Editor's note: Climate change will wreak havoc on the world's most famous garden of biodiversity. Three writers travelled to the Galapagos Islands to show us just what we stand to lose. Read Doug Peacock's take here. Read Terry Tempest Williams' take here.
We saw everything in the Galápagos, and every-thing—everything—was unafraid of us. Hardly anything eats anything else here—yet. War has not arrived. There's intra-species strife, but between the nations of other-species, barely any at all.
The Galápagos Islands are still so young, with everything still sorting itself out: Who gets what space, who adapts to which particular niche. There's room for everybody, for now. Birds in outrageous numbers, but with not yet the clamant species diversity of other places. Small Ground and Tree finches, each species beginning to specialize. The Woodpecker Finch just recently began picking up twigs to dig out insects from within the pulp of rotting trees. The creatures here are experimenting with the great abundance of this one place on earth where the sun's presence is an unquestioned constant, delivering millennium after millennium the same amount of energy, and the rich, cold currents delivering their same bounty every day, to the doorstep of the Galápagos's creative spirit, creative milieu.
Here's how it began. Day One, there's a big old ocean, and the lake o' fire beneath us finds or makes a seam, comes roaring up in the precise middle of the earth, builds a little garden—so small—on the equator. Let there be land.
Things start drifting in. Iguanas clinging to driftwood, holding their mouths open to the sky during the rainy season. Tortoises bobbing along like coconuts, until they make random landfall. Were they the fittest, or did they just float well? They would have been lost forever without the guidance of those equatorial currents.
Day Two, a multitude of fishes, and fowl in the skies by the tens of thousands. The drift of seeds and insects.
I forget how the rest of it goes—every creeping thing working its way to this garden that is younger even than we are; some of the islands, still forming, are just tens of thousands of years old, while we, at about 200,000 years, are like teenagers.
I think Darwin saw evolution because he wanted to see it—also because here, on this utterly new, just-made land, he could not miss it. Different tortoises on different islands—some with high shells, others with low shells, for passing beneath brush. The swimming iguanas, grazing on undersea algae.
But what we have done with that idea of natural selection—hewing to the notion that strength and domination is all, that neither tenderness nor wisdom has any value—is only part of the story, I think. We overlook seriously and at great risk the variable of random luck. We arrive too quickly at the answer that only survival matters, rather than, say, the dignity of one's conduct in the moment.
Could Darwin have suspected the brutal ideological shortcuts the coming world would take with what was once an elegant idea? Governments and businesses and government-businesses, building an entire world-ethos around the idea that competition is the only just fuel of the world—forgetting the part about bounty in that equation—and that ruthlessness and ferocity are natural, healthy, even humane.
Yeah, the strong are going to kick ass, but is there not another and perhaps larger dynamic at play across the long term? What is meeker than a turtle—and what longer-lived, or more enduring?
I also wonder if, in watching things move earnestly forward, Darwin missed or underestimated a countercurrent of things going backward. I wonder if he sensed this. I find it interesting that for the title of his work he tinkered with the phrase "descent with modification" before settling on "evolution."
Sometimes we overlook things most when we are staring right at them. Stare for a moment at the mirror, for instance. How did we get here, and why? We know in our heart of hearts that we are neither all-powerful nor, really, all that smart. Is it chance, or something else?
Are we ourselves descending—sinking—while other species—the Galápagos Mockingbird, for instance—are quietly, meekly continuing to ascend?
We can understand the beaks of the little finches, and the marine iguanas that dive beneath the sea to gnaw on that steady equatorial production of algae. Anyone can understand the Flightless Cormorants of the Galápagos, giving up their gift of flight to remain evolutionary homebodies, diving for fish all day long. Each morning they hold their stubby wings to the sun to warm themselves before plunging back into the cold, rich currents—and it looks absolutely as if the cormorants are beseeching the sun, praying to the sun: Hurry up, get rid of these wings, I don't need them, and they're not working out.
Darwin's science was dead-on for a new garden, but if he failed to see devolution, I don't blame him: He did the best he could, in five weeks. He came to these islands with an idea, at the end of a long journey and, still a young man, saw what he was looking for; and maybe he saw, too, what he did not want to see. His wife was worried that what he was proposing was blasphemy, and that consequently he might not meet her in heaven. He fretted about this, sitting on his suppositions until another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, clued in to the same idea and made plans to publish his same hypothesis. Spurred by competition, Darwin released his idea, and the rest was history.
They say that Darwin was never quite the same, that he'd lost his faith, reasoning that a truly omnipotent God would have made only one perfect finch, not five or six, and certainly not 14 or 15.
Another 40 or 50 years might pass before the last of the world's sweet ice is gone and gardens such as the Galápagos sink back beneath the warming sea. The Galápagos—birthplace of one of the biggest ideas that ever got into our heads, treasure vault museum-place for who we are and how we think about the world—will hit reset in the story, will return as if to Day One, ocean. And, on a planet gone suddenly all soft and watery, like an unboiled egg, the earth's rotation will no longer be quite as taut.
It's possible that the earth's variance in precession will cause us to wobble slightly, canting us one-trillionth of a degree away from the sun's steady gaze, resulting in the great sheets of ice and hard-heartedness, misery, casting themselves over the green world, where once—once—we had bounty.
I'm a good worrier.
What does it mean, that we are wrecking yet another of our little gardens? This may be no more or no less important than any other garden. And yet, from a historical perspective—the unnatural history of us—it may be the most important shrine to our strange intellect and worrisome consciousness of self.
The Galápagos aren't the only thing that will go underwater from the melting ice. And not all of the islands will be submerged. The iguanas and tortoises can climb to the highest peaks of the volcanic cones. But the islands will be smaller. And much that is still being made here will be lost. Those cute little Galápagos Penguins, zipping around underwater, chasing sardines—the only penguins found north of the equator—won't like the warmer ocean currents; they'll be at risk of baking in their own exertions, like fat little sausages. And it's true, if we survive the coming fire, we can study evolution—or devolution—in other places: newer places, older places, larger places, smaller places.
This will be just one more loss, among so many. The doors to this museum, this cathedral, will be covered over with sand and algae, moss and barnacles. But we can still tell stories about what is gone. About, for instance, the poison apples in the Galápagos, which only the iguanas and tortoises can eat.
And we can wake up. We have been sleeping for so long. We can think, reason, and then act—quickly, forcefully. We can wake up. Thus far we have been sleeping so soundly that it is almost as if we have not yet even been fully born. As if we are still adolescents, not yet—hopefully—fully formed.
As if we were waiting for some final warmth, to bestir. We have big brains, big hearts. We can wake up.