God and the Galapagos?
Metanexus: Views 2001.08.27. 4419 words
Today, Dr. Edward J. Larson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book __Summerfor the Gods__ (1997) brings to us an essay on that Mecca of naturalhistory, organismal biology, and evolutionary theory–namely, the GalapagosIslands. The pivotal historical role played by the Galapagos in the creationof Darwin’s own thinking is well known. However, the islands continued to bethe center of scientific debate well into the late 20th century, attractingthe attentions of such figures as Louis Agassiz, Richard Owen, David StarrJordan, Henry Fairfield Osborn, David Lack, Ernst Mayr and Julian Huxley.
“”What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized bythe species on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands?” philosopher of science DavidHull asked in a 1991 essay in the journal Nature. “The evolutionary processis rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain andhorror,” he noted. Citing the findings of Galapagos finches researchersPeter and Rosemary Grant as prime evidence against any but asado-masochist’s natural theology, Hull protested. “The God of theGalapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical.” Using thearchipelago as a metaphor for neo-Darwinism generally, he asked, “Couldanyone believe in God and the Galapagos?””
And this is precisely the question Prof. Larson sets out to explore. He notonly addresses it in today’s column, which is taken from his TempletonLecture on “God and the Galapagos” given this past July at the 56th annualAmerican Scientific Affiliation meeting at Kansas State University,Manhattan, Kansas, he also addresses it in his 2001 book __Evolution’sWorkshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands__ (Basic Books, ISBN0-465-03810-7).
Edward J. Larson is the Richard B. Russell Professor of History and Law atthe University of Georgia and recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize inHistory. The author of four books and over fifty published articles, Larsonwritesmostly about issues of science, medicine and law from an historicalperspective. His books are Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science in theGalapagos Islands (2001), Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the DeepSouth (1995), Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation andEvolution (1985 and 1989 expanded edition) and the Pulitzer Prize winningSummer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate OverScience and Religion (1997). His articles have appeared in such variedjournals as Nature, Scientific American, The Nation, Oxford American, WallStreet Journal, Virginia Law Review, Journal of the History of Medicine andBritish Journal for the History of Science. He is the co-author orco-editor of four additional books. The Fulbright Program named Larson tothe John Adams Chair in American Studies for 2001 and he received the 2000George Sarton Award from the American Association for the Advancement ofScience.
And, last but by no means least, a small editor’s note: in referring toDavid Lack’s embracing of orthodox Christianity, the author means a churchof the Anglican, not Byzantine, variety.
For more information concerning David Lack, go tohttp://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/cain/pubs/bio-lack.htm
==Stacey E. Ake
Subject: God and the Galapagos?From: Edward J. LarsonEmail: <[email protected]>
“What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomized by thespecies on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands?” philosopher of science David Hullasked in a 1991 essay in the journal Nature. “The evolutionary process isrife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain andhorror,” he noted. Citing the findings of Galapagos finches researchersPeter and Rosemary Grant as prime evidence against any but asado-masochist’s natural theology, Hull protested. “The God of theGalapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical.” Using thearchipelago as a metaphor for neo-Darwinism generally, he asked, “Couldanyone believe in God and the Galapagos?”
In asking this question, Hull unwittingly came full circle to similarqueries posed by Europeans who visited the Galapagos before Darwin enlivenednatural history with his theory of evolution. God did not make theseislands for human habitation, their Spanish discoverer reported to his kingin 1535: indeed, he wrote, “It seems as though some time God had showedstones.” Succeeding reports of a strangely desolate equatorial archipelagoguarded by treacherous currents, ravaged by fiery volcanoes, and populatedby gargantuan reptiles and stupidly fearless birds perpetuated the legend ofevilly enchanted isles. “Apples of Sodom, after touch,” Herman Melvillecalled them following his visit there in 1841, “No voice, no low, no howl isheard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.”
