Review of Evolution’s Workshop by Edward J. Larson

Review of Evolution’s Workshop by Edward J. Larson

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Evolutionists and clergymen are fallible; they perceive their data or their God as through a glass darkly; yet their pronouncements can change history.  The Galapagos Islands have occupied a central position in history of evolutionary thought, but how were these uninhabited islands perceived by the first Christians to visit them?  Devout adherents to natural theology, 16th and 17th century Pacific explorers dithered over the presence of bizarre giant tortoises, marine iguanas and other animals on the Galapagos Islands…the animals must have traveled there from Noah’s ark, but then how to explain their total absence in the Old World?  Perhaps the Galapagos were an accursed place or a purgatory for sinners.  But when Charles Darwin visited the islands, he saw nature at work.  Based largely on observations during his 1835 Beagle voyage, Darwin formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection – and sparked a conceptual revolution like no other, a revolution which shook the foundations of Christianity.  And now, as no other historian has done, Edward Larson has delineated the history of the world-famous archipelago in both scientific and religious contexts.


Larson, who currently chairs the history department at the Universityof Georgia, is the 1998 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in history.  His oeuvre includes three other works on the American creation-evolution controversy.  Evolution’s Workshop is his first work with a geographical focus outside the continental United States.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable read, filled with vivid descriptions of the Galapagos.  These truly oceanic islands are volcanic outcroppings several hundred miles off the Ecuadorian coast, inhabited by outlandish creatures such as the famed giant tortoises (Galapagos is Spanish for “tortoises”), marine and land iguanas, and of courseDarwin’s finches.


The Galapagos tortoises, so far isolated from the mainland yet clearly unable to swim, were difficult to fit into classical European concepts of natural history.  Even in sailing ships, the islands were quite difficult to reach:  rocky and forbidding, and surrounded by unpredictable currents.  Those who did manage the feat reported a thoroughly inhospitable landfall:  Larson gives accounts of 16th century Spanish explorers Fernando d’Acosta and Fray Tomas de Berlanga, who describe the islands as “cursed by God;” Herman Melville, who was familiar with the Galapagos through his experience with the New England whaling industry, detested the islands and parodied Darwin’s published work on them with an annotated census of Galapagos “ant-eaters, man-haters, salamanders and devils.”  Melville portrayed the tortoises as reincarnations of evil sea captains, cursed to spend a 200 to 300-year lifespan expiating their sins in the most miserable existence imaginable.


An early Spanish name for the Galapagos, “las Encantadas” or the Enchanted Isles, derives from the sheer difficulty, owing to vagaries of local ocean currents, of getting near them in a sailing boat.  Jagged volcanic rocks made landfall impossible in most places, and cut sailors’ feet once ashore; scarcity of arable land or fresh water and swarms of mosquitoes did not help to endear the islands to Europeans prior to Darwin’s time.  Nor did they fit easily into prevalent European concepts of nature:  William Paley’s natural theology, the dominant paradigm of 19th century European science, described all species as immutable creations of a munificent God, intended for beautification of the Earth and for exploitation by man.  Certainly the Galapagos, whose only edible fauna consisted of blue-footed boobies and the plug-ugly tortoises, were an embarrassment to God, or perhaps, as Melville portrayed them, a penal colony for fallen souls.


In the chapter entitled, “What Darwin Saw,” Larson elegantly lays out the central questions posed by the Galapagos and how they led Darwinto his theory of evolution by natural selection.  Some such questions are as follows:  If all species are immutable, intended for the service of mankind, why should God bother to put multiple varieties of finch, iguana etc on uninhabited islands isolated hundreds of miles out to sea?  Why should the many species of Galapagos finch, for example, bear clear anatomical relationships to mainland species, yet occur in a much wider variety of forms than on the mainland?  And if Genesis is correct about the Noachian flood, how did the giant tortoises, helpless non-swimmers, ever arrive there?  It turns out that the patterns of speciation on the Galapagos are repeated again and again on oceanic islands all over the world; ever sinceDarwin, considerable study has been devoted to the phenomenon of adaptive radiation in populations of plants and animals isolated on such islands.


In short, Darwinrecognized that species are neither immutable nor particularly intended for anything other than propagation of their own offspring; and that islands like the Galapagos are ideal places for the evolution of new species from isolated founder populations.  On the mainland, there are many genera of birds filling all available niches:  woodpeckers, thrushes, snail darters and other birds compete with finches for food resources and nesting sites.  But when an early founder population of finches arrived on the Galapagos, perhaps blown there by a storm, they found an absence of competition from other birds.  Hence the finches were free to evolve large nut-cracking beaks, small ant-catching beaks, sharp fruit-piercing beaks, tree-, shrub- and ground-nesting habits, and the ensuing adaptive radiation led to the remarkable diversity noted by Darwin.  Small wonder that on his return, he waited 20 years to publish the dangerous implications of his findings.


