by Alex Shoumatoff
I wrote this for Men’s Journal in l998, was paid, and never heard from them again and forgot about it myself, so I can only speculate on the reasons why it was never published. I am posting it as an interim dispatch, taking a quick breather from my book, because it illustrates the credo of this site, set forth in The Ideology and Biases of the Dispatches, that man is inextricably part of nature.
October 8. Charles Darwin wrote that to justify the hardship of journeying to remote corners of the planet “one must have an aim, and this aim should be a study to reveal, a truth to unveil.” The fourteen seasick months he spent circumnavigating the globe on H.M.S. Beagle certainly paid off, for during the six weeks he spent on the Galapagos Islands, halfway through his journey, the 23-year-old naturalist gathered the specimens and data that enabled him to elaborate, over the next 20 years, his ingenious and revolutionary theory on the origin of species. Today the hardship of getting to the Galapagos, or almost any far-flung destination, has been eliminated. A plane to Quito and another to Santa Cruz, the main settlement in the archipelago, where you board one of the 100 boats that take 60,000 tourists a year to forty-some authorized sites around the archipelago, et voilá. My ride is M/Y Flamingo, a cushy, 20-passenger motor yacht, on which eleven other travel writers and I have been invited for four days of “soft adventure travel.”
My whole reason for traveling– and the past 52 years have been nothing if not peripatetic– is quite different from Darwin’s. While I have usually have a journalistic assignment that provides me with “a truth to unveil” when I go somewhere, it is the unexpected things that happen, which are unrelated to my mission, that are usually the most interesting, so when I hit the road I try to divest myself of any preconceived notions about what I might run into. I travel to escape the structures of my culture and my life back home, not to impose them. Some of the most important relationships in my life have developed from chance encounters on the road. I met my wife eleven years ago on an Air Ethiopia flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome. I ended up living from l967 to l970 with a woman I sat next to on a bus from Denver to Boulder.
My interest in the Galapagos is, of course, to go the origin of the origin, to see the bizarre creatures that inspired this central revelation about life on earth. Perhaps I will have some neo-Darwinian epiphany, but more likely it will be an anti-Darwinian one. In my opinion the theory of natural selection has been too influential. Like Freudianism, it has led to foolish and even dangerous reductionism. Isn’t the thing that distinguishes us as a species that we are constantly overriding the reproductive imperative and doing things that have absolutely nothing to do with fitness or genetic self-interest ? Maybe even animals do, too. Why do the frigate-birds here, for instance, of which there are two species— the magnificent and the great— told apart by the color of their eyerings and of the sheens on their backs, ride air currents hour after carefree hour that have nothing to do with spotting fish to swoop down on and scoop up ? What is the selective advantage of such behavior ? Could there be an un-Darwinian explanation for it as simple as that it’s fun or that they would be bored and logey just sitting around perched all the time ?
Oct. 9. . Morning finds us anchored off Tower Island, a.k.a. Genovese, a small volcanic island on the northern edge of the archipelago that erupted from the ocean floor only 1.6 million years ago. The Galapagos are still very much a work in progress. A volcano on the southern tip of Fernandina, one of the largest islands, has been spewing lava for the last month. The famous endemic tortoises are being evacuated. The Galapagos take their name from the lowland subspecies of the tortoise, whose carapace is turned up at the front like a saddle (galapageo in Spanish), so they can raise their long necks to eat shrubbery. But the 19 islands and 42 islets in the archipelago are also called Las Encantadas, the Enchanted (Islands), because they are often wrapped in a fog known as the garul, which confused the early Spanish navigators, who thought they were seeing the same island moving around in the mist. Melville wrote a story called Las Encantadas. And the primordial setting into which we have been transported is indeed magical. We are bobbing in a natural bay formed by a huge caldera, perhaps five miles across, that has slumped into the ocean. Zillions of unfamiliar birds— swallowtail gulls and leukistic red-footed boobies— have colonized the pustules and air pockets in its 100-foot-tall lava cliffs. More than anywhere else I have ever been, this feels like the beginning of time. As Darwin noted in his Journal of the Beagle, “The archipelago is a little world within itself… both in time and space we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact— that mystery of mysteries— the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Tower Island is strangely austere and stark, considering that it is smack on the Equator.
