Walking in Darwin's Footsteps

By Paul Raeburn


God and Science on the Galápagos Islands

By Edward J. Larson

Basic Books 320pp $27.50

On Jan. 16, the oil tanker Jessica ran aground in the bay of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno near San Cristóbal, one of the Galápagos Islands. During the next few days, 200,000 gallons of oil poured out of the tanker, forming a slick that covered more than 700 square miles.

The spill threatened one of the world's preeminent natural laboratories--one that holds a special place in Western thought. This stony, forbidding archipelago, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador, was the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The islands' flightless cormorants, swimming iguanas, giant tortoises, and surprising variety of finches fascinated and puzzled Darwin when he arrived in 1835 aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. He spent years trying to understand what he had seen there before formulating his ideas about natural selection and the origin of species. But it was in the Galápagos that he first began to ask the right questions.

Before the Jessica's oil could do serious damage to the Galápagos, most of it drifted out to sea, averting what would have been an ecological and scientific disaster. The Galápagos Islands are more than a museum; they remain an important laboratory for the study of evolution. Researchers from around the world visit them to produce studies that extend Darwin's observations and fuel the continuing debate between evolutionists and creationists about the origin of life. And the lingering romance associated with Darwin's trip draws 50,000 tourists a year.

Evolution's Workshop by Edward J. Larson, a historian of science at the University of Georgia, is a book those visitors will want to take with them. It provides a fascinating narrative of the explorers, buccaneers, and socialites who have visited the islands. It tells of the scientists who followed in Darwin's footsteps--and Larson nicely summarizes the history of evolutionary biology and some of the current scientific debates. The volume also reports on efforts to protect the islands as nature reserves.

Larson fails, however, to deliver on the promise of the book's subtitle and its opening chapters, which suggest that he will explore the protracted debate between scientists and some Christians about the creation of the world and the origin of species. He writes that Darwin's case for a natural origin of species "directly challenged traditional notions of purpose and meaning in life, and escalated the culture wars that pitted science against religion, and reason against revelation." But Larson tells us little about where those culture wars stand today.

Much of Evolution's Workshop is devoted to the many travelers who have visited the Galápagos during the past 500 years. Europeans were originally lured to the area in the early 16th century by the discovery of Inca gold in Peru. The first to visit the islands was Fray Thomas de Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, who arrived there in 1532 while on a mission to investigate the battles among conquistadors and the killings of Peruvians. Like many who followed him, he found the islands utterly uninhabitable. Two of his sailors and 10 horses died before he made it back to the South American mainland.

Other visitors, carried on swift and unpredictable currents, arrived by accident--and not all of them survived. During the 16th and 17th centuries, buccaneers used the islands as an outpost as they plundered the South American coast. In the wake of Darwin's visit, many other naturalists visited the Galápagos, and American socialites, including Vincent Astor and William Vanderbilt, began to make the trip in the 1920s.

One of the most famous to pay a call was Herman Melville, who arrived six years after Darwin and whose view of the islands wasn't much different from Berlanga's. Melville called them "evilly enchanted ground" and found them populated by "an incomputable host of fiends, ant-eaters, man-haters, and salamanders."

The first section of Evolution's Workshop discusses the creationist notions of the origin of life in the centuries between Christopher Columbus and Darwin. Larson makes the fascinating point that Columbus' discovery of exotic new animals in the New World triggered a crisis among European theologians. If the New World was populated with animals that didn't exist in the old, then God must have created them after the flood. If that were true, however, creation would have taken more than six days. The theologians came up with this solution: If the New World animals existed before the flood, then they must have been on Noah's Ark. Some spread to the New World and prospered, while those that remained in Europe must have died out. "This became the Church-approved answer," Larson writes, "but it stretched credibility even then."

At that time, nature study was seen as a worthy occupation because it revealed the grandeur of God's creation. (Darwin himself was studying to be a clergyman when he traveled to the Galápagos.) Darwin's science was unimpeachable, but it was shrouded in a particular set of religious beliefs. The question that Larson does not answer is: What belief system governs today's science? Many of today's naturalists fit their data into a quasi-religious morality tale that condemns modern civilization as a destroyer of wilderness. Larson surely has a lot to say on that subject. It's a shame that he didn't share it with his readers.

Senior Writer Raeburn covers science and the environment.

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