To either a theist or a deist of that day, who believed in a reasonably welldesigned universe testifying to its creator’s sound character, the Galapagosmade little sense. “It is a happy world after all,” William Paley hadmaintained in the most famous work of early-nineteenth-century naturaltheology. “In a spring noon, or a summer evening, on whatever side I turnmy eyes, myriads of happy beings crowd upon my view.” Any other view ofnature – particularly a Malthusian one – would undermine natural theologymuch as the larger problem of evil erodes belief in God more generally.What then of the Galapagos, where a distinct spring never comes and summersimply means drought? “When the dews fail in the summer season, thousandsof these creatures perish,” British Captain James Colnett wrote aboutGalapagos finches in 1798. American explorer David Porter blamed suchdeaths on the volcanic soil. “These thirsty mountains, like a sponge, soakfrom the clouds the moisture,” he explained, “but they permit none of its toescape in springs or streams of water, for the support of animal life.”Arid and lava-encrusted, the Galapagos hissed their rebuke of naturaltheology’s happy world.It was partly such continuing reports of its biological and geologicaloddities that placed the archipelago on the itinerary of Darwin’s voyageaboard the British survey-ship Beagle in 1835. Due to these reports, Darwinwent to the Galapagos with his eyes wide open. What he saw changed thecourse of science.
Before Europeans came with their tall ship, few plants and land animalscould reach this oceanic island chain, which erupted from the sea over thepast ten million years, and fewer still could endure its arid climate andvolcanic terrain. Those that did typically came from South or CentralAmerica on the winds or currents. To survive in the Galapagos, they adaptedto local conditions and diversified to fill niches not open to them on themainland. Variations evolved in short order: marine iguanas, woodpeckerfinches and cactus trees, to name just three. Half the native plant andanimal species are found no where else, yet most are distinctly American.”The Galapagos seems a perennial source of new things,” Darwin privatelymused long before he ever published those thoughts. Its species made nosense under older notions of special creation, but Darwin concluded thatthey made perfect sense if those species had evolved from a few chanceAmerican immigrants to fit the harsh Galapagos environment. Here, he wrotein his travel journal, on this “little world within itself, or rather, asatellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists .. . we seem to be brought somewhat near to the great fact – the mystery ofmysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
The central role played by the Galapagos in Darwin’s grand idea made it aplace of continuing interest to biologists. They called it “Darwin’s Eden,”and “Evolution’s Workshop.” During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a seriesof major scientific expeditions visited the archipelago from the U.S. andBritain, trying to resolve outstanding question in evolution theory, or todisprove it all together.
The doubters went first. Darwin’s two leading scientific opponents wereLouis Agassiz, founder of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, andBritish Museum (Natural History) Superintendent Richard Owen, both of whomrejected Biblical revelation as a fount for science but clung to the ideathat somehow nature separately created each species over time. Agassiz wenthimself in 1872 – his last overseas expedition and one for the first suchventures funded wholly by the U.S. government. Owen sent agents. Both mensaw Galapagos species as living proof against Darwin’s theory. On the onehand, they argued, take its giant reptiles, supposedly unchanged since anearlier geologic age. If these great beasts had not evolved over time, thenhow could evolution be a law of nature? On the other hand, look at itsvaried finches. If they had evolved fast enough to create new species onthose obviously new islands, then how could field naturalists have failed todetect the evolutionary process in progress somewhere? Agassiz urged hisown students to study Galapagos species more closely, through field researchif possible, to find out the truth about life’s origins.
