The Magazine

Darwin’s Islands

A paradise created by survival of the fittest

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
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The lizard—a dirty, yellowish-orange creature several feet long—had been doggedly working on that shallow hole for quite a while. Alternating its short, lateral legs, it finally managed to get half of its body covered. Charles Darwin couldn’t stand it any longer. Impatiently, the young naturalist, recently arrived in the Galápagos by way of the HMS Beagle, walked over and pulled the sluggish animal by its tail. The lizard was, he noted, very surprised. Turning its wrinkly head to see what was the matter, it stared Darwin right in the face—as if to say, accusingly, “What made you pull my tail?”  

Sea lion on bench, San Cristóbal

Sea lion on bench, San Cristóbal

What, indeed?   

But that wasn’t the only strange thing that the 26-year-old Darwin did during the five weeks he spent on the archipelago. Released from the clutches of his dominant physician-father, he jumped on the back of one of the giant land tortoises and rapped it on its shell, just to see if it would notice. (It did, and Darwin fell off.) He poked a hawk sitting on a branch with the muzzle of his gun. (This time, the hawk fell.) And he repeatedly tossed another lizard in the water just to see if it could swim. (It could, although it ran back ashore each time, hiding in tufts of seaweed, hoping that Darwin wouldn’t be able to find it.)

Darwin ransacked the bushes for his beloved beetles, attempted to catch mockingbirds by their legs, and killed the finches that would later become so closely associated with his name. When he wasn’t trolling for specimens, Darwin was sipping drinks from a pitcher fashioned (“tragically,” says the author, with English understatement) from tortoiseshell. Or he would write down recipes: If you must eat tortoise, roast the breastplate with the meat still attached to it; the rest is nasty. 

Bon appétit.  

One imagines that the animals of the Galápagos would have had many stories to tell about that overzealous English naturalist, and for many decades. Time moves differently there. Take the prickly pear cactus, which requires about 50 years to reach maturity. Or Lonesome George, tortoise extraordinaire, who was the last survivor of his lineage on Pinta Island and who recently died at an estimated age of 100, which, according to the experts, is solid middle age for such a tortoise. While George (to whose memory this book is dedicated) was likely born long after Darwin’s arrival, some of those thick-leaved, fleshy cacti could have already been around when Her Majesty’s naturalist blazed his small but distinctive trail of destruction through the Galápagos landscape.  

Darwin left the islands with no great, final insight into the mystery of the origin of species. That came later, and only with the active help of naturalist friends, such as the ornithologist and bird painter John Gould (who probably wasn’t too happy that Darwin hadn’t kept better notes) and the botanists John Stevens Henslow and Joseph Hooker. What Darwin did learn, surrounded by the compliant finches, languid lizards, and lumbering tortoises of the Galápagos, was something perhaps equally valuable: He understood, for the first time, what permanent havoc the “introduction of a new beast of prey” could cause in an environment that hadn’t yet seen such interference. In England, young birds, though few of them had actually been directly hurt by humans, were terminally afraid of humans; in the Galápagos, where countless individuals had been killed, the animals, collectively, had not yet learned to be scared.  

And this is still largely true today, reports Henry Nicholls, who previously authored an excellent book about Lonesome George and is the editor of the magazine Galápagos Matters. Nicholls is no Darwin, nor does he want to be: Keeping himself mostly out of his narrative, he hands us a succinct, well-structured account of the natural and human history of this “little world within itself,” as Darwin called the Galápagos. It is an account written with great care, as if every word mattered. In crystal-clear prose that gently wraps itself around the facts, Nicholls explains why the Galápagos have become so special to the human imagination, and why we must continue to treat the islands as such.