Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Isabela Island, the Galapagos
Isabela Island, the Galapagos

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos
Darwin Lake, near Tagus Cover, Isabel Island, Galapagos

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: igneous rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos
Vicente Roca Point, Isabela Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.


Will creationists ever evolve?

I remember a time when science was cool. So does my brother Jim, who fifty years ago attended the World’s Fair in New York City (I was too young to attend). NPR had a story on it today. It included predictions by the late Isaac Asimov on what 2014 would be like, most of which were wrong.

Heck, back in the 1960s not only was science cool, but engineering was cool. We were building computers and rockets to the moon and beyond. Being the school nerd wasn’t wrong. A lot of people looked up to you. The nerds may have not attracted the hottest women, but they had the best job prospects. Back in the 1960s, evolution was widely accepted too, even by most southern Baptists. They mostly just shrugged at their cognitive dissonance, like most religious people do about all sorts of things, like their duty to help the poor while cutting their food stamps.

What went wrong? Now it’s seems to be cool to be ignorant. Perhaps I am being too kind. If you are ignorant, it means you just haven’t been informed yet about a truth. Today lots of people are informed, but dismiss truth. Evolution is a perfect example. Despite irrefutable evidence, evolution conflicts with their bizarre interpretation of the Bible, so they won’t believe it. Evolution is just a theory, they are told, and any theory can be wrong. And God’s holy word must be right. Therefore evolution is wrong.

It’s true that God doesn’t say in the Bible anything specific about the year the earth was created. But by reading the Bible backwards many of these self-professed Biblical scholars think they have figured it all out. Call it 6,000 years plus or minus a few. Of course even within these devout scholars there is a lot of disagreement on the date. Archbishop James Ussher puts the start of the world at 4004 B.C. Julius Africanus in 240 C.E. put it at 5501 B.C. A. Helwigius thinks the earth was created in 3836 B.C. Considering all the holy wars we’ve had it’s curious we haven’t had this one yet.

In any event, in just seven days, creationists believe Almighty God put it altogether. He did a masterful job of it, because who but the Almighty could possibly befuddle us with so many clues that prove just the opposite: that the earth and our universe is unimaginably old. Our planet is roughly 4.54 billion years old. The universe itself is 13.798±0.037 billion years old, which means the universe went through nearly two thirds of its life before our planet formed from the detritus of star stuff.

If you are a creationist though, you have to believe crazy stuff. Like Almighty God has a sense of humor because he left all these dated fossils around which through the science of carbon dating indicates many are millions or hundreds of millions of years old. The further you go back in time the less evolved similar species appear. Almighty God is the ultimate practical jokester but he’s doing it for a good reason: he is testing our faith. I guess to actually move mountains you first have to believe the ridiculous. Curiously not even Jesus moved any mountains. I guess he was distracted. In fact, none of our holy men seem to have these sorts of powers. The best they can claim are some highly disputed events that appear miraculous. Many of us are left to conclude those reputed weeping statues of Mary that irregularly produce tears have a lot more to do with condensation than miracles. This is the best the Lord has got?

I’ll grant you that there is plenty about science that we don’t know yet. Few scientists will state conclusions without qualifications of some sort. But as far as evolution is concerned, it’s definitely not a matter of opinion. It happens all around us every day. What is different in the last few centuries is that a lot of evolution is manmade. For there are two types of evolution: natural evolution and deliberate evolution. Natural evolution, or natural selection as Charles Darwin coined it, is what happens naturally over time. Tiny chromosomal changes are introduced randomly, and some of these changes make some within a species better adapted to the current environment. These species tend to thrive. If the earth were just 6,000 years old then we would not notice a whole lot of natural selection. But over 4.54 billion years there is plenty of time for these changes to work themselves out.

Deliberate evolution is perhaps better called unnatural selection. It happens when man decides to speed up an evolutionary process. We do this for many reasons, but mainly because the nature we have is not quite the one we want. The agricultural company Monsanto is in the evolution business. It works to selectively create new versions of crops that give their new crops advantages over other crops: higher nutrition, perhaps, or more resistance to predators. Mankind has practiced unnatural selection for a long time, long before Darwin coined the term natural selection.

There is not a species of dog today that did not evolve unnaturally, unless you count the wolf, their common ancestor. We preferred the gentler wolf as a companion and nurtured those that could adapt to us, and showed disfavor or indifference to the rest. Over time we bred all sorts of dogs into breeds with different characteristics and temperaments. We can pretty much select the dog best suited to us now. Ten thousand years ago we had no such choices. God had nothing to do with all the variants of dogs around us except perhaps inventing the wolf.

We evolve nature all the time, often not very intelligently. New antibiotics often breed