Agassiz’s wife Elizabeth, the founding president of Radcliffe College,accompanied her elderly husband on his Galapagos voyage, and joined him indenouncing Darwinism. “On a lovely day in June, we were approaching CharlesIsland in the Galapagos group,” began her report of the trip for theAtlantic Monthly. “A marvelous school of porpoises . . . formed our escort.They seemed to be having a great jubilee. One must be very familiar withthe ocean to recognize the fact that there is as gay, as tumultuous, asenjoyable a life for animals in the sea as on land.” This was not a casualremark, but a calculated opening salvo against a Darwinian view of lifedrawn from the soul of the Agassiz’s near-pantheistic natural theology. Shewent on to relate “the mere delight in living” of whales, fishes, seaanemones starfish – even corals. “They have an excellent time in theirway,” she affirmed. Of course she saw similar joy among the archipelago’sdocile land animals. “The ‘happy family,’ so often represented inmenageries, was to be seen here in nature” she declared. Such observations,which run through Louis’s private notes as well, challenged Darwin’s view ofa Malthusian struggle for survival driving organic evolution. The Agassiz’ssaw a happy creation even in the stark Galapagos. True romantics, theycould not see nature any other way.Yet the idea of evolution took root in a younger generation of biologists,some of whom sought to understand its workings though comparative study ofGalapagos specimens. What better species to study, they reasoned, thanthose that inspired Darwin. Closer historical analysis would have revealedthat while the geographic distribution of Galapagos land birds and reptilesset Darwin to thinking about evolution, those seemingly peaceable animalsdid not help him to identify natural selection as a driving force in theprocess. Thus he employed the image of an entangled European bank ratherthan a thread-bare Galapagos landscape to represent his vision of theevolutionary process in The Origin of Species. And, Agassiz’s objectionsnotwithstanding, the post-Darwinian debates over origins centered on how,rather than if, evolution occurred.
At least in America, however, Agassiz’s legacy played a central role inthese debates. He had trained a generation of the nation’s leadingnaturalists, and even though most of them came to accept evolution, theyoften did so with a distinct bias against Darwinian mechanisms. At atechnical level, Agassiz had raised questions about how evolution couldoperate with sufficient speed and direction to generate the diversity oflife found on the Galapagos and elsewhere. Some of his students soughtanswers in neo-Lamarckian mechanisms that saw organisms adapting changes inthe environment, and passing those acquired characteristics to theirdescendants. Others favored a role for either an external God or internalvital forces in directing orderly organic development: the former positionbecame known as theistic evolution and the later as orthogenesis. Thusthere were at least three scientific alternatives to neo-Darwinism amongevolutionists.
At a philosophical level, Agassiz challenged the very notion that life couldresult from purely material forces. He saw design and purpose in nature,and so did many of his students. Neo-Lamarckism, theistic evolution andorthogenesis could infuse evolution with design, or at least purpose. Manyof these scientists never forgot their teacher’s admonition that theGalapagos held clues to the puzzle of evolution. One of the greatest ofthem, David Starr Jordan, eventually rose to such eminence, as foundingpresident of Stanford University and seven-term president of the CaliforniaAcademy of Sciences, that he could implement Agassiz’s call to sendnaturalists for extended stays on the Galapagos. Indeed, in 1898, theformer institution sent its first overseas expedition there and the laterfollowed seven years later with the largest single expedition ever conductedin the archipelago.
Jordan’s interest in the Galapagos went deeper than a mere sentimentalattachment to the place that had inspired Darwin. At a philosophical level,Jordan – a devout pacifist and leader of the international peace movement –
could not accept a “Malthusian struggle for existence” as the source oflife’s novelty and variety. And like Agassiz, Jordan never separated hisscience from his philosophy. Indeed, although both eschewed traditionalChristianity, each was profoundly and individualistically religious.Agassiz saw an immanent god in nature successively creating species while,for Jordan, nature itself drove the evolutionary process – but never in apurely materialistic way. As befit the leader of a dynamic scientific andcultural community isolated in the still-remote American West, Jordan turnedto isolation as a causal factor in evolution, making its examination hismajor theoretical contribution to biology. Simply isolate a population bygeographical or other barriers, he all but declared, and a new species willnaturally evolve. As a natural laboratory for studying the effects ofisolation on species formation, the Galapagos could possess profound beautyfor someone like Jordan, just it had for the Agassizes. There he could allbut touch his god.
