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5.0 out of 5 stars Theory of Evolution Develops from Galapagos Experiences, May 18, 2001
This review is from: Evolution's Workshop: God And Science On The Galapagos Islands (Hardcover)
Mr. Larson has written one of the most interesting books about evolution and the Galapagos that it has been my happy experience to read. Although I have had the good fortune to visit the Galapagos and observe the animals and plants there, I had many missing segments in my understanding of how scientific thinking got from Charles Darwin to the work of the Grants that is so well displayed in The Beak of the Finch. This volume creates a nice overview for anyone who wants to know more about how our current understanding of evolution occurred or how any important new paradigm develops.
Most people would not have noticed what Darwin did when he visited the Galapagos in 1835 on The Beagle. To make that point, Mr. Larson opens with many quotes from Melville's visit in 1841. Melville hated the place. "But the special curse . . . is that change never comes." Brief visitors often missed the dynamism of the environment because they only made brief stays. Having been there in both the dry and the rainy seasons, I can assure you that the islands are totally different in those two times of the year. And no two rainy seasons are all that similar.
I was especially fascinated to see how much the economic usefulness of the islands affected how they were perceived. These are mostly desert islands with little fresh water in the dry season, and few are going there primarily to farm.
The book has several threads. One looks at how perceptions of the islands have changed. Now, most would agree that they are a world treasure. Poor people from Ecuador are most eager to move there and develop their lives economically from fishing and serving the rapidly increasing numbers of eco-tourists.
Another considers the impact that visits by man has had on the islands. Extinction has been more man-made than environment-made in the last 166 years. This has both been caused by farming, adding new species, and overusing the fragile resources there.
A third dimension looks at the future of eco-tourism, and sees this as both a great risk and a potential saving grace from suffering the "tragedy of the commons."
A fourth dimension is how research methods have changed to allow us to better understand evolution. As the Grants and others have shown, evolution occurs much more rapidly than Darwin ever imagined from the fossil records. Part of this is due to interspecies breeding that was not appreciated until recently. Also, environmental stress can cause sudden shifts in populations to favor the new conditions. The Grants' work with Darwin's finches (ironically, Darwin was more interested in mockingbirds) shows that you can get evolution away from a beak standard and back again in just a few years on an island as the food supply changes.
I came away especially impressed by the need to do longitudinal studies, to have accurate samples and measurement, and to have careful evaluation of the data. Many errors cropped up in the thinking of both those who opposed the theory of evolution and those who developed it due to errors in one or more of these areas.
The book is filled with a lot of subtle, dry humor. When you see juxtaposed views and experiences (which is quite often), assume that you are being invited to have a good laugh. The comparisons of Darwin and Melville in the beginning set that up for you. Keep looking for this humor through to the observations about sexual selection operating with the fashion models in the end.
Even if you can never visit the Galapagos, you should realize that there is an important message that they contain for us all: Life can evolve in more peaceful and colorful ways even in a hostile environment. The birds and animals there do not run from you. The cacti do not have stickers to hurt you. The sexual colorings of males are truly amazing.
How can we create and live in environments on earth that will make the best home for all life?
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Donald Mitchell

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