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‘Insulae de los Galopegos’: The Crucible Of Skepticism

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1997 will forever remain in my memory as the year that I had the opportunity to fly out to Galapagos and see the fauna of these magnificent islands for myself. My parents had been living in Ecuador for some years prior and I had made it my duty to go out to visit them on a regular basis. This year however was different. Working as the British cultural attaché in Ecuador, my father had been called to the Galapagos on business and had several meetings arranged at the Darwin Station.

I was intensely excited about what lay ahead not only because I had read so much about the wonders of the Galapagos wildlife but also because I was eager to visit one of the ‘pinnacles’ of Darwin’s evolutionary thesis. I had frequently been told about the impressive Frigate birds with their puffed out red chests, the almost motionless marine iguanas that bask in the sun, the curious boobies with their characteristic blue feet, and the giant tortoises that are now housed at the Darwin station itself.

We flew out on a crisp morning in early June and, six hours later, began our descent to the island of Baltra in the heart of the Galapagos archipelago. As we made our approach on that sunny summer afternoon I recall how, from a distance at least, the islands appeared rather uninteresting and uninviting, very much as Darwin had described in The Voyage of the Beagle (Ref 1, pp.28-35). We touched down in Baltra in the early afternoon breeze and began our journey towards the station, located about an hour away on Santa Cruz.

We eventually arrived at the town of Puerto Ayora on the south coast of Santa Cruz where my father was scheduled to attend several meetings. This gave us a unique opportunity to visit the giant tortoise breeding center and talk to the researchers whose conservation work is so fundamental to the survival of the extraordinary wildlife that lives on the Galapagos. Our hopes became reality as we arrived at the station and got a unique view of the tortoises. Weighing in at 200 Kg, these animals were truly giants only matched in size by the giant tortoises of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. Their life expectancy is not known for certain but estimates range from 100-150 years.

As we learnt from our visit, there were originally 14 different races of tortoise across the islands a number of which have become extinct. The Floreana and Santa Fe, for example, disappeared some time in the 18th century while the Fernandina lost its foothold sometime in the last 100 years. We heard a lot about how attempts to breed Lonesome George had until then been unsuccessful.

The following morning we took a boat trip out of the Ithaca channel and into the glistening white sand bays around Santa Cruz and Baltra. We were welcomed on several occasions by several intrepid seals eager to find out more about us. Their curiosity over us seemed at times to match our fascination for them as we climbed out of the boat. We met up with red crabs and the infamous sea iguanas. Basking in the late morning sun, these creatures’ only movement came from their curiously-rotating eyes that followed our every move. Further along on the rocks, brown pelicans were taking a well earned rest after plunge-diving into the water for food.

As we looked out into the distant waters we could see schools of dolphins making their way to local feeding grounds- not an unexpected sighting given that the Galapagos archipelago has feeding zones for over 24 species of cetacean including blue whales and humpbacks. Amidst the heavy vegetation just beyond the sands, male Frigate bird ‘puffed out’ their red pouches as if in anticipation of our arrival. This display forms part of a courtship ritual.  Competing males occasionally  ‘pop’ each others inflated pouches in their frenzy to win the acceptance of female Frigates. In such cases the injured male needs to wait until the pouch is healed sometimes until the next breeding season before getting another chance to breed. I reflected on how these splendid birds had attracted Darwin’s own curiosity almost two centuries earlier (Ref 2, p.226).

That afternoon we got a very close sighting of an albatross with its long, partially curved beak and its characteristic dark plumage. The Darwin station has focused a lot of its work on these enormous birds. Satellite studies had shown that they regularly flew to the Peruvian coast almost 600 miles to the east to feed. Any conservation program for the albatross would thus require a concerted effort from a number of different countries including Ecuador and Peru. After being followed by another school of dolphins later on that afternoon, we arrived back at the docks in Itabaca with the feeling of awe and wonderment with the adventure we had had that day.

I reflected once more of Darwin’s first impressions of the Galapagos islands. According to Darwin, every animal bore the ‘unmistakable stamp’ of mainland wildlife- an observation that lead him to the conclusion that these island species had not, as many would have inferred at the time, been independently created but had through time descended from a mainland progenitor (Ref 2, pp.537-538).

Our trip to the Galapagos had not only presented us with a unique opportunity to savor the wildlife of this unique archipelago but had also given us the perfect environment in which to reflect on the foundations upon which the Darwinian ‘intellectual drama’ had been built. And yet I still remained troubled by the extension of Darwin’s special theory beyond the confines of slight variations, to include the evolution of all life on earth. Today Neo-Darwinists suppose that small microevolutionary mutations translate to large changes that, over time, have generated the tremendous diversity of life that we see on earth today (Ref 3).

From the Frigate birds to the Galapagos tortoises, from the blue-footed boobies to the Iguana, Darwin suggested that all extant fauna are connected through a branching tree of ancestral life forms albeit one that has left little trace of its existence (Ref 2, pp.148-160). Indeed there is little corroborative evidence in support of Darwin’s macroevolutionary extension to his theory (Ref 4, pp.14-15). As biochemist Michael Behe noted,

“it is at the level of macroevolution- of large jumps- that the theory evokes skepticism….the canyons separating everyday life forms have their counterparts in the canyons that separate biological systems on a microscopic scale. Like a fractal pattern in mathematics, where a motif is repeated even as you look at smaller and smaller scales, unbridgeable chasms occur even at the tiniest level of life” (Ref 4, p.15).

We arrived back in the Ecuadorian capital Quito slightly disappointed that we could not have stayed for longer on these magnificent islands but intellectually enriched by the experience.  Our visit had injected a fresh skepticism over the allegedly impenentrable arguments that Darwin had presented to the world in his watershed publication. 


Literature Cited

1. Michael Denton (1986) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, Adler and Adler Publishers, Bethesda Maryland, First Edition

2. Charles Darwin (1859), The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection Or The Preservation of Favored Races In the Struggle For Survival, Modern Library Paperbacks Edition (1998), New York

3. Neil de Grasse Tyson presented a discussion on the origins of life in a NOVA documentary that aired on PBS on the 28th of September 2004, entitled “Origins:How Life Began”

4. Michael J Behe (1996), Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenges to Evolution, 1st Edition, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York

Mr Deyes, Thank you for your description, I would love to visit the Galapagos myself. ...Darwin suggested that all extant fauna are connected through a branching tree of ancestral life forms albeit one that has left little trace of its existence (Ref 2, pp.148-160). Little, compared to what? If all life is connected over 3.5 billion years, what is your expected level of evidence? If all life was unconnected, what would the alternative expectation be? Your essay would be clearer if the reader could tell if "little trace" is your opinion or Darwin's of 150 years ago. We know substantially more about the fossil record than he did, as well as the biochemical record of genetics. Nakashima

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