Consequently, around the turn of the last century, Jordan participated insending dozens of Bay Area scientific collectors to the place; and dozensmore scientific researchers at Sanford and the Cal Academy joined instudying their collections. Struggling to keep pace, first the English LordRothschild, acting on his own account and with the British Museum, and laterHenry Fairfield Osborn, as leader of both New York’s American Museum ofNatural History and Bronx Zoo, launched multiple expedition to Galapagos.As a result of these efforts, by 1930, Western scientific institutionspossessed more comprehensive collections from the Galapagos than from nearlyany other place in the Pacific – but they failed to resolve key questionsregarding the cause of evolution. “If we are not able now to solve some ofthese problems,” Rothschild wrote about his Galapagos collections, “noaccumulation of zoological specimens will every help to answer ourquestions.”
Although most of the collectors and researchers initially working with thesespecimens accepted evolution as the source of new Galapagos species, none oftheir published papers or available private notes posit a purely Darwinianprocess as the cause. Some followed Rothschild and Osborn in favoringLamarckism; others join Jordan in hailing isolation; many simply gave up.”How came the grasshopper of the Galapagos to be differentiated as species?”
one Stanford entomologist asked in his field notes: Not isolation becausethe separate species do not neatly segregate onto different islands; not theenvironment because the entire archipelago is the same; and certainly notnatural selection. He offered no other options.
The archipelago’s finches posed the greatest puzzle. After a series ofo nithologists failed to make any sense of the Cal Academy’s collection, thetask fell to Harry Swarth. A devout splitter when naming birds, Swarthdivided Galapagos finches into forty distinct species and subspecies,arrayed among five genera within one new family. Their beaks caused themost trouble. He measured thousands of specimens, first at the Academy andthen at Stanford and in England. “Such remarkable extremes of variation inbill structure as are seen,” Swarth wrote, “lie outside my experience withany North American mainland bird.”
A century earlier, seeing such diversity among Galapagos finches hadinspired Darwin’s thoughts about evolution – but when he could not trace hisspecimens to separate islands, he turned to Galapagos mockingbirds (whichmore neatly divide into island-specific types) as better evidence for histheory. Later expeditions deepened the mystery: everyone reported findingdifferent types of finches living together, yet natural selection suggestedthat only the fittest of these species should survive. The enormous CalAcademy collection seemed to confirm earlier reports. “In other words,natural selection was eliminated as a factor in the production of theobserved variations,” Swarth emphatically declared. He could not resolvewhat caused the evolution of so many species from one ancestral type becauseneither the environment nor isolation seemed to operate as factors: perhapsit was simply extreme variability in the family or rampant hybridizationunchecked by natural selection. “The Galapagos Islands offer an unrivaledopportunity for further field work” on this problem, he concluded.
Based on his reading of Swarth’s monograph and his own work with collectionsin England, British Museum ornithologist Percy Lowe seconded Swarth’s callthat these finches be studied in their native habitat. “There is no groupof birds in the whole world which has more right to occupy the attention ofzoologists at the present moment,” he asserted, and urged that “properlyqualified investigators be sent to the Galapagos with the sole object ofstudying [them] on the spot.” Julian Huxley, then secretary of theZoological Society of London and already a leading advocate of neo-Darwiniannatural selection as the driving force of evolution, knew just the personfor this job – David Lack.
