Life and Death in the Galapagos

Contributed by:
Peter Dodson
Professor of Anatomy – School of Veterinary Medicine
Professor of Earth and Environmental Science – School of Arts and Sciences
University of Pennsylvania
Institute Advisory Committee Member

In November I had the surpassing pleasure of participating in Penn Alumni Travel to the Peruvian Amazon, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. Although I might otherwise been occupied in the classroom, I was unable to resist the allure of such exotic terrain. Dawn and I are both enthusiastic bird watchers and jumped at the chance to add colorful tropical birds to our life lists. Even at Iquitos, Peru the Amazon is an immense river, a highway in the jungle. Ensconced at Ceiba Tops Lodge 25 miles downstream we had a perfect venue for observing tapirs, pink river dolphins, saddle-back tamarins, tarantulas, neon blue morpho butterflies, etc. We fished for piranhas (which unfailingly clean hooks lowered into the murky water within 5 seconds). But truly it was the beautiful birds that engaged us like nothing else: bold black and yellow oropendolas, and cassiques, showy blue dacnis, the enigmatic great pitou, ubiquitous yellow-headed caracaras, and so on. We spent a day in the metropolis of Lima, where we saw the tombs of both St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, the Mother Theresa of her day. Pressing deep into the Andes we spent several days admiring the Incas for their administrative and engineering prowess as they constructed their short-lived empire before crumbling before the might of the Spaniards. Machu Picchu is impressive beyond imagining, a city in the clouds, a Yosemite in the tropics. And great birds there too!

But above all there were the Galapagos. I prepared myself by reading Edward Larson’s magnificent book Evolution’s Workshop — God and Science in the Galapagos Islands. In a sense I was too well prepared, because I arrived with certain pre-conceived notions, as so many before me had also done. As Larson explained so clearly, Europeans arrived in the New World with strongly preconceived notions both about Creation and about the inherent inferiority of New World animals, which they believed to be smaller than their European counterparts, but reptiles and insects were larger. Buffon fairly sneered. The uninhabited Galapagos situated 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador were discovered by a Spanish bishop in 1535. They were found to be dry and inhospitable, offering neither food nor water. Here horses and men perished for want of food and water. The bishop pronounced the islands unfit for human habitation and accursed of God. Duly reported to Spanish authorities, the unpromising islands were quickly forgotten by the Spanish. Pirates and buccaneers, especially English and Dutch, later found the archipelago a useful base from which to raid Spanish treasure ships carrying Incan gold back to Spain. European ships passed by the Galapagos during the great voyages of discovery during the 18th and 19th centuries. Sailors harvested tortoises in great numbers and an important whaling industry was based there in the late 18th and first half of the 19th century, finally ending when oil pumped from the ground in Pennsylvania and elsewhere provided a cheap substitute for whale oil. Hermann Melville passed through the Galapagos on whaling ships in 1841 several year after Darwin’s visit. He saw the land as accursed and ungrateful, raw volcanic clinker and dominated by hissing reptiles. He had almost nothing good to say about them. Charles Darwin spent five weeks there, arriving Sept. 15, 1835 and departing Oct. 19. Homesick after nearly four years at sea, he was less than impressed by what he saw. Although the islands are planted on the Equator, the impoverished flora and fauna showed nothing of the exuberance of the tropics. Such miserable flowers as there were seemed more worthy of Arctic tundra. He made important collections by venturing into the interiors of islands and not confining his collecting to the shoreline. But he carelessly failed to record the island on which each specimen was collected. He was impressed by tortoises and mocking birds, but was contemptuous of “disgusting clumsy lizards” which he harassed by tugging on their tails and tossed them into the sea. He rode on the backs of tortoises. It is well known that he began the voyage of the Beagle as a Creationist. Evolutionary ideas slowly took hold. It was not until the long sea voyage home, some eight or nine months after he had been in the Galapagos, that he began to understand the significance of variation of his bird specimens from the Galapagos, especially the mockingbirds.

Since Darwin’s time of course the case for evolution triumphed and the Galapagos Islands have become celebrated as the very Sistine Chapel of Evolution. The Darwin Research Station was established in 1959, the centenary of the publication of the Origin of the Species. Today ecotourism under tight governmental control is the major industry. We followed a typical tourist itinerary. We flew to Baltra, a former U.S. Army base dating from World War II, drove by bus across Santa Cruz Island and arrived in Puerto Ayora. The first surprise to me was how lush Santa Cruz seemed to be. Every account I had read prepared me for the bleakness and aridity of the Galapagos but yet, only a few minutes into our bus ride, we had imperceptibly climbed to 2500 ft. and we in green scrubby forest in the volcanic highlands. Like every other visitor for the Galapagos for the previous five centuries, I brought preconceptions with me. The greenery continued down into Puerto Ayora, one of two significant towns in the islands, and here the human impact was all too obvious, reminding me somewhat of a smaller version of Key West. We visited the Darwin Research Station with its marvelous turtle conservation unit. We spent a few tourist dollars in the local shops, and then boarded the Coral II, our home for the next four days. Our cruise took us to Santa Fe, South Plaza Island, North Seymour Island and finally to San Cristobal, Darwin’s first landfall (which he knew as Chatham Island). San Cristobal is the site of the capital of the Galapagos, Puerto Baquerizo, where the other airport to the islands is located.

At each stop we were surrounded and embraced by wildlife. Gal├ípagos sea lions literally waddled up to greet us, Dolly Lightfoot crabs waved their dainty bright orange claws at us from every wave-splashed rock, and the air was thick with seabirds: the famous blue-footed boobies (affectionately known as “bloobies”), rapacious but gorgeous magnificent frigate birds, shearwaters, storm petrels, red-billed tropic birds, lumbering pelicans and more. Dark marine iguanas and colorful terrestrial iguanas are ubiquitous. A truly endearing feature of the fauna recognized by Darwin is that, in the absence of terrestrial predators, the animals have no fear of strangers including humans. We are warned by our naturalist guide not to approach closer to an animal than six feet. I found South Plaza Island particularly Edenic with the aspect of a natural rock garden teaming with animal life. The religiously-inclined person is moved to praise the Creator for the beauty of Creation. But in this earthly paradise death also abounds. Here a dead lizard, there the carcass of a baby sea lion, a wing bone of pelican, a sea lion nursing a shark bite. Francis Thompson in The Hound of Heaven, asked “Must all Thy fields be dunged by dingy Death?” Natural selection is all about death — survival of the fittest usually means death of the least fit. Philosopher David Hull observes, “He is …not a loving God who cares about his productions….The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom one would be inclined to pray.” Fine rhetoric, but does this statement bear scrutiny? Is the fact of death really grounds for disbelief in God? Shallow thinking might suggest that evolution by natural selection is incompatible with belief in God. Theologian Jack Haught asks why natural selection should be any more problematic than gravitation. Does anyone find gravitation problematic for belief in God? Is predation in the natural world incompatible with belief in the transcendent? Should we not rather marvel that God can accomplish such creative good through the process of natural selection? A trip to the Galapagos only reinforced this for me.

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