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Q: Where would you not expect evolution to be controversial? A: The Galapagos

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Sehoya Cotner
Sehoya Cotner teaches a study-abroad course, "Biology of Galapagos," for the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.
Submitted photo

Sehoya Cotner teaches a study-abroad course, "Biology of Galapagos," for the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

When people learn that I get to spend weeks each year in the Galapagos Islands, they say things like "I hate you," "You make me sick," and "Don't even talk to me." 

I am terribly lucky. If I weren't me, I'd envy me too: The Galapagos are truly amazing — like a zoo, but where the animals aren't put behind bars or bred to be docile. Like the world's best zoo, in the most spectacular landscape, where in one day you might see an erupting volcano, have a world-class beach all to yourself, walk in the middle of a colony of nesting blue-footed boobies, swim with penguins, sea lions and sharks, and gaze at the famed constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. I hope I never lose sight of how lucky I am to know these islands so intimately. 

However, I am not without my own brand of jealousy. And try as I might to avoid it, I really, really envy the people who live in the Galapagos. Imagine growing up in a natural laboratory, 600 miles from the Ecuadorian mainland — where houses are built from lava rock, kids have field trips to the Charles Darwin Research Station, and you can snorkel with sea turtles on Christmas Day.  

As part of my covetous nature, I'm pretty observant of the islanders. They seem to know they're in a special place. Kids just out of diapers will pick up litter and search for a trash can. Women wear jewelry in the shapes of the resident frigatebirds and giant tortoises. And how can they miss all the admiring tourists, who take several flights and invest their savings to see the fabled giant cactus and the freakish swimming iguanas? These pink, peeling tourists are the target market for dozens of gift shops, peddling t-shirts that say "Evolve," or feature the profile of the islands' most famous visitor, Charles Darwin.

I am a biology teacher, one who puts just about everything in evolutionary terms. I love teaching my students about evolution while in the islands. And while in Minnesota, I often find myself at the tense interface of science and religion. However, I originally presumed the Galapagoans to be beyond the silly squabbles over evolution vs. creationism.

Evolution theory, which posits an old earth, capricious environmental influences and a fair amount of suffering, is all part of the package in the Galapagos. Here, raw, unspoiled nature is manifest in gore: a hawk preying on a baby frigatebird, a booby chick being pecked to death by its own sibling, mockingbirds fighting over an albatross egg. El Nino events and volcano eruptions push the penguin population to near extinction, and our guides describe a 500,000-year-old active volcano as a geological infant. How could the residents of Galapagos have issues with the truth of the natural world? How could evolution be a problem here?  It seems futile to argue that the Galapagos aren't aligned with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. 

Sehoya Cotner
Sehoya Cotner in the Galapagos in 2011.
Submitted photo

So I am sad to report that, while the economy feeds off the islands' connection with evolution, what many of the kids are being fed in school is ... creationism.

"Oh, nobody learns evolution in school here," said a tour guide who has become a close friend. And his daughter, who attends a Seventh-Day Adventist school on Charles Darwin Avenue, is greeted daily with a plaque inscribed — in Spanish and English — with Genesis 1:1.  

How can it be true that "in the beginning" — 6,000 years ago — "God created the heavens and the earth," while it is also true that we are all the product of more than 3 billion years of slow, sometimes gruesome and often capricious natural laws?

Have I any right to be shocked by this level of cognitive dissonance? I can't make the case that we're all that different here in Minnesota. Hundreds of my students have correctly described the mechanics of natural selection — random mutation, reproduction that exceeds capacity, survival of the fittest — and then claimed a young earth and an exemption for humans. Maybe the difference is that the teachers teaching creationism in Minnesota schools — and some do — are doing so in violation of a constitutional amendment. Or maybe being able to distance ourselves from unpalatable truths is just a hallmark of the evolved human.  

And when my best interests are being served, I can compartmentalize with the best of them. On one hand, you have my degree in conservation biology and my house full of organic cotton and energy star appliances. On the other hand you have some pretty air-tight statistics about atmospheric CO2; and unless you're having kids, the best way to increase your carbon footprint is through air travel. 

But what did I do three times in 2011? Kissed my two kids goodbye, and flew 4,000 miles to snorkel with endangered penguins in the Galapagos Islands.