Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Saving Galápagos in the 21st Century


by | May 15, 2009

Rogério Asis, executive editor of the Brazilian magazine pororoca, made these stunning photos of birds and other wildlife in the Galápagos Islands. One of the principal challenges faced by the islands is how to maintain their biodiversity and strike a balance between man and nature.


“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

Charles Darwin wrote these words one hundred and fifty years ago.  On the Origin of Species exploded upon the scientific and academic world in 1859, and its unorthodox conclusions, to which  Darwin was at first unwillingly, but then inexorably drawn, challenged the most entrenched scientific dogma of his day.  Charles Darwin spent only five weeks in Galapagos, but his time in these isolated islands led to his theory of a dynamic evolutionary process.  The young Darwin could not have envisioned what his trip around the world would bring – even he had little idea of what he was gathering, viewing and chronicling.   His keen, observant probing left readers of his work captivated by an all too brief introduction to these inelegant islands and “…their old-fashioned antediluvian animals; or rather inhabitants of some other planet.”


More than a century later, society still struggles with the conclusions so carefully reached by Darwin.  The concept that evolution is a dynamic force unsettles those who hold a less complex view of the natural world.  If the origins of our natural world elude some of us, perhaps it is this lack of clarity that leads us, as a world community, to remain at odds with wild places.  We act in and upon them with discomfort and suspicion, as though the natural world were a frontier to be yoked into submission.  Cannot  nature, in its full and unpredictable beauty, provide the very context in which mankind begins to understand what it is to be human?  How should we connect with the natural world, with the myriad species we encounter on land and in our oceans and waterways?  What can wild places like Galapagos continue to tell us about the world in which we live?

There is still mystery in the natural world, things which are yet to be learned and discovered.  The ocean, the great blue heart of our world, is as little understood now as it was in Charles Darwin’s day.  Galapagos today remains a vibrant  laboratory for learning how the world works.  New scientists join those who have been working for decades to uncover the secret life of finches, the islands under the sea, and the churning geological activity which even today shapes and expands the archipelago.  We learn of a new species of land iguana, new species of plants, and new species of corals. There are systems still to be uncovered and understood and daily opportunities to be enlightened.


But while much of the archipelago remains as it was, and in some cases is better preserved than when Darwin experienced it, this natural treasure faces rapid, possibly irreversible change. The resident population in the archipelago grows and with this growth comes pressure on delicate and scare resources.  We bring the world to these remote islands, and leave behind an unfortunate legacy of waste, consumption, and exploitation.  Yet we know the path towards protection and sustainable, harmonious living.  We are challenged to take it.


The 21st century will give us reason for hope.  There is growing awareness among those living in Galapagos about these extraordinary islands and that a balance must be struck between man and nature. Despite considerable economic and social challenges on the mainland, the Ecuadorian government has demonstrated an increased commitment to “getting it right” in Galapagos.  An international community of scientists and scholars continue to seek answers to the unknown.  We are grateful to the visitors to Galapagos who become its most ardent advocates and defenders.  And we are grateful that mankind still has the capacity to be dazzled.  Charles Darwin spoke of the “beauty and infinite complexity…between all organic beings.”  The Galapagos Islands remain one, tiny, but infinitely complex system in which biological mysteries still abound.

Spring 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

Johannah Barry is the President of the Galapagos Conservancy. She can be reached at johannah@galapagos.org

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