A twenty-five-year-old English schoolteacher and amateur bird watcher at thetime, Lack had come to Huxley’s attention as a gifted observer of birdbehavior. Huxley arranged for the Zoological Society to pay Lack’s expensesfor a bare-bones expedition to observe finch behavior on the Galapagos overthe course of one entire breeding season. Departing in 1938, Lack traveledby commercial steamers and stayed with local settlers. “The Galapagos areinteresting, but scarcely a residential paradise,” he noted. “Thebiological peculiarities are offset by an enervating climate, monotonousscenery, dense thorn scrub, cactus spines, loose sharp lava, fooddeficiencies, water shortage, black rats, fleas, jiggers, ants, mosquitoes,scorpions, Ecuadorean Indians of doubtful honesty, and dejected,disillusioned European settlers.” Money was tight and food insufficient.One of Lack’s travel companions almost died of dysentery. Despite hispersonal discomforts (or perhaps due of them), Lack did see something on theGalapagos that no one had seen before – natural selection at work among itsfinches through inter-species competition.
This observation took time. He saw nothing but co-mingled finches duringhis four-month stay on the Galapagos, but he did establish that theyconstituted only 13 distinct species that did not readily crossbreed. Thenhe spent more months studying the Cal Academy specimens in San Francisco andthen those owned by the American Museum of Natural History in New York,where Lack roomed with the collector’s curator, the neo-Darwinist ErnstMayr. The beaks of these finches obsessed Lack. Eventually he resolvedthat each type of beak must confer some competitive advantage. Since threespecies of ground-finches live together on some islands, Lack asserted,”There must be some factor which prevents these species from effectivelycompeting.” Although he had not recognized it when he visited thearchipelago during the breeding season, when rain falls and food abounds,Lack decided that the distinguishing beaks of these ground-finches mustadapt them for eating different seeds (at least during the dry season). Heapplied similar analysis to other overlapping finch species.
A complete picture of finch evolution emerged in Lack’s classic book,Darwin’s Finches, which forever stamped a new family name on these birds.”That Darwin’s finches are so highly differentiated suggests that theycolonized the Galapagos considerably ahead of the other land birds,” Lackwrote. “The absence of other land birds . . . allowed them to evolve indirections which otherwise would have been closed to them.” Some islandfinches remained ground feeders, others took to the trees for food, and yetothers adopted the feeding habits of warblers or woodpeckers. Geographicisolation created island variations among these basic types, just as it hadfor the mockingbirds and tortoises. But unlike those two better-understoodgroups, these finches did not remain isolated on separate islands. Theyspread into each other’s territory. Here Lack broke new ground in hisinterpretation. “When two related bird species meet in the same region,they tend to compete, and both can persist there only if they are isolatedecologically either by habitat or food,” he postulated. Such encountersfurther pushed the evolutionary development of competing species until theydiverge into non-competing ones, such as by fine tuning their beaks fordifferent foods. “The evolutionary picture presented by Darwin’s finches isunusual in some of its details, but fundamentally it is typical of thatwhich I believe to have taken place in other birds,” Lack wrote, “so thatwith these birds, as Darwin wrote, we are brought somewhat nearer than usual’to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance ofnew life on this earth’.”
Lack’s account of Darwin’s finches became the classic case of evolution inaction by the 1950s, and prime evidence for Huxley and Mayr’s ModernSynthesis. Featured in countless textbook and popular science books,Darwin’s finches became practically synonymous with modern Darwinism eventhough Darwin himself never mentioned them in The Origin of Species. Sowith the neo-Darwinian Lack do we finally find someone who answers in thenegative Hull’s question, “Could anyone believe in God and the Galapagos?”
Hardly, because in the same year that Lack published his landmark book onDarwin’s finches, he converted from agnosticism to orthodox Christianity.
