a vast new continental land mass, some sought to become its Pliny. Adopting the role of a medieval herbalist, Nicolas Monades labored in Spain to assemble reports of New World plants supposed to have medicinal properties. Supplementing collected reports with personal observations, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and José de Acosta composed ambitious natural histories of the New World. Like Pliny, these sixteenth-century Spaniards sought more to provide useful and entertaining information about nature than to offer reasoned explanations of its operation.
Following medieval tradition, Oviedo's chief interests in living things were utility, nuisance value and novelty. Thus he opened a chapter on "beasts" in his Natural History by announcing, "to let pass the multitude of things which are as variable as the power of nature is infinite, and to speak of such things as come chiefly to my remembrance as most worthy to be noted, I will first speak of certain little and troublesome beasts which may seem to be engendered of nature to molest and vex men." He began with leeches and passed on to fleas, snakes, spiders, toads, crabs and iguanas. Typically these "seemed very strange and marvelous to the Christian man to behold, and much different from all other beasts which have been seen in other parts of the world." Oviedo described spiders "bigger than a man's hand," American toads larger than European house cats and iguanas "fearsome to sight." Far from disparaging the American fauna, he reveled in its strangeness; but he found few stately New World mammals, and this clearly concerned him. He denounced the American lion as "cowardly" and tried in vain to urge a proper bark out of Caribbean dogs.
Acosta followed Oviedo in taking a Christian creationist's anthropocentric view of nature in the New World. "In our discourse of plants we will begin with those which are proper and peculiar to the Indies," he wrote to open a typical chapter of his Natural History, "and forasmuch as plants were chiefty created for the nourishment of man, and that the chief (whereof he takes his nourishment) is bread, it shall be good to show what bread the Indians use." In a later chapter on "notable fowls," Acosta added that in Mexico "there are abundance of birds with excellent feathers, so as there be not found in Europe that come near them." Having "been so appointed by the sovereign Creator for the service of man," he added, these notable American birds provided to humanity "not only their flesh to serve for meat, their singing for recreation, their feathers for ornament and beauty, but also their dung serves to fatten the ground."
Acosta wondered about how all these useful beings came to the New World without leaving any of their kind in the Old World. He presented two problematic options. God could have created them in America after the Flood, Acosta offered, but then "we could not affirm that the creation of the world was made and finished in six days." While this was clearly heresy, the orthodox alternative posed problems as well. "If we say then that all these kinds of creatures were preserved in the Ark by Noah," Acosta asked, "I demand how it is possible that none of their kind should remain here [in the Old World]?" Forced by his Christian faith to accept the second option, he concluded, "We must then say, that though all beasts came out of the ark, yet by a natural instinct and the providence of heaven, diverse kinds dispersed themselves into diverse regions, where they found themselves so well, as they would not part, or if they departed, they did not preserve themselves, but in the process of time, perished wholly." This became the Church-approved answer, but it stretched credibility even then. Scientific-sounding freethinkers such as Giordano Bruno enjoyed picking at this particular soreat least until they were silenced, as Bruno was, by the Inquisition.
Oviedo, Acosta and the other early Spanish chroniclers retained a distinctly medieval approach toward nature. Their botanical writings follow the herbalist tradition of identifying plants and describing their human uses. Their zoological observations read like entries in medieval bestiaries, which typically included instructive and entertaining accounts about various animal types, chiefly derived from Pliny and following the classifications of Aristotle. The Copernican revolution did not begin transforming European concepts of celestial physics until fifty years after Columbus first encountered America, and traditional concepts of terrestrial biology were affected even later. "The so-called scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries," the great zoologist Ernst Mayr noted, "caused no change at all in the attitude toward [biological] creationism." In the meantime, religiously influenced concepts of a created world designed to nurture and instruct humans (and to vex them as needed) shaped the European understanding of the New World.
In 1529, when Francisco Pizarro's looting of Inca gold began drawing Europeans south toward Peru and the Galápagos, they brought their medieval conceptions of nature with them. "The discovery of South America burnt upon Europe like a fabulous dream," early twentieth-century Galápagos travel writer Victor von Hagen noted. Yet like a dream, the new continent proved difficult to reconcile with supposed reality. In his 1590 Natural History, Acosta obviously labored to assign berths for Peruvian animals on Noah's ark and to find divine purposes for them in America.
Following the opening of silver mines in Peru, an apparent desire to quash theological questions raised by New World discoveries, coupled with a real concern to exclude other Europeans from its rich domains, led Spain to restrict scientific study in America and suppress reports about it. The Spanish government seemed indifferent to most aspects of its American possessions beyond their mineral wealth and native workers, and rarely even requested detailed reports from its America-bound explorers and sea captains. After other European nations began sending explorers into the Caribbean basin and along the Atlantic coast of the Americas, Spain clamped down still tighter on its Pacific Coast dominions and severely restricted travel to its richest possessions. Peru became El Dorado, the stuff of fabulous legend.
