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Probe Ministries > Faith and Science > Origins > The Galapagos Islands: Evolution's Sacred Ground


The Galapagos Islands: Evolution's Sacred Ground Print E-mail

Dr. Ray Bohlin

Written by Dr. Ray Bohlin

What's So Important About the Galapagos Islands?

The Galapagos Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, 650 miles off the coast of Ecuador in South America. They are isolated from any other island group or land form.

What's so important about the Galapagos Islands? Here are four reasons:

First, because they are extremely isolated, the Galapagos Islands are home for dozens of species of both plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The Galapagos Tortoise, for example, is the largest reptile found anywhere on the planet, and it lives longer than any animal known to man. The oldest is currently over 170 years old and lives in a zoo in Australia. Other unique animals include the Flightless Cormorant, the Marine Iguana, the Galapagos Penguin, and Darwin's Finches.

There are even unique forms of plants including numerous forms of cacti and at least thirteen species of sunflower or daisy-like plants, one of which is a "sunflower" tree with bark and no tree rings.

Second, Darwin's visit to the Galapagos for five weeks in 1835 on the HMS Beagle provided the starting point for the development of his theory of natural selection. Darwin had believed that God individually created each species. However, when he saw and studied variations between similar species from island to island, he correctly reasoned that a natural process made more sense. However, he eventually threw the baby out with the bathwater by reasoning that all species arose by a natural process through natural selection. Darwin's Finches continue to be used as a textbook example of evolution today.

Third, similar to the Hawaiian Islands, the Galapagos Islands are volcanic. There is a geological hotspot deep in the earth's crust underneath the Pacific tectonic plate where magma flows to the surface. The hotspot remains stationary. However, as the Pacific plate moves from west to east, new volcanic islands begin to appear beneath the sea until they eventually poke above the surface to create a new Galapagos island. The youngest of the islands is the island of Fernandina which is the westernmost island. It is estimated geologically to be 800,000 years old. The oldest islands off to the east are estimated to be 3 million years old.

Fourth, two major ocean currents affect the climate of the Galapagos. First, from the south comes the Humboldt Current from Antarctica. Second, a deep-water current comes from the west. Upon reaching the islands, this cold deep water current brings with it a large supply of nutrients that feed the bottom of the food chain. Consequently the western waters of the Galapagos are colder and richer in marine life. These cold-water currents keep the temperature of the islands rather moderate for islands on the equator. In the Galapagos, the waters usually range from the 60s to the 70s F (15-22 degrees Centigrade), creating a more temperate climate for these equatorial islands.

All these factors combine for a most unique experience. The Galapagos have been a "poster child" for evolution ever since Darwin. We'll see how well that holds up.

What Evidence of Evolution Do Darwin's Finches Provide?

In May 2003 I had my first opportunity to visit the Galapagos Islands with a group led by several scientists from the Institute of Creation Research. Our goal was simply to see for ourselves many of the unusual animals and plants which so heavily influenced Darwin in the development of his theory of natural selection.

Look in almost any high school biology textbook and you will find some mention, if not a whole section, on what are now known as Darwin's finches. Darwin's finches are comprised of thirteen different species of small finches that arose from a single species that colonized the islands. The finches have adapted to differing food sources ranging from different size seeds, to insects, to cactus flowers, to even blood. The major feature of these finches that has changed is the size and shape of their beaks, but the differences are very subtle.

When we got our first glimpse of the finches we found out just how subtle the differences in beak size and shape really are. Without being able to compare two or three birds right next to each other, we found it virtually impossible to identify them. This observation confirms recent research by Princeton researchers Peter and Rosemary Grant. The Grants have come to the Galapagos Islands every year since the mid-1970s. They have banded, measured, and weighed literally thousands of finches of nearly all species.

Of the thirteen species, six are called ground finches, and they feed on different size seeds and cactus flowers. These finches particularly differ almost exclusively in their beak size or shape. The Grants have found that these finches will "evolve" to larger and smaller beaks depending on the seed availability based on a wet or dry rainy season.