“Various writers, some Christian and others agnostic, have been troubledabout natural selection,” Lack once wrote, “because it is so unpleasant.Natural selection works because in each kind of animal most individuals diebefore they have produced any offspring, while most of the rest die beforethey have borne as many offspring as they might.” More than anyornithologist before him, Lack documented the staggering death rate of birdsand used it to explain their evolution. Such findings obliterate Paley’snatural theology, Lack conceded, but need not reveal anything about God.”Although on theological grounds the ordering of the animal creation may tosome persons seem surprising, man is surely unqualified to judge whetherthis ordering is in any way evil, or contrary to divine plan,” he offered.Science deals with nature, religion with the human soul, and each shouldremain in its separate sphere. Just as “science has not accounted formorality, truth, beauty, individual responsibility or self-awareness,” Lackmaintained, “it is also not necessary and undesirable to postulate thatanimal evolution has been helped by supernatural interferences with naturallaw.” God and science, as Stephen Jay Gould would later describe it, were”non-overlapping magisteria.” “Christians have not infrequently becomeatheists and atheists Christians,” Lack concluded. “Either view involvesunexplained gaps and contradictions.”
Even as Lack underwent his private religious conversion, his mentor, JulianHuxley, was undergoing a much more public transformation from academicbiologist to high priest of global evolutionary humanism, which he called a”religion without revelation.” Humans, he preached, with their developedbrains and culture, could take hold of the evolutionary process and guide ittoward universal progress. This was our mission and the Galapagos ourMecca. During the 1950s, as the first director-general of UNESCO andco-founder of WWF, Huxley championed the founding of a research station onthe Galapagos and the development of the desolate archipelago as apilgrimage site for a new breed of ecologically-conscious traveler.
It all came to pass much as Huxley envisioned it. The Galapagos evolvedduring the 1960s from an isolated outpost to Ecuador’s first national park,one of the UN’s initial World Heritage Sites, and a dream destination foreco-tourists. Of course Huxley could not control the inspiration drawn fromthe place. A case in point was American essayist Annie Dillard, who visitedthere in 1974, shortly after publication of her classic, Pilgrim at TinkerCreek. That book, a Walden-like journal about wildlife in rural Virginia,contrasted scenes of sublime grace and beauty with horrid waste and death.The former reaffirmed Dillard’s conviction that a Creator exists; the latterled her to describe creation as “the brainchild of a derangedmanic-depressive with limitless capital.” But Dillard, who remained aChristian pilgrim at heart, never fully accepted this view of God, and foundone more to her liking on the Galapagos.
In a prize-winning article about her trip, Dillard focused on the same twofeatures of the archipelago that still attract most tourists. “You come forthe animals,” she began. “You walk among clattering four-foot marineiguanas heaped on the shore lava, and on each other like slag. You swimwith penguins; you watch flightless cormorants dance beside you.” Here wasnature’s peaceable kingdom, not Darwin’s entangled bank. Evolution inaction was the archipelago’s other feature attraction, but again with anon-Darwinian twist. “It all began on the Galapagos, with those finches,”Dillard stressed. “The finches evolved in isolation. So did everythingelse. With the finches, you can see how it happened,” she explained withoutever mentioning the role of competition in that process. In the Galapagos,further, she openly sided with the “many,” as she counted them, who questionthe “sheer plausibility” of the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis that reignsin Western science, and longingly suggested that “appending a very modifiedneo-Lamarckism to Darwinism would solve many problems.”
Other visiting journalists, eco-tourists and scientists see their vision ofGod and nature in the Galapagos as well, as do the some 20,000-oddEcuadorian settlers drawn there to service the ever-expanding touristindustry. The neo-Darwinian ornithologists Peter and Rosemary Grant, whosework inspired Hull’s question, “Could anyone believe in God and theGalapagos?” continue to document a fierce struggle for survival amongDarwin’s finches, for example, while most Ecuadorians cling to thecreationist concepts of traditional Christianity. The new Catholic churchthat now towers over the islands’ capital city depicts a magnificentfregit-bird descending from above as Jesus blesses assembled gianttortoises. Its parishioners would just as surely answer Hull’s question inthe affirmative as Hull himself would say no. Dillard, Huxley, Lack,Osborn, Rothschild, Jordan, the Agassizs, Darwin and Melville would eachhave nuanced responses. Observers bring their concepts of God to theGalapagos and of the Galapagos to their God, and our science is the richerfor it.
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