If its novel species made South America difficult to fit into traditional European conceptions about nature, then the Galápagos Islands compounded those difficulties immensely because of a missing one. Nearly every island of any size or significance already had people living there when Europeans discovered it. "Discovery" was simply a Western convention to legitimize the conquest of these places in the eyes of other Europeans. The Galápagos stand as one of the rare exceptions to this rule. Despite vague Inca legends to the contrary, no one has ever detected any credible evidence that humans lived on these islands before the first European ship entered their waters, in 1535. Their virgin state would one day help make the Galápagos Islands especially intriguing to scientists. At the time, such a state rendered them of little interest to the Spanish. If God made the earth for human habitation, they wondered, what could explain an uninhabited place? Fittingly, a Roman Catholic bishop discovered these islands (one of the few times that a church official played such a role) and promptly pronounced them cursed of God. Thereafter, pious Spaniards generally avoided them.
After they had brutally subjugated the native people of Peru by 1532, Pizarro and his soldiers turned on each other. The Spanish government then directed the bishop of Panama, Fray Tomàs de Berlanga, whose diocese included Peru, to investigate both the bloody suppression of native Peruvians and the ongoing power struggle among the conquistadors. Outfitting a vessel, Berlanga sailed with men and horses along the Pacific coast from Panama toward Peru. "Something," as he put it, then drew him to the unknown archipelago offshore.
"The ship sailed with very good breezes for seven days," Berlanga later reported to the king, but then encountered "a six day calm." With no wind, a strong westward current "engulfed us in such a way that on Wednesday, the tenth of March, we sighted an island." Soon they spotted several more, some quite large. Unable to measure longitude at sea or gauge distances traveled when carried by a current, Berlanga had no idea just how far off course his ship had drifted. He wrote "that we were not more than twenty or thirty leagues from the soil of Peru," when in fact five hundred miles separate the Galápagos Islands from the South American mainland. He could calculate the islands' latitude, however, and found that "they are between half a degree and a degree and a half south latitude." Berlanga had discovered the archipelago's southern end, just below the equator.
The islands offered poor haven. When some sailors landed on the first island to look for much needed fresh water, according to Berlanga, "they found nothing but seals, and turtles, and such big tortoises, that each could carry a man on top of itself, and many iguanas that are like serpents." Growing desperate for drinking water, the entire crew disembarked on the second island, "thinking that on account of its size and monstrous shape, there could not fail to be rivers and fruits." Again they suffered disappointment. "Some were given the charge of making a well," Berlanga wrote, but "from the well there came water saltier than that of the sea." Others looked for freshwater streams or ponds, he added, but "they were not able to find even a drop of water for two days and with the thirst the people felt they resorted to a leaf of some thistles like prickly pear, and because they were somewhat juicy, although not very tasty, we began to eat of them." Water squeezed from these cactus pads "looked like slops or lye," but the party "drank of it as if it were rose water." Their penance on the islands apparently completed, the bishop then reported that after he said mass on Passion Sunday, "the Lord deigned that they should find in a ravine among the rocks as much as a hogshead of water, and after they had drawn that, they found more and more." Two sailors and ten horses had died of dehydration, but God saved the rest. They managed to sail back to the mainland, and never returned.
Berlanga's report damned the archipelago. "I do not think that there is a place where one might sow a bushel of corn, because most of it is full of very big stones," he wrote, "and the earth that there is, is like dross, worthless, because it has not the power of raising a little grass, but only some thistles." The fauna was as wretched as the flora: "many seals, turtles, iguanas, tortoises, many birds like those of Spain, but so silly they do not know how to flee, and many were caught in the hand." God did not make this place for humans, the bishop concluded. "It seems as though some time God had showered stones." Following this report, the Spanish government never attempted to colonize the islands and did not even investigate them again for nearly two centuries.
The contrast between Berlanga's Galápagos report and Columbus's initial New World journal entry is telling. Although expressing his disappointment in not immediately finding valuable minerals, Columbus boasted of "well built" native people "with strong bodies and fine features" who "ought to make good slaves" and "could very easily become Christians." In Peru, Pizarro found both minerals and native peoples to exploitmaking it the most valued of all Spain's overseas possessions. Scientific interests followed economic ones: in his Natural History, for example, Acosta focused on the mineral wealth and people of PeruSpain's treasures. Spanish America's greatest naturalist, Alessandro Malaspina, would do the same a century later. Yet the Galápagos Islands offered neither mineral wealth nor exploitable natives. In the most telling omission of his report to the Spanish king, Berlanga did not even bother to name them. Unlike the created beings given names by Adam in the Genesis account, these islands were not good.
A name, when it was finally given, was inspired by the terrors of a second accidental visitalso resulting from continuing conflict on the mainland. Berlanga's mission failed to end the warfare among the conquistadors of Peru, and after berating Pizarro for mistreating the native people, the bishop resigned his position and returned to Spain. A decade later, in 1546, a Spanish officer named Diego de Rivadeneira fled by boat toward Central America with a dozen solders and a few impressed sailors from the vengeful forces of Pizarro's brother, Gonzalo. Spanish ships heading north from Peru normally hugged the coast, passing far to the east of the Galápagosbut not Rivadeneira's leaky vessel. Keeping well outside South American coastal waters to avoid Pizarro's ships, he sighted islands that he recognized as Berlanga's archipelago.