They also learned that most of these six ground finches will interbreed, and the hybrids are fertile, meaning they can also breed among themselves. This information is quite startling because it means that these six species may actually be one species. And the actual degree of change is quite miniscule. The average beak size may change by only a half a millimeter from dry to wet season. These six finches are also indistinguishable in their mtDNA.

These species are so similar in the field that some of the workers and guides from the Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos have a saying: "Only God and Peter Grant can identify Darwin's finches."

As an icon of evolution, the finches are far less than hoped for.{1} Yes, they do document the reality of natural selection. But the degree of selection is quite small and seemingly insignificant. They are a wonderful example of the ability God has given His creatures to be fruitful and multiply in a fallen world.

Why Save the Galapagos Tortoise?

The word Galapagos is Spanish for saddle. The islands were named for a particular variety of Galapagos tortoise known as the saddleback. These tortoises inhabit the drier islands and feed primarily on many varieties of prickly pear cactus. The saddle refers to a striking feature of their shell that forms a large space just above the neck that allows the tortoise to reach high to grab a succulent piece of cactus.

Since the islands were named for the saddleback tortoise they are a symbol of the islands. As I mentioned earlier, these tortoises are the largest living reptiles. They are also the longest living animals in the world. There is a female Galapagos tortoise in a zoo in Australia by the name of Harriet. Harriet was reportedly taken from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin himself. She eventually was taken to Australia and is reported to be 173 years old, born around 1830. This would make her the oldest living creature on earth.

Harriet is a dome tortoise as opposed to the saddleback variety. Dome tortoises eat low-lying grasses, vegetation and fruits. When Darwin came to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, there were approximately 300,000 tortoises on eleven islands. There are five different varieties on the largest island, Isabella. The five varieties are found associated with the five large volcanic craters where water accumulates and grass is abundant. The other ten varieties inhabited a specific island, one variety of tortoise per island.

The islands were a favorite stopping place for whaling ships and ships crossing the Pacific. Sailors would come on shore and round up twenty to thirty tortoises to be used as food on the long voyage. A tortoise could remain alive with little or no food or water for months, providing fresh meat for the long voyage.

In addition, as people began colonizing the islands, they brought with them rats and mice that would eat the tortoise eggs. Introduced goats and pigs competed with the tortoises for food. Consequently, the tortoise population has been reduced to around 20,000. Some of the specific island varieties have gone extinct. Lonesome George has become the symbol of the plight of the giant tortoise. He is the only remaining member of the tortoises from Pinta Island, and he seems to be refusing to breed.

The Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos is involved in an extensive captive breeding program, trying to reestablish the tortoises in areas where they have disappeared. But why? If evolution is true, then let natural selection take its course. If they survive, fine. If not, that's just life in an evolutionary world. In Genesis, however, we are commanded to have rule and dominion over God's creatures. Wherever practicable, we have a biblical mandate to preserve the creatures He has made in the environment He provided for them (Psalm 104). So the Darwin Research Station is unwittingly acting on a Biblical worldview.

Strange Creatures of the Galapagos

Though the Galapagos Islands are world famous, they didn't particularly impress Darwin when he first arrived. In his book, Voyage of the Beagle, he wrote, "Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sunburnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life."{2}

Though we may disagree with Darwin on many of the conclusions he drew from his observations of the Galapagos wildlife, he was nonetheless an excellent observer and rather humorous reporter. For instance, one of the well-known inhabitants of the Galapagos is the marine iguana, the only lizard in the world to feed in the sea. Darwin described it this way,

"It is extremely common on all the islands throughout the group, and lives exclusively on the rocky sea-beaches, being never found, at least I never saw one, even ten yards from shore. It is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements."{3}

Darwin aside, these creatures are fascinating. They feed on algae and seaweed close in to shore. They swim easily with a serpentine movement with their limbs tucked close to their body. Since the water is so cool, they need several hours to sun themselves before entering the water for breakfast. They will only stay in the sea for about twenty minutes and never longer than an hour. When warming themselves, they lie perpendicular to the sun so their body is fully exposed to the sun. When maintaining their temperature they will face the sun directly and lift their chests off the ground to allow the sea breeze to provide ventilation.

