In the Galapagos archipelago, the theory of evolution seems to be plainly and naturally evident. From the moment Charles Darwin finally laid out this blueprint for understanding the natural world, his top-down scientific premise allowed us the luxury to conceive the past in new light, understand change, envision the present and explain life on our planet.
Students of Quantum Physics are, among other things, trying to piece together the laws behind the nature of our universe,wracking their minds, for example, to describe how subatomic particles physically take as many as ‘all possible paths’ to reach a single destination. This is far too complex for any layman to want to grasp, yet by setting foot onto any of the Galapagos Islands we are inevitably confronted with a similar conundrum. The fact that the random suite of animals and plants that alighted on these isolated, volcanic islands, under such seemingly hostile conditions, were able to survive, reproduce, colonize and thrive, evokes the limitless stories behind their each and every individual adaptation and evolutionary processes. From woodpecker finches to flightless beetles, from giant tortoises to marine iguanas, these Galapagos’ creatures have been literally forced to take ‘all possible paths’ —to keep every option open, so to speak— in order to make it through alive… One seems to be observing the end result of a set of animal species that have physically modified themselves from their mainland ancestors; but in some cases, like the flightless cormorant, one is witnessing the possible outcome (perhaps the many possible outcomes) of one species in particular… These visions are deeply inspiring and maddeningly curious. And it is thus fitting that a theory as preposterous as that of evolution would crystallize in such a special corner of the world.
In science, the theory of evolution has become a way of unifying the adaptation processes of all living things. At the same time, every individual adaptation process tells a fascinating (and unique) story in itself. Research in the Galapagos is thus constant, and although its animal life is not particularly diverse —we are speaking only of a tiny clutch of islands stranded in the middle of the ocean— discoveries are ongoing. Complexity and simplicity thus coexist, making it a wonderful laboratory to analyze, compare and contrast, in isolation, how and why our World is what it is.
In 1859, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” would change the way humanity viewed the natural world . . . and humanity itself! Field journals full of observations during the well-known Voyage of the HMS Beagle, particularly those jotted down during his brief two-week stay on the Galapagos Islands, would eventually lead Darwin to elaborate on the idea of species evolution. It is ironic that the so-called “Darwin’s finches” never actually made it onto the text… Darwin himself had scarcely taken notice of them, thus failing to bank on the fact that each of the fourteen Galapagos finch species feature different-shaped beaks as evidence of his evolutionary inklings. The much more subtle differences between the mockingbirds of the different islands, however, did catch his attention, as well as the giant tortoises’ shells. The theory, in a nutshell, explains that animals “speciate” through adaptation, a process he termed as “Natural Selection”, whereby those most apt to adapt to change survive the test of time. The thought, in itself, assumes that our world is constantly changing, and that through the gift of our own biological realities, some living creatures, through a tight-knit series of relationships and interrelationships with their environment, possess the necessary flexibility to reformulate themselves accordingly in order to continue to exist within an evolving world, top Galapagos Islands species read at our Big15 Galapagos. At the same time, others, those not adaptable enough, don’t make it.
Evolution thus transcends what is actually going on within specific genetic pools and goes beyond the peculiarities themselves… The evidence of Evolution, as witnessed on the Galapagos Islands, give us a fleeting glimpse of our own collective consciousness, of how we, as thinking beings, put two and two together since Darwin, as if we could literally walk within the walls of the modern human mind. And it is no wonder, under the glow of this light, that environmental thought has developed so vehemently since the Galapagos Islands became a world player in the plight for nature conservation. As one of our planet’s most renowned national parks and nature sanctuaries, environmental awareness has become a preoccupation for a new, burgeoning vision of the world. The lessons learned in the Galapagos suggest the importance for more conscientious and respectful attitudes that may secure survival for humanity as a whole. We are also in this to evolve, a thought that, inevitably, is borne from Darwin’s groundbreaking theory. In this sense, the Galapagos does not only give us a vision of a planet’s past; it is a vantage point from which to see our future, this collective destiny we all share within our ever-changing world.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.
The HMS Beagle’s was a survey vessel that traveled the globeon three distinct expeditions, the second being the most transcendental, as it carried onboard the then young geologist Charles Darwin. Captain Robert FitzRoy harbored the ship at the Galapagos Islands for two weeks in 1832. Darwin took as many notes as possible, but was far from conceiving his ideas on Evolution by Natural Selection. Darwin’s journal of this expedition is generally known today as The Voyage of the Beagle.
A married couple of Princeton evolutionary biologists, the Grants (Rosemary and Peter) have spent six months of every year since 1973 surveying the finches that inhabit the small islet of Daphne Major, creating the most exhaustive study of the world’s renowned Darwin’s finches to date. Gathered into the seminal “The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution In Our Time”, the Grants’ research delves into a fascinating story of evolutionary development, carried out through an epic process of real-time, in-the-field data collection, which also offers a peek into the modern understanding and use of genetics and DNA. Considered to be one of the world’s speediest ‘evolvers’, Darwin’s finches are a living testimony to evolution by isolation. In short, each species, depending on their food source, has developed stark differences in the shapes of their bills. They continue to be the subject of discrepancy amongst ornithologists and evolutionary scientists, as a recent split would up the species count from 13 to 14 distinct Galapagos finches!
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