In the Steps of Darwin— Walking Slowly in the Galapagos

We’d just arrived and were in a pickup truck taxi on our way to lunch, when the truck slowed, then carefully drove on the shoulder of the road to avoid a giant tortoise.

Welcome to the Galapagos!

Highlands of Isla Santa Cruz

Like so many other people, I had Galapagos on my bucket list. Travelling there this month was not long premeditated, however. It was a coinciding of a travel credit that needed to be used and a Covid situation in Ecuador that made the destination more appealing than many others in the world. I was excited that I was going on my first holiday trip in a year and a half, and that we were spending 5 nights on a boat.

Taken with my iPhone on Fernandina Island

I’d heard how unafraid of humans the animals were, and I’d seen pictures, but I’d imagined rare sightings captured by National Geographic level photographers with expensive telephoto lenses. The reality was literally tripping over wildlife, birds wheeling close overhead, and being able to take animal portraits with nothing more than my phone.

Galápagos penguins, juvenile frigate bird, blue-footed booby, pelican

My other surprise was how barren and raw the landscape was. The waters and shoreline teemed, but, except for the misty highlands, it was clear these islands were only recently created by volcanos, and populated by accidental travellers.

Lava flows with Sierra Negra in the background

The evidence for evolution was all around me. Although I spotted a few of the Darwin finches I had taught about in science classes, I was not able to confirm their adapted beaks— they are small birds, and really fast! But I saw dome-shelled tortoises slowly munching grass in lush highlands, then saw saddle-backed tortoises reaching high for cactus leaves (and saw that cacti on islands without tortoises grow close to the ground, and those on tortoise islands develop trunks like trees as protection from being eaten!); I saw different species on different islands, or even on the same island when a lava flow had separated them; I could imagine how land iguanas started eating algae on shoreline rocks, then ventured into the water and over generations were selected for the adaptations that helped them survive in their new environment. Even without the DNA confirmation we now have, how could Darwin have not seen the evidence of the origin of species?

Tortoises adapted to their food sources
Marine iguana on the left: long flat tails, black to match the volcanic shore rock, and the ability to spit salt.
Galapagos land iguana from Isla San Salvador on the right.

Yet he did not— not during his 19 days on shore in the Galapagos in 1835, and not until several years later. Even though a governor on the islands told Darwin that he could tell what island a tortoise came from by the shape of its shell, the 48 tortoises that left on the Beagle went as provisions, and when they were eaten their shells were thrown away. Even though he collected many of the now famous finches, Darwin hadn’t even bothered to record which island each came from, and he misclassified some of them as other birds. Even though he marvelled at the strange creatures and the harsh new landscape, the idea of living things adapting to the conditions around them and over generations changing enough that they were new species, didn’t cross his mind.

Marine iguana colony on Isla Fernandina

Why not? Because he had trained to be a clergyman while studying natural sciences, and still strongly believed at that point in Creationism. Because his first interests were geology, marine invertebrates and beetles. He was often more interested in the rocks than the wildlife.

Red rocks of Rabida Island. Darwin realized that these sedimentary rocks were ash deposits from an underwater volcano

The Myth I heard involved the idea of evolution springing all at once in Darwin’s mind as he looked at finches on the Galapagos, then him holding back publication for 20 years because of the controversial, ant-religious nature of his brand-new theory. The reality differs: Darwin’s ideas didn’t start to form until he was back in England and he had collected evidence from many locations, with Galapagos only getting small mention; many scientists in his day were discussing changes in species over time— it was only the mechanism of natural selection that was new and Wallace had already published on it; the delay was due to his other work, his other books, his own and his children’s illnesses; the theory was well received when published, even by many of the religious who felt that it was God’s subtle hand that drove the changes.

Darwin Lake

Darwin didn’t even use the word “evolution” in the Origin of Species until the 6th edition of the book. Controversy came later when the theory was applied to humans, and many lay people would not accept that their ancestors could be “apes!”

It makes me wonder what the popular “story” of this complex, changing time we are currently experiencing will be, a century from now.

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