The marine iguana's cousin, the land iguana eats cactus pads and leafy vegetation and never ventures toward the sea. They also didn't impress Darwin terribly much. He described them this way.

"We will now turn to the terrestrial species, . . . Like their brothers the sea-kind, they are ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance. . . . In their movements they are lazy and half-torpid."{4}

Evolutionists suggest that these two species derived from a common ancestor over ten to twenty million years ago (although the oldest island is only 3 million years old!). But we learned that these two species would interbreed on occasion. The hybrids live for only seven to eight of the usual forty years, and their eating habits are strangely intermediate. The hybrids will eat cactus but not leafy vegetation, and will eat seaweed and algae but only at low tide when they can scramble over the rocks to get it. They won't enter the water. This level of hybridization makes it unlikely they are as old as evolutionists suggest.

Evidence for Evolution on the Galapagos Islands?

Thus far we have reviewed some of the amazing animals and plants found on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The mockingbirds, tortoises, and finches played a role in the formulation of Darwin's theory of natural selection. The Galapagos Islands and their varied and diverse wildlife continue to serve as examples of evolutionary change.

In my brief five-day visit to the Islands, I made a number of observations that cast doubt on the evolutionary significance of these islands.

Earlier this week we talked about Darwin's finches. These thirteen finches most likely are descended from a flock of more than thirty finches that colonized the islands about 2 million years ago according to evolutionists. They vary considerably in their beak size and shape as they have adapted to different food sources. As much as these finches have been studied, there is still a great deal we don't know.

For instance, we know nothing of the genetics of beak size and shape. It's certain that beak size is a heritable trait, but just what the genetic cause of the variation is, we don't know. As we said earlier, there may be as few as six actual species of finches on the islands, not thirteen. The changes in beak size and shape may simply have been due to genetic variation the original flock carried with them to the islands in the first place.

The changes between species are very small as we found out trying to identify them. The selection that has been documented varies only from dry to wet years and no overall trend has been observed. So Darwin's finches are not much of an example of evolution after all.

Another strange creature on the Galapagos Islands is the flightless cormorant. Cormorants are birds that inhabit the shores of lakes, rivers, and oceans. They usually feed by diving into the water for fish. Cormorants will then perch above the waters surface and dry their feathers by holding their wings out for maximum air exposure. Flying requires dry wings.

The flightless cormorants of the Galapagos have wings so reduced that they are unable to fly at all. They catch fish by swimming in the water much as a penguin does using their large powerful feet for propulsion. The reduced wing size is probably due to a single mutation that short-circuits wing development in the cormorant chick. The change is indeed quite dramatic, but the change involves a loss of a feature, not the gain of a new adaptation. This is often the case in the origin of new adaptations. Something is lost, not gained. Evolution must be able to explain the gain of new features, not simply explain how an organism managed to survive when it lost an important structure. So even the dramatic case of the flightless cormorant is not real evidence for evolution.

The Galapagos are a naturalist's wonderland. They guard their mysteries in a shroud of isolation and time. They are a good example of the fact that there is much to learn about the world God created.

Notes

1. Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing 2000), p. 159-175.

2. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, Harvard Classics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p. 377-378.

3. Ibid, p. 390.

4. Ibid, p. 392.

©2003 Probe Ministries


About the Author

Dr. Ray BohlinRaymond G. Bohlin is Vice President of Vision Outreach at Probe Ministries. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (B.S., zoology), North Texas State University (M.S., population genetics), and the University of Texas at Dallas (M.S., Ph.D., molecular biology). He is the co-author of the book The Natural Limits to Biological Change, served as general editor of Creation, Evolution and Modern Science, co-author of Basic Questions on Genetics, Stem Cell Research and Cloning (The BioBasics Series), and has published numerous journal articles. Dr. Bohlin was named a Research Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in 1997, 2000 and 2012.

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