We spend the morning walking among incredibly tame boobies roosting on the lava with their young (only one per female; the weaker chicks are victims of “sibling murder”). We identify three subpecies of Darwin finch. It was this “most singular group of finches, of which there are no less than 6 with insensibily graduated beaks,” as Darwin wrote, that turned on the light bulb in his mind. The ancestral finches flew in some 30 million years ago from South America, five hundred miles to the east, and as they colonized the archipelago, some evolved beaks like woodpeckers, others like warblers, by an adaptive process over many, many generations that Darwin calls “natural selection.” There is even, on the waterless islands, a vampire Darwin finch which pecks the cloacas of boobies and sucks their blood.
Cooled by the Humboldt Current, the ocean here is too cold for reefs, but there are many tropical reef fishes— parrotfish, damselfish, king angelfish— we discover snorkeling in wetsuits. Darwin never saw the fecundity under the water. The intense territoriality of these gaily painted fishes would only have confirmed his belief that everything boils down to the desperate struggle for existence. I have never encountered such approachable wildlife. It is almost as if we are invisible or on a different plane of reality, which we are. The indifference of the animals to our presence undercores our voyeuristic alienation. Our individual lives mean nothing in this timeless landscape. This gallery of nature’s masterpieces gives no reinforcement to the spectator. We, too, are ultimately alone, like these birds who court, copulate, feed and protect their young, and die. As a mountain-man neighbor of mine in the Adirondacks puts it, “You live until you die, and that’s the only thing you do do.”
Oct. 11. At meals aboard the Flamingo the conversation is not about the boobies or the zebra rays or the benign white-tipped sharks we’ve been seeing, or the California sea lion who swam around with us while the others in his pond snoozed on the sand totally oblivious to our existence (Isn’t it possible that animals, like humans, have distinctive personalities, apart from their genetically-programmed behavior ?). We all seem to be much more interested in our own lives. R. tells me about his discovery that the woman he has been living with for seven years has been seeing her ex boyfriend on the sly. He is agonizing about what to do : should he break off the relationship or give his lover an ultimatum about nixing the ex, or take the lofty road and let her keep on seeing him ? She swears they’re only friends.
E., a woman in her late fifties, analyzes my handwriting and concludes that I am coasting along on only half my ability. She tells me she got married when she was 19 and soon became a passionate equestrian. Her husband would tag along to the stable, bored, but when they were both forty, he suddenly dumped her for her young blonde riding instructor, whom he married.
A few weeks ago she bumped into him at a hotel in Paris, with a young trophy blonde he was cheating on her now middle-aged replacement with.
The scene aboard the Flamingo is more like Woody Allen’s “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” than a sober collective absorption of this archipelago’s spectacular natural history. R., an incurably romantic Cuban, relates how he once left a poem in each of his lover’s 32 pairs of shoes. I am struggling to control the spontaneous inappropriate feelings I am having about D., the lovely marketing director of Ecoventura, our host and one of the top-of-the-line operations in the Galapagos, chartered by such August institutions as the Harvard Museum Comparative Zoology and the National Audubon Society. D. and I are both blissfully married. She deftly disenchants me : “ Look : if I were going to cheat on my husband, it would be with some young stud.”
I realize that I am going to have to eat crow as far as my anti-Darwinian thesis is concerned. The libido, the reproductive imperative, whatever you want to call it, still seems to call the shots, even for us postmoderns who (as several fellow-passengers have done) forego reproduction for the sake of careers or the overpopulated planet. Humans are as obsessed with sex as any other animal, however far removed from its original intent the sex may have become. I recall what John Martin, an anthropologist who lived for a year with the Havasupai Indians of Arizona, told me : “Do you know what most of them were thinking about? Ass. I thought it was something mystical.” So the hoary old naturalist has the last laugh.