An absorbing study of the role of the South American island chain in shaping evolutionary theory.
The desolate Galápagos Islands, writes historian Larson (Summer for the Gods, 1997), are today considered to be “a sacred site for science and a place of immense interest to biologists and eco-tourists alike.” European explorers who came across the islands in the 16th century had a less exalted view of the rugged volcanic archipelago, noting on their maps and in their logs that they had seen a bit of hell on earth; even as late as the 19th century, Herman Melville would call the islands “evilly enchanted ground.” Those who landed on the islands, as Charles Darwin would do on the five-year voyage of HMS Beagle, encountered odd, novel species that turned the notion of the great chain of being on its head. Some scientists preferred to ignore the giant tortoises and candle-like cacti of the place, which did not neatly fit into the prevailing natural history of the time, one that, one scientist wrote, “must devote itself to exhibiting evidence of divine design and material Providence.” Others, like Darwin, were intrigued by the evolutionary patterns that emerged, whereby species exhibited perceptible differences from island to island, suggesting that geographical separation had some influence on the course of nature. Darwin’s findings, and those of the generations of scientists who followed him, would undermine (but not kill) special-creationist accounts of how life came to be. Their arguments changed the face of science—and also of the islands, which gave up hundreds of thousands of specimens of birds, reptiles, and plants to collectors from museums all over the world. While lamentable, Larson suggests, their deaths gave rise to a new, epic story of evolutionary life.
Thoughtfully conceived and expertly written, this is a good companion for travelers to the islands and students of the history of science alike.