Evolution’s Workshop

“Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands” by Edward J. Larson (Basic Books, 2001)

The theory of evolution has had trouble getting a fair and accurate press, frequently being misrepresented by its critics and oversimplified by its champions. It is frequently presented in dramatic terms such as “the survival of the fittest,” or “the struggle for existence,” which slogan fails to distinguish the competitive dynamics both within and between species, and the time-table over which they occur. And even the great Sir David Attenborough (of BBC fame) has been known to drop occasionally into observations of neo-Lamarckian purposefulness in describing how species faced the challenges of adapting to new environments. Evolution is of course a theory (not a law) concerning the mutability of species; the mechanisms by which new species evolve are still not well understood. Nevertheless, the concept still inspires fear, as evidenced by the decision in August 1999, by the Board of Education in Kansas to remove any reference to the term from its scientific curriculum.

Edward Larson has chosen to describe the progress of evolutionary thought by writing a history of the Ecuadorian Galapagos Islands. These islands have held a fascination for studies of evolution ever since Darwin – because of their remoteness, their evidence of dramatic geological change, their unique wildlife, their inhospitableness to man, all of which threw a challenge to the notion of all species being created simultaneously and immutably, and being designed to live in harmony with man.

Larson shows how the waves of thought about the study of nature were provided by visitors to the islands, from the first threat to natural theology in England that Darwin’s visit represented, through the freer-thinking period of observation and hypothesis in the 19th century, to the renewed fundamentalist backlash in the early 20th century. He gives an engaging account of the explorers and tourists, the pirates and scientists who were attracted to the bizarre flora and fauna of the islands. He ends on a sad note, explaining how tourism (and the expansion of the local population), risks destroying the things that attracted it.

But what about the “workshop” idea? It is difficult to show natural selection in action because of the vast timetables on which the extinction of species, and the creation of new ones, occur. The patient, pioneering work of Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University (allowing them perhaps to predict evolutionary change) is only briefly summarized here. Readers may want to turn to Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Beak of the Finch for a fuller account of how the Grants’ measurement of beak-size among finches (echoing Darwin’s bird of choice) over 30 years against a backdrop of drought and inundations has indicated a fluidity of species identity.

Larson subtitles his book “God and the Galapagos Islands,” but readers will not find here an authoritative conclusion on the relationship between religion and science. Fundamentalists continue to dismiss the whole notion. Some firm believers (such as Agassiz, Bowman) saw research on the Galapagos as confirming the ideas of the immutability of species. Others (such as David Lack) were able to compartmentalize their spirituality and their scientific research. Some (such as Julian Huxley) were always committed humanists.

Larson covers all this fairly, but fails to take any firm line to explain what makes the workshop tick. This is not a book to resolve any existential angst that its readers may have, but it is a fascinating read, and will upset no one except maybe the most earnest materialists, and those creationists who enthusiastically endorse the decisions of the Kansas Board of Education.

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