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.  

Sure enough, Darwin’s presence in the islands set the pattern for a history of human meddling. But the process had begun long before: Darwin suspected that a rat he saw was the hardy descendant of imported European rodents. New settlers would bring other invasive species with them, from fire ants to donkeys to goats, which, through their own destructive habits, added pressure to the island’s intricate ecosystem. Since 1950, the human population on the inhabited islands has grown from a mere 1,000 to now well over 20,000. When the aptly named David Lack, an English schoolteacher, went to the Galápagos in August 1938 to study the birds, he already found “food deficiencies, water shortage, black rats, fleas, jiggers, ants, mosquitoes, scorpions, Ecuadorian Indians of doubtful honesty, and dejected, disillusioned European settlers.” 

As habitats disintegrated and human settlers multiplied, non-human residents began to take their leave: There are no more than five sea cucumbers left in the waters off the coast of Fernandina Island, and of the 70 or so species of endemic bulimulid land snails in the archipelago, over 50 are now considered threatened or extinct. Man, as the great environmentalist George Perkins March put it in 1864, “is everywhere a disturbing agent.” In the Galápagos, El Niño is doing the rest.

But as Nicholls also explains, the popular notion of the Galápagos as a terrestrial paradise gone irretrievably bad, or about to go bad, is also misleading. This was always a tough environment. Anyone who looks at the famous illustration showing all the beaks of Darwin’s finches, arranged on the page like a bunch of fake noses at a party store, must realize that survival on that isolated archipelago is a complicated thing. 

Incidentally, David Lack, although he wrote a groundbreaking book on those Galápagos finches, was not greatly impressed by them. He found them “dull to look at” and entirely unmusical. As later ornithologists discovered, some of them are even a little frightening: The vampire finch of Wolf Island—try that as the title for a novel!—will land on the back of an unsuspecting booby, poke a hole into it, and then proceed to drink its blood. Not that the boobies are necessarily more delicate in their arrangements: The Nazca booby, for example, a peculiar-looking bird with a “Zorro-like mask around its eyes” (in Nicholls’s words), lays two eggs just in case one of them won’t hatch. If both do, the older chick will mercilessly eject and kill its younger sibling, “its corpse destined to be hoovered up by a hungry Galápagos hawk or owl.” 

If you survive in the Galápagos, it’s because you haven’t died yet.

Nicholls is very good at evoking the rough magic of the islands Spaniards had called Las Encantadas (The Enchanted Ones). Consider his description of the frigate bird, with its distinct crimson throat pouch that can grow to the size of a balloon if the pressures of sexual selection require it; of the male cormorant that continues to take care of his brood even after the female has left him in search of other partners and more reproductive success; of the polyandrous female hawk known to have carried on (in one extreme case) with as many as eight different partners simultaneously. 

It is no coincidence that the majority of flowering plants on these islands are self-pollinating, no insects required. In the Galápagos, it does not pay to be fussy, Nicholls says, and he has given us a wonderfully unfussy book. To be sure, we cannot today imagine an ecosystem without human influence and intervention, and Nicholls is probably right when he suggests that the Galápagos would have fared worse if Darwin had not gone tortoise-hopping there in 1835 and made the islands famous.  

At the end of this irresistibly readable book, Nicholls outlines recent attempts to make the influx of tourists sustainable and offers guidance for prospective travelers. For me, the real hero in this tangled history—natural as well as human—is the 200-pound tortoise Darwin surprised in 1835 on Chatham Island (now San Cristóbal). Munching on a piece of cactus, the animal seemed oblivious to the “Cyclopean” landscape around it: the black lava warmed by the intense sun, the leafless shrubs, the scraggly little craters in the ground that made walking so perilous. When Darwin came closer, the tortoise took a good long look at him, turned around, and quietly left—an entirely reasonable response, one cannot help but feel. 

Nicholls’s salutary vision for the future of the Galápagos might be characterized as one in which we regard such human-animal encounters as inevitable and seek for ways to make them profitable while still leaving enough space for the tortoise to do just what Darwin’s tortoise did: Walk away.

Christoph Irmscher, provost professor of English at Indiana University, is the author, most recently, of Louis Agassiz:
Creator of American Science