In Darwin’s Footsteps

Editor’s Notebook

Natural Wonder: The Galapagos Island can teach plenty about animals, and people, too.
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Natural Wonder: The Galapagos Island can teach plenty about animals, and people, too.

By Jane Eisner

Published August 08, 2011, issue of August 12, 2011.

In September 1835, when Charles Darwin sailed to the Galapagos Islands, he collected birds and other specimens that helped him explain the natural world and revolutionize scientific understanding. Darwin’s presence still haunts anyone who visits this desolately beautiful archipelago in an isolated spot of the Pacific Ocean, where the 13 distinct species of finches bear his name, as does a research center dedicated to nurturing from extinction the giant tortoise that has become the islands’ hulking mascot.

Over the years, Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection has become synonymous with a brutal quest for survival, and even today, there is no escaping the stark imperative put forth by nature: Do whatever it takes to live and procreate. So the albatross will abandon an egg if it grows cold and perhaps lifeless; no second chances here. Even the most adorable creature — a baby turtle, a furry chick — is fair game for another’s meal. The soaring frigate bird will not hesitate to snatch food from another bird’s mouth. Disney doesn’t script this scene.

But the Galapagos Islands hold another insight. Nature may be cruel, but she is not gratuitious. The astonishing experience for any visitor is encountering birds, mammals, reptiles — from the tiniest ground finch to the 400-pound tortoise — unafraid and unconcerned about the humans in their midst. These creatures have been bred in such isolation that they do not fear anyone or anything that is not an obvious predator. Mistakenly step on an iguana’s looping tail and all it does is, essentially, shrug.

And so the experience begs a tantalizing question: What if we humans could learn to reserve our fear and hostility only for real enemies and quietly, unassumingly share the planet with everyone else?

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