Monday, December 21, 2009

Galapagos #2: Survival Against All Odds

Photos: Tracy & Sean Haling

By Sandy Prisant

One species that Darwin did not directly study in his time in the Galapagos was our own.

Thankfully, the Ecuadorian government has remedied this omission. It requires every visitor, prior to departure to drop in on a straightforward, historic presentation of mankind and its buffoonery in the unfolding Galapagos saga. Nothing as sinister as reliving Nazi camps at the Holocaust Museum. Here, we just come off as a race of imbeciles.

What Darwin did not envision in his revolutionary, evolutionary theory about the natural order of life, was how hard human kind would work to undermine everything he discovered, even though the first hint of ourselves as the main threat, came with the very first discovery of the Islands.

An expedition led by the 4th Bishop of Panama stumbled upon the Galapagos in 1535. His first report suggested colossal stupidity. Fray Tomas de Berlanga (Bishop from 1530-1537) wrote back to
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain:

“…many sea lions, turtles, iguanas, tortoises; many birds like
those from Spain, but silly that they didn’t know how to
flee and many were caught by hand…”

It’s important to put those comments in context. Darwin’s work had the effect of questioning Divine Creation. Essentially he was challenging theological dogma that pre-dated him by almost two millennia.

It was the great irony of Darwin’s life. He had rejected science by dropping out of medical school at Edinburgh University, to study theology at Cambridge--with the intent of becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. He wound up becoming the scientist who upset the theological apple cart.

Much of the Church’s basic teaching about man’s divine nature, particularly at the time of Fray Tomas De Berlanga, focused on our species and our planet as the center of everything. The argument went that God gave humans special gifts, precisely so that we could dominate all other species. So that we could in turn be at the center of the center—if not gods ourselves, Princes of the Universe, at least.

So by simply observing the finch and finding 13 subspecies, with beaks adapted to different conditions on different islands, Darwin was not just doing a modest study, as part of a 4-year mapping and nature expedition. He was indirectly questioning the very premise underlying much of Church ideology. He was, based partly on just five weeks in the Galapagos and only 19 days on land, questioning the very essence of divine creation.

And what better support could Darwin have had beforehand to make his point, than from the Church itself. In this case, through a pioneering bishop whose own divine creation does not seem to have been dealt from a full deck.

While the Englishman’s work had an unprecedented impact on Western thought, little of that stunning new understanding of life helped to protect the Galapagos. In the centuries after the Bishop’s visit, at least a half-dozen destructive attempts to mercilessly exploit the islands and their peaceful inhabitants all ended in commercial and ecological disaster. From the slaughter of 250,000 (98%) of the giant tortoise population to the slaughter of men in the misguided creation of a first prison colony in the 19th century that failed , to an even more misguided concentration camp in the 20th century. Unsurprisingly that, too, failed after another brutal uprising.

But that wasn’t the half of it. How incompetent has man been as stewards of this global treasure?
Before and after, let us count the ways:

1800’s—Ill-conceived sugar plantations that produced few crops but great environmental damage.

1830’s—Ill-conceived dye production that produced greater environmental damage.

1860’s---The Great Powers (including the US), tried to rape the Islands, smash and
grab the resources and wrest them from Ecuador. (So much for the Monroe Doctrine,
both politically and ecologically.)

1927-28---Norwegians are urged to colonize the Galapagos in the late 20’s. The
Ecuadorian government described their attempts at commerce and settlement as
leading them to become “disillusioned and sick from loneliness”. The majority of these
brave pioneers fled back to Norway in less than a year.

1929---The final attempt at emigration turned paradise into a sordid,
violent Peyton Place, as Europeans brought all their desires and neuroses with them.
It led quickly to adultery among the few families, broken homes, and mysterious
disappearances at the turn of the decade. The blue-footed booby had never seen
the likes of such gross behavior. Photo: Susan Prisant

The Bottom Line: As the government now openly admits in it’s museum presentation:

“close to four centuries of exploitation of the natural riches of the Galapagos did not only cause deterioration in the environment, but also ended with tragic cost in human lives.”

And yet, against all odds, the Galapagos have managed to overcome mankind’s destructive influence. While Hawaii struggles to sustain 5 (five)% of its indigenous species, the Galapagos have managed to hold on to 95% of theirs.

It is not Darwin that should attract you to these islands. It is all those species that attracted him as well. Species which have each figured out how to find a decent, tolerable place within their world.

Leaving only the “divinely created” human race—masters of all they survey—utterly adrift.

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