Darwin's Ladder

Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward J. Larson

Reviewed by Anne Matthews

Sunday, April 22, 2001; Page BW06

Evolution's Workshop: God and Science on The Galapagos Islands
By Edward J. Larson
Basic. 320 pp. $27.50

In the fall of 1835, Charles Darwin, gentleman naturalist, went ashore in the Galapagos Islands to chase finches, ride a tortoise and scribble the field notes from which evolutionary biology was born. In doing so, he joined a long line of visitors to that small Pacific archipelago: pirates and whalers, convicts and clerics, hermits and dilettantes, scientists and more scientists. As Edward Larson demonstrates in Evolution's Workshop, the Galapagos are remote but hardly pristine, and endlessly controversial.

Larson is a professor of history and law at the University of Georgia, specializing in 19th- and 20th-century biology and genetics; his last book, Summer for the Gods, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history for its retelling of the Scopes trial. With this engrossing history of science in the Galapagos, he documents the international struggles for control of research there, outlines the long-standing effort of creationists to use the Galapagos to undercut evolutionary teaching and traces changing perceptions of these 15 isolated islands from Darwin's day to ours.

Every era finds its own Galapagos. Darwin thought the place ugly but instructive, a stripped-down look at life's underlying pattern of natural selection, the weak culled, the best-adapted thriving and procreating. Herman Melville visited six years later and saw a hell on earth, a harsh, hopeless landscape of reptiles and lava beds. ("No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss.") Over the next century, Darwinian opponents such as Louis Agassiz roamed the islands, seeking evidence to overturn evolutionary theory; private donors underwrote research expeditions in the grand manner (arduous specimen-collecting by day, black-tie dinners by night); and an international cadre of science professionals patiently converted the agenda in Galapagos studies from inventorying the islands to explaining them, as natural history and its love of field work evolved into the lab-based discipline of biology.

Larson offers a three-stage analysis of these intellectual and cultural struggles. "Creationist Concepts" is a straightforward presentation of pre-Darwinian world views in Western science; in it, Larson underscores the sheer, radical nerve of Darwin's thesis. "Evolutionary Debates" is a welcome historiography of the Galapagos as scientific microcosm, especially memorable for its portrait of the last expeditionary era (roughly 1890-1935), when society yachtsmen and their tame naturalists criss-crossed the region in search of romantic adventure. "Ecology Matters" examines the touchiest topic in contemporary evolutionary thought, the tensions between science and religion, presenting the reader with assorted answers (all disturbing) to the core question posed by philosopher of science David Hull: Can anyone believe in God and the Galapagos?

Light and dark merge in a Darwinian worldview, Larson observes. For some, the Galapagos is solely a place for scientific discovery; for others, spiritual meaning lies in the science from this place where death and waste and pain and beauty so constantly surround the visitor. His portrait of a suburbanizing Galapagos is especially useful: More than 20,000 Ecuadorians already live there, and 60,000 people come yearly as tourists (versus 4,500 in 1970). Melville's Hades, Larson notes, "has become the ecotourist's heaven . . . a place of profound wonder." Unless, of course, shopping malls, oil spills and industrial fishing erase the islands' ecosystem and, with it, their scientific and symbolic value. The 21st-century Galapagos are becoming far less isolated and thus far more vulnerable -- a crossroads for the natural and the numinous but also a magnet for development. Larson, however, concludes that the islands remain a viable nature sanctuary, able to heighten ecological and evolutionary awareness worldwide while preserving one of the most sacred spaces in science.

Larson's prose is serviceable and clear, rather than memorably stylish, but he does belong to the select roster of academic historians (Donald Worster, Richard White, Edward Ayres, David Hackett Fisher, among others) whose work can be read for pleasure. Evolution's Workshop is a welcome addition to any short shelf of essential Galapagos books: Darwin's own Voyage of the Beagle; Melville's Encantadas tales, Janet Browne's Darwin biography, Voyaging; Jonathan Weiner's account of evolution in our time, The Beak of the Finch. Read all these, plus a good natural-history guide, if you are going to the islands, by jet or by armchair. But read Larson's book first.

Anne Matthews is the author of a nonfiction trilogy on American places, the final volume of which, Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, will be published next month.

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Filel Date: 4.23.01