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Collecting Evolution – the Galapagos Expedition that vindicated Darwin

zsfgjIn 1905-6, in 17 months, eight scientists massacred the wildlife population of the Galapagos, collecting 78,000 specimens. Among these were 6000 birds, of which some 3800 were finches. Stark statistics that stick in the craw. To make matters worse, the text of this small-print book is spattered with photographs of dead animals with indigenous male giant tortoises taking pride of place. The scarce, less bulky and tastier, females had already been decimated by the crews of visiting ships.

However, even after this galling introduction, I am compelled to recommend the book. It is an unsentimental, meticulously assembled, record of the self-justified type of scientific expedition launched at the time and a reminder of why the word ‘mankind’ can be a misnomer.

Their thought process reads like this: the site is unique (six hundred miles off the Ecuadorian coast); the existing fauna/fauna is being rapidly destroyed by external forces: many species are headed for extinction; we are duty-bound to collect as complete a record as we can now, while it is not too late. This is alien logic to most of us now, as we reassess our environmental impact on a fragile Earth.

This aged imperative was hardly helped by the fact that the trip was dreamed up for pragmatic, not philanthropic, reasons. The Director of the Californian Academy of Sciences planned to build a prestigious collection that would enhance the Academy’s chance of long-term financial survival. In case you miss the point: this was faunal death for scientific gain - and institutional prestige.

Indeed, the author emphasises the collections’ worth by discussing the many research projects based upon it, or aligned with specific content. This leads him to conclude that the collections’ influence extends to ratifying Darwin’s postulate. I am not sure whether this is true, but I do know it would be foolhardy not to garner as much scientific evidence as possible from any collection, regardless of the motivation behind it.

This book is important because it is allows comparison between ‘how we did things then’ and ‘how we do things now’. Thankfully, scientific thinking has changed dramatically in just one short century. The text lacks the critical bite a seasoned journalist might add, but the author’s depth of knowledge of the subject matter and his disciplined writing offset this disadvantage to some extent. The title, ‘Collecting Evolution’ belies the book’s more sinister overtones. Best not leave it around for the kids to see.

Reviewed by David Edwards

COLLECTING EVOLUTION – THE GALAPAGOS EXPEDITION THAT VINDICATED DARWIN by MATTHEW J JAMES.  Oxford University Press 2017 ISBN: 9780199354597.  304pp (hbk) List Price: £22.99.  W: