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Journey of discovery in the Galapagos

One man’s personal evolution meets Darwin’s famous theory

By Tim Johnson

I haven’t always been a man who sees the merits of evolutionary theory. For a long time, I believed wholeheartedly that the Earth was created in seven days, to the extent that I presented a creationist interpretation of the world’s beginnings for my Grade 10 science class project, suffering the disdain of the teacher — and an unusually low grade — in the process. In those heady high school days, I attended creationist conferences, bought books on the subject and conducted spirited debates with my less-than-convinced friends. I was a standard-bearer, a true believer. I was a creationist’s creationist.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment when I started to change my mind. I guess you could say that my opinion on the subject evolved. As I studied history in university and grad school and as I interviewed experts during the early parts of my career in areas of health, psychology and anthropology, I started to think about (and write about) evolution, mostly in indirect ways — the primordial roots of stress, for example, or the hard-wired reality behind certain personality traits. And slowly I began to see it, bit by bit: there are lots of things in this world that fit very well with evolutionary theory.

And now that I see it, I see it all around me — and that has never been more true than this past spring, when I visited the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. Approximately 1,000 kilo-metres off the mainland coast of South America, this archipelago of isolated islands is home to an amazing cast of animal characters, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The islands famously hosted Charles Darwin back in the fall of 1835 when he travelled there for five weeks aboard the Beagle, an English ship that served as his floating home for almost five years as he sailed around the world. By some accounts, Darwin wasn’t the most principled visitor, and his behaviour — which reportedly included riding and even eating giant tortoises — would today raise the ire of any Galapagos nature guide, a super-strict bunch.

But it was during this visit that Darwin’s evolutionary theory started to take form, as he spent time observing the variations in animal species on each island. A stunning 97 percent of the flora found on the Galapagos is unique, and the islands host an astounding variety of ecosystems, a byproduct of their seismic, volcanic nature and their location squarely on top of the equator.

“Even to the untrained eye, the environment looks different — different food sources, breeding grounds, different temperatures in the water and above,” observed Roslyn Cameron, a transplanted Aussie who serves as development manager for the Charles Darwin Foundation, when I chatted with her during a stop at the renowned Darwin research station on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz. One theory holds that animals originally travelled to the Galapagos aboard rafts of vegetation washed out to sea in heavy storms; once reaching the islands, the creatures slowly changed their habits and physical features to suit their local environment in a great example of evolutionary adaptation.

This is what Darwin observed, deducing that the animals on the Galapagos had developed distinct characteristics to deal with the unique circumstances on their home island, including a famous group of small birds with 13 different subsets, each with a different beak — a group still known as Darwin’s finches. And as I travelled the islands, I observed these things, too. But unlike Darwin’s visit, a rather austere affair, I made my observations from the lap of luxury.

The best way to see the Galapagos is on board a ship that visits several different islands, and the best ships are the small ones, which can navigate into small inlets. I sailed for eight days aboard the Grace, a motorized yacht (which, incidentally, was formerly owned by Princess Grace of Monaco, a gift from Aristotle Onassis for her honeymoon with Prince Rainier) that carries just 16 passengers. Galapagos “cruises” don’t resemble a stereotypical cruise in any way, shape or form — there’s no buffet, casino or cocktails by the pool. They can be better understood as wildlife expeditions, complete with wetsuits, fearless guides and inflatable boats for “wet landings,” where you disembark by dumping yourself over the edge and directly into the cold water. But on the Grace, we also had a dedicated bartender, a cushy sundeck for afternoon naps and a hot tub to jump into after we’d peeled off our wetsuits.

Each island held its own set of wonders, but the overriding fact on all of them was that the animals — due to their isolation, relatively limited contact with humans and lack of natural predators — were serenely uninterested in us. Blue-footed boobies, the islands’ remarkable mascot, would perform their cute, complicated mating dances for each other while we looked on, cameras clicking, just a few feet away. Sea lions would continue to laze on the beach while we picked our way through them to carve out our own spot on the sand. Perhaps most remarkable were the sharks, big nine-foot, white-tipped reef sharks, which swam beneath us near Bartolomé Island, fleeing the scene when Jorge Garcia, our strapping Ecuadorian nature guide, dove down to get a better photograph of them.

I saw the things that Darwin saw when he was here all those years ago. On Fernandina Island, we visited “Iguana City,” a place with thousands upon thousands of marine iguanas (Darwin called them “imps of darkness”), all of them piled up on one another to share warmth. Fernandina is a barren place, an island of harsh black volcanic rock, and so when these former land iguanas arrived here, they adapted to the environment, evolving into a marine creature (unique to the Galapagos) that can dive up to 30 feet into the water and eat about 40 tons of seaweed each year. And we saw the famous Galapagos giant tortoise, an animal native to this archipelago that has, as Darwin observed, evolved a number of physical distinctions depending on the individual conditions on each island, even developing the ability to eat highly poisonous plants. At the Charles Darwin Research Station, we also saw the most famous tortoise of them all, Lonesome George, who is about 100 years old and the last known tortoise of his subspecies.

Near the end of the trip, I talked to Roslyn Cameron at the research station, and she described the Galapagos as a living laboratory where many environmental and evolutionary processes can be seen up close. I asked her if she ever encounters creationists who come to the station spoiling for a fight. “You know, Galapagos goes way beyond any of the debates about who’s right,” she reflected, adding that she has conversed with visitors with a wide range of philosophies and religions. “If you explore the world and interpret it philosophically in the way you choose, you’re still having an incredible experience in nature.”

That spirit, and that word — incredible — perhaps best captures my current mindset toward creation and evolution. In the Galapagos, and in so many other places, I can see the inspiration and creativity of a loving God in this incredible world — God’s hand is behind it all. But did the world’s inception have to be a seven-day affair? No, I don’t think so. I still believe that God created, but unlike my high school self, I no longer presume to know how. Nature presents us with abundant signs of evolutionary processes alongside the signature of a Creator — I’m choosing to focus on that, and on the beauty and wonder of this creation. And given the chance to do it all over again, I’m sure I would have gotten a better grade on that Grade 10 science project.

Tim Johnson is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer.

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