Oct 30-31 2007
I am here in the cradle or spiny nest of the theory of evolution; and as one tramps around the unwelcoming island landscape, observing sea lions, red and blue-footed boobys and Darwin’s celebrated finches, you can do nothing but think about evolution. Evolution for us as a species, and for all the endemic birds, reptiles and mammals I will never see again after I leave these strange, some say enchanted islands.
Before I arrived here I compiled a tiny library: Jonathan Weiner's Pulitzer Prize winner, The Beak of the Finch; Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science on the Galapagos Islands by Edward Larson and of course Darwin’s own The Voyage of the Beagle. I attempted to read a few before arriving and have devoured the rest as we “sail” from island to island in a noisy yacht that roils and racks from side to side literally giving me a sleep where I toss and turn (AHH, so is that’s where the phrase comes from!) But when I am not reading and tossing we are taking the zodiac, a small dingy, to the islands.
The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, stretch for more than 50,000 square miles across; that is roughly the size of Florida. In 1959 the government of Ecuador set aside 97% of the landmass as a national park known as The Galapagos Marine Reserve. A part of what makes the Galapagos so special is that they are located at the confluence of two major ocean currents: the Humboldt Current from the arctic and the Cromwell Current from the equator. The swirling hot and cold temperatures give rise to a wild diversity of habitats and specially adapted creature. This eco system is home to 3000 kinds of plants and animals about 20% are endemic, meaning found nowhere else in the world.
We have been to the island of Genovesa, where in my books, naturalists Peter and Rosemary Grant have undertaken a twenty-year study of the incredible changes in the beaks, behaviors and lives of the Darwin finches. These unique creatures, and how incredible to use the word unique without it being hyperbolic, but rather a precise discriber, exist nowhere else in the world and hence the changes that happen to them can be deconstructed and followed. In science, the finches can be very effective predictors.
Some of the finches observed by the Grants made evolutionary changes in leaps and bounds due to a period of drought, followed by the El Nino pattern of nearly deluge like rain which caused the populations to dwindle and then spike. These abrupt changes provided the ability to observe the survival of the fittest intimately.
The Grants observed that as the drought took hold, the myriad types of seeds normally available dwindled down to only large hard seeds, difficult to crack open and hence only the birds with the big tough beaks survived. When the rains finally came the birds were ready to mate again. They had missed an entire year because the finches only mate after rain when the males build nests in the cactus and sit on the highest points, singing to attract females. So after the drought, at the first mating opportunity, meaning rain, there was a population of large, surviving males that greatly outnumbered the females.
So the giant finch males took to singing and the females had the pick of the songsters. They mated and bumper crops of eggs and hatchlings and fledglings ensued. This continued until the population of the Genovesa Island exploded and the mating went on and on. But then the ecological swing came. Like the stock market, good luck, or rainy weather, unless you live in Seattle or Scotland, all things have seasons or swings. And the flip came on Genovesa and drought returned.
There on Genovesa was a quick-change generation of large birds, bred to crack difficult seeds and all around them they found only small plants, with small soft seeds. All of a sudden these big beaked birds with their evolved specialty is null and void. Of course there are some small outlier birds hanging out from the class of large, strong beaked birds who have survived and NOW it is their turn to shine as they can peck and feed well on the teensy seeds remaining in a parched environment. And the cycle continues. Natural selection by itself is not evolution. It is only a mechanism that, according to Darwin, can lead to evolution. As the Grants say, "natural selection takes place within a generation, but evolution takes place across generations.”
All of this has caused me to wonder, as a writer, as perhaps a too close observer of humanity, What is our destiny as a race, given these seemingly perilous times? As an amateur naturalist in this time period, I see clearly that we are egregiously ignoring global warming and the graphic postcards it sends regularly. Here are some recent messages.
Times Square 2006 New Year’s Eve at 70 degrees
Flash fires in California
Unprecedented glacial melting
We ignore these signs at the peril of, our actual neighbors and then our animal and plant co-habitants. It keeps boiling down to an overly simplistic explanation for me, and it is that KINDNESS has been bred out of modern human beings as a trait. Somehow we naturally keep selecting for self-centered GREED.
I sometimes feel so distraught when I watch the news, an activity that more and more requires a cocktail to give me one thin layer of protection from the abject destruction and persecution of the large part of the world by a tiny ruling class. Nightly I observe a disregard for the signs of an apocalypse brought on by the inability to listen and learn from those less powerful, a world that is dwindling around us.
New Orleans Ninth Ward is still a disaster zone. Darfur and the entirety of Sudan is in an acknowledged genocide. The United States continues as the only developed country with no national health care. But the spending for war augments and rages. Oil profits are beyond record as the price for a barrel tops 95 dollars and promises no near end. But we elect oilmen who ignore education and health in favor of a bellicose path and they are nearly gleeful with the fear their paths generate in a public ever more timorous.
On the Galapagos Islands, one of the most shocking revelations is that the creatures, mammals, reptiles and birds, evince very little fear or concern with the tourists trooping by snapping photos and asking for bleakish grins. At first, I thought it was just the newness of the situation, but I come to learn from lectures and reading, that these inhabitants of Isabella, Fernandina and Genovesa are so specialized that they each posses a unique niche. So the iguana, who eats the algae, is not in completion with the sea lion who eats fish. The flightless cormorant wings have atrophied, as he no longer needs to fly to escape predators, and so he can fish unfettered in a pristine pool while sally light-foot crabs watch from the banks clicking their claws like an absurd Greek chorus.
Yes, the giant Frigate birds do steal fish right out of the mouths of gulls, but the fish abound. The hawk can feast on small marine iguanas, baby turtles do languish and die on the beach, and desiccating baby seals dot the beach in Genovesa. But Darwin’s famed finches have different feasts from the blue-footed boobies and iguanas. And thus you see black lava beaches where sunbathers include mammals, reptiles, birds and the occasional human interloper, all in respectful harmony. It is impressive and makes me wonder.
Has our own human desire to have more, better, bigger perhaps caused a natural selection necessitating blindness to the needs, wails and moans of others in our backyards and across the globe? When some more radical pundits propose that we, the hyper-mobile, super rich American middle to upper class have alienated much of the world by our patterns of over consumption in every arena of our lives, it is viewed as heresy and anti-patriotic blather bordering on treason.
Today I sit writing aboard a small yacht, the Letty bobbing atop the Pacific Ocean. I eschewed the trek to the tiny island of Bartolome with the rest of my 14 cohorts from an eco-voyage, to observe what looks like the moon. I have selected, naturally, to remain shipboard and write. I am a very gregarious person who requires large doses of alone time to keep up with an inner life that often feels neglected by my attentions to others. This is my rhythm; and at heart what propels me is a desire to be kind, to do well for myself, and others, in a widening circle.