The world has never recovered from what Daniel Dennett called “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea;” and understandably enough, Darwin’s association with the Galapagos has eclipsed all others in the popular imagination.  Yet Darwin’s work inevitably drew others to the archipelago – David Porter of the United  States Navy; Louis Agassiz, premier American naturalist of the 19th century and founder of the Harvard Museum of Natural History; bizarre English plutocrat Lord Walter Rothschild and multiple expeditions from the  California Academy of Sciences (CAS) visited the Galapagos between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.  Larson deftly introduces us to each character in his turn.  We learn that Agassiz, an adherent of natural theology, was obsessed with the islands as evidence against Darwin’s theory of evolution and returned there on multiple expeditions, undeterred by failing health and mishaps including loss of all his specimens at sea.  Rothschild and the CAS competed for the largest, most impressive collection of giant tortoises – the former brought an even gross of them to his estate at Tring Park, and ordered more and more expeditions to fill in “gaps” in his collection on learning of new acquisitions in California.  The overall impression one is left with after reading these chapters is one of plunder – the philosophy of manifest destiny inspired the Californians to “stake their claim” in the Galapagos, and like Rothschild, they were determined to “save species for Science” even if it meant driving them to extinction in their native habitats.  Accompanying photos document the backbreaking labor it took to move some of the last giant tortoises, many of which weighed a quarter ton, from their inland refuges down to the boats.


Predictably enough, the early 20th century did not bring with it a respite from plunder of the Galapagos fauna.  Theodore Roosevelt inspired a generation of young men to adventurism and “taming of the wilderness;” some of these were tycoons such as Vincent Astor, Marshall Field, and Harrison Williams, who built a financial empire in the 1920s on the electrical power boom.  Millionaires’ yachts were converted to scientific collection vessels such as the Noma, which carried explorer William Beebe on a much-publicized expedition to the Galapagos in 1923.  Somewhat lacking in scientific credentials but personally charismatic and enormously popular, Beebe would leave the ship for collecting expeditions at breakfast but return by ten AM; black-tie dinners and chamber music performed by the on-board quartet took place every evening.  The Noma was equipped with specially heated tanks to house live specimens for the return trip; Beebe’s collection went to the New York Zoological Society.


The turning point in human attitude towards the Galapagos seems to have come with World War II.  The United States established an airbase there, and bored GIs conducted iguana races and taunted the native goats; of even greater ecological impact were the mainland introduced species such as mice, which overran the island of Baltra.  The presence of the military base, with its 1,000 personnel, stimulated the economy of the local Ecuadorian colony and swelled the islands’ human population; despite the wartime stimulus; however, the desperately poor settlers often needed to slaughter tortoises and other native fauna for food.  The burgeoning science of ecology came to the rescue:  following the war, ecologists such as Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Robert Bowman visited the archipelago and publicly condemned the extinction of native species from Baltra and other islands.


The prominent British evolutionist Julian Huxley soon became involved in efforts to establish a permanent scientific research station on the Galapagos.  His efforts within UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) soon accomplished that goal, and the Charles Darwin Foundation for Galapagos Research was created in 1959, in time for the centennial of the publication of the Origin of Species.  Ecuadorian officials had realized the archipelago’s value as a tourist commodity, and underwrote conservation efforts through the establishment of strict environmental laws in the resident human colony.  The latter half of the 20th century, thankfully, has seen some recovery in populations of endangered species on the larger islands:  giant tortoises, for example, still reside in the highlands of Indefatigable, and one can see marine iguanas in the remote bays.  Larson traces in detail scientific debates of this more recent period, such as the one between Bowman and ornithologist David Lack on the evolutionary basis for adaptive radiation in Darwin’s finches:  Lack held that interspecies competition had contributed to speciation, while Bowman stressed differences in food as the only necessary selective force.  Canadian finch researchers Rosemary and Peter Grant later published results indicating somewhat of a middle ground between the Lack  and Bowman positions:  all finch populations exhibited selection for and against specific food types; however, the non-random occurrence of particular combinations of species on certain islands strongly suggested interspecies competition.


Grant quoted geneticist J.B.S. Haldane during a 1977 lecture as follows:  “There are still a number of people who do not believe in the theory of evolution.  Scientists believe in it, not because it is an attractive theory, but because it enables them to make predictions which come true.”  Of course creationists still see things differently, even on the Galapagos:  Larson quotes a contributor to the Creation Research Society Quarterly as follows:  “The birds are all still finches, and there is no evidence of change of the magnitude which macroevolution would require.”  Christian evolutionists such as David Lack and Alister Hardy labored to reconcile nonscientific believers with their discipline; for them, as Larson quotes Stephen Jay Gould, God and science were “non-overlapping magisteria.”  Darwin himself is quoted on God:  “I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect.  A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.  Let each man hope and believe what he can.”  While the creation-evolution debate continues into the 21st century, both sides clearly value the archipelago for their own ends.  Conservation efforts have been aided immeasurably by Ecuadorian national park status and publicity including visits by journalists Annie Dillard and Richard Atcheson.  The present volume itself has helped to raise consciousness about the Galapagos, and preserve their flora and fauna for study by future generations.


In sum, Larson’s book is a thorough, meticulously annotated history of what Loren Eiseley has called “actually the most famous islands in the world.”  On its face a useful academic resource on the Galapagos, this book will also engage the casual reader, particularly those interested in the science-religion dialogue on human origins.  This evolutionist accords Evolution’s Workshop his highest recommendation.