Rivadeneira spotted one large island first, which he described as "covered by a cloud" with "high mountains near the coast." Some of his crew recalled seeing smoke rising from the mountains, the first written record of volcanos on the Galápagos Islands. Low on drinking water, Rivadeneira attempted to land his boat on the large island. The strong, unpredictable Galápagos currents took hold of his craft, however, and for three days kept it shifting about within sight but beyond reach of land. Other islands came into view during these days but also proved elusive. From Rivadeneira's shipboard vantage point, the islands themselves seemed to move about so much that he called them Las Encantadas, the Enchanted Isles, and referred to their "apparent fleetingness and unreality."
The islands proved no more welcoming when Rivadeneira finally managed to land on one of them. After the thirsty soldiers and sailors disembarked, the official chronicler reported, "they set out in different directions to look for some water. But each fearing that he would be left behind by the others, they soon came back to the shore and re-embarked to continue on their way very sadly because of their lack of food and water." Not appreciating the great distance from the archipelago to the mainland, Rivadeneira then set sail without water on a desperate race to Central America.
Following his arrival in Guatemala after a harrowing voyage, the official expedition report to the Spanish government, like Berlanga's ten years earlier, focused on the archipelago's distinctive animals. According to this brief account, Rivadeneira "found tortoises, turtles, iguana, sea lions, birds called flamingos, doves and other birds, among them a beautiful gyrfalcon which has never been seen here or I believe in Peru." Unusual animals meant little to Spanish officials. The government ignored Rivadeneira's request to explore and perhaps settle the islands, and sent no other explorers or settlers there for more than 150 years.
Although these chance encounters kindled little interest among the Spanish, they brought the archipelago to the attention of Europeans generally. Seventeenth-century European cartographers, who competed to publish maps showing the latest "discoveries," eagerly scoured accounts from explorers and travelers returning from the New World. The great Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius first entered the islands onto maps published in Europe, based on an agent's reading in Spain of official reports from Berlanga's voyage. Because the great tortoises (los Galápagos, in Spanish) stood out as the islands' distinguishing characteristic in these reports, Ortelius identified the archipelago in his classic 1570 Orbis Terrarium as "Insulae de los Galopegos," which became "Isolas de Galapagas" on his maps by 1574. That 1574 map showed only one major island at the site given by Berlanga and two adjacent islets, far from the "ten or twelve" islands noted by Rivadeneira. It sufficed, however, to locate the archipelago in the European mind, and that location suggested its potential as a base for raiding Spanish ships and ports along the rich Peruvian coast. Buccaneers opened the next phase of European contact with the Galápagos.
At the time, buccaneers held a shifting status somewhere between adventurers and thieves. Their occupation developed in the wake of Spain's conquest of Mexico and Peru. Beginning early in the 1500s, vast amounts of gold and silver poured from those two places (particularly the latter) through the Caribbean to Spain. Simultaneously, England and France emerged as rival maritime powers intent on profiting from the commerce in precious metals from the New World. The Netherlands soon joined them when it rebelled from under Spanish rule. Ships from these rival nations, often captained by adventuresome courtiers or ambitious naval officers, regularly invaded Spanish American waters during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The invaders typically sought contraband trade with Spanish colonists or plunder on land and sea, whichever might prove easier. Occasionally they attempted to establish or conquer island bases or mainland colonies, such as Jamaica and Guiana. During periods of open war between their home country and Spain, the raiders often served legally as privateers with official government commissions. At other times they acted independently as pirates, more or less condoned by their own governments. "The result could be much the same to a Spanish colonial if he were taken by a man of war, a privateer, an armed smuggler, or a pirate," one historian notes. "The goal of all was Spanish treasure and the humbling of Spanish pride." In time, they all became known as buccaneers.
Most buccaneer activity occurred in the Caribbean, but some spilled over into the Pacific. The Caribbean offered easy access from Europe and refuge on English, French and Dutch-held islands. The competition among buccaneers for treasure passing through Caribbean waters became so fierce, however, that some sought it nearer its source, knowing that it passed from Peru up the Pacific coast before crossing the isthmus of Panama and entering the Caribbean. The English sea captains John Oxenham, Francis Drake, Thomas Cavendish and Richard Hawkins showed the way into the Pacific during the final quarter of the sixteenth century. Drake, at least, returned to England in glory, his ship loaded with Peruvian treasure, after circumnavigating the globe. Although each of these early English adventurers made use of islands off the Pacific coast of South America, none of them sought refuge as far offshore as the Galápagosthough it might have saved Oxenham and Hawkins from capture. In his journal, Hawkins dismissed the archipelago with a one-line entry as he sailed abreast of it: "Some fourscore leagues to the westward of this cape lyeth a heape of Illands the Spaniards call Illas de los Galápagos; they are desert and bear no fruite."
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(Ronald L. Numbers, Author of The Creationists)
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Meet the Author
Edward J. Larson is a professor with a joint appointment in history and law at the University of Georgia. A graduate of Williams College and Harvard Law School, he received his doctorate in the history of science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is also the author of Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands and lives in Athens, Georgia.
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