The first explorers to visit the Galápagos Islands were Spaniards, who reached that remote Pacific Ocean archipelago in 1535, only three years after Spain had conquered South America’s Inca Empire. To a rising colonial power still marveling over its new riches from Mexico and Peru, the uninhabited Galápagos had nothing to offer—no mineral riches, no trade goods, no produce, no game, not even fresh water with which to resupply ships. As word of their bleakness spread, later navigators generally bypassed the islands. Even England’s Captain James Cook steered his great late-eighteenth century voyages of scientific exploration by the Galápagos without even bothering to look at them.
Through three centuries, the islands were of interest only to buccaneers looking for hideaways and whaling ships seeking fresh provisions. As a matter of fact, the islands did have one valuable resource: the giant tortoises that gave the islands their Spanish name, Los Galápagos. Growing as large as a hefty sow, the tortoises provided fresh protein aboard ships, where they could easily be kept alive until they were needed for their meat. Whalers stopping at the islands typically sent men ashore to round up as many tortoises as they could find, sometimes hundreds in one landing. After centuries of this kind of harvesting—which increased greatly in the nineteenth century—it seems incredible that any tortoises survived into the twentieth century.
Meanwhile, the islands finally connected with the modern world in 1835, three hundred years after the first known human visit, when a young British naturalist named Charles Darwin spent five weeks there collecting specimens. Darwin’s conjunction with the Galápagos was a remarkably fortuitous encounter that would eventually revolutionize biological science and send a challenge to Christianity that continues to generate hot debate into the twenty-first century. Darwin visited the islands as the official naturalist of the British frigate HMS Beagle, which circumnavigated South America to collect data.
Darwin himself was an unlikely choice for the position of naturalist and an even more unlikely candidate for the person who would shake the foundations of Christianity. Before starting the expedition, which he joined almost on a whim, he was preparing to train for the Anglican clergy, following his father’s career path. He began the voyage with what would now be called “creationist” beliefs—that everything in nature had been deliberately planned by the Christian god and remained immutable. Darwin started off wishing, not to challenge that belief, but to find scientific support for it. However, by the time he reached the Galápagos Islands, two years into the Beagle’s voyage, what he saw in the New World was already undermining his Christian assumptions about the immutability of nature. What he saw in the Galápagos would eventually turn those beliefs on their head.
Edward J. Larson’s Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galápagos Islands is aptly titled, as it is a history of the once-obscure Galápagos Islands’ role in the ongoing debate between science and religion. Neither Larson nor anyone else is likely to argue that the theory of evolution is built solely, or even mostly, on research done on the Galápagos Islands. Indeed, Larson points out that Darwin actually made few direct references to the islands in his pioneering treatise on evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). What makes the islands special is the unique combination of characteristics that has turned them into a true workshop for the study of evolution. Darwin was not the first naturalist to visit the islands, but he was the first to recognize why they had special value to naturalists. He was also the first naturalist to penetrate their interior regions.
Now a province of Ecuador, the Galápagos make up an archipelago of fifteen comparatively large islands and many smaller islands that cover a total land surface of about three thousand square miles. The islands straddle the equator, about six hundred miles west of continental South America. In area and distance from other land masses, the Galápagos resemble the Hawaiian Islands, while differing greatly in their aridity and in having been free of human disturbance much longer. Even after the surge of immigrants in the late twentieth century, the Galápagos’ population of seventeen thousand people is only a small...
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