Galapagos Used by Both Sides of Evolution Debate

Taking Issue

Leaders from various religions share what their faith tells them about the shaping of life. Can those ideas be reconciled with evolution?

Scientists inspired by Charles Darwin's observations about natural selection have long found support for the theory of evolution in the Galapagos Islands. But creationists and proponents of intelligent design also use the Galapagos to advance their view of the origin of species.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection was inspired by the isolated and exotic plants and animals of the Galapagos Islands. Some religious groups don't accept that theory. In the final report on our series on the Galapagos Islands, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports that scientists and the faithful still find support for their points of view on these islands, arguments that go back to the 19th century.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

On June 30th, 1860, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, there was a conference on the then-newly published book, "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." The Anglican clergy had come out in full force to contest Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. As legend has it, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce took to the podium and ended his speech by archly asking one of Darwin's biggest supporters, Thomas Huxley, if it was his grandmother or his grandfather who was descended from an ape. In the famous riposte, Huxley is said in one version to have replied:

Unidentified Man: (As Thomas Huxley) If I had to choose between being descended from an ape or from a man who would use his great powers of rhetoric to crush an argument, I should prefer the former.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At that, one lady fainted and had to be carried out of the room. The fight still continues today, and the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin took inspiration for his theory, is a place which both creationists and scientists find irresistible.

(Soundbite of people singing and clapping)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A group of conservative Catholics sings at the Galapagos airport, welcoming a group of fellow Christians who've come for a spiritual retreat. If most visitors to these islands come to see the plants and animals that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution, others come here to see what they say is God's work. Norma Himbeau(ph) is part of the Catholic group.

Ms. NORMA HIMBEAU (Catholic): (Through Translator) We respect Darwin and his theory, but we believe that God is the only one to be able to create so many marvelous things. The Galapagos is one of the most beautiful places, just as God initially made it with all of its nature.

(Soundbite of chirping bird)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The volcanic 13-island chain holds a host of amazing creatures, birds such as finches, blue- and red-footed boobies and petrels fly over dragonlike sea iguanas which scrabble on black lava rock. Giant tortoises that can weigh up to 300 pounds still roam free here. To see this natural wonderland, the California-based Institute for Creation Research offers a Galapagos Creation Tour, complete with its own guides. The brochure says visitors will get to hear the story of the development of Darwinian evolution by day and the creationist reinterpretation by night.

Dr. Kenneth Cumming is the academic dean of the institute's graduate school in Santee, California. He says the reason they offer the tour is simple.

Dr. KENNETH CUMMING (Institute for Creation Research): The Galapagos is of interest because Darwin put so much emphasis on the evolution of species in the Galapagos.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are many versions of creationist belief, but the strictest are creation scientists like Dr. Cumming who say that the Bible's first book, Genesis, is the word of God and thus infallibly true.

Dr. CUMMING: Our perspective at the institute is that somewhere recent in time, 10,000 years or less from the present, God went through a six-day period of creating all there is, and that ever since he's been sustaining it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Orthodox Jews also believe in this literal interpretation and strict Muslims also hold that God created everything in its present form. According to a Gallup poll in 2001, 45 percent of Americans also hold this belief.

Professor DIEGO QUIROGA (Ecuadoran University of San Francisco): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Diego Quiroga talks with a group of students at the Galapagos branch of the Ecuadoran University of San Francisco. Quiroga was the organizer for the first-ever Conference for Evolutionary Scientists(ph) in the Galapagos Islands, which took place in June. He says that having it in the Galapagos was important and a draw for scientists who came from Europe and the United States.

Prof. QUIROGA: It's like going back to the basics, going back to the place where Darwin first started to think about this whole theory. So we thought that the Galapagos is a world icon, where people can go and relate to the theory and go back, in a way, to its origin.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Quiroga says that among scientists there is no debate as to if evolution takes place, but how.

Prof. QUIROGA: Scientists, of course, have their own debates within the theory. I mean, within the paradigm scientists are debating whether evolution goes fast, whether it goes slow.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ultimately, those who come to the islands have their own reasons and their own set of beliefs.

Mr. TEDDY de la TORRE(ph) (Taxi Driver): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a sunny afternoon, 34-year-old Galapagano taxi driver Teddy del la Torre takes a visiting journalist to the airport, with his daughter at his side. When asked if he knows much about Darwin's theory of evolution, there's a long pause.

Mr. de la TORRE: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: De la Torre may not be familiar with what Darwin had to say, but 141 years after the English naturalist published his revolutionary thoughts on how we came to be, what Darwin called the mystery of mysteries, both scientists and creationists flock to the Galapagos Islands he made famous. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: Read what some religious leaders are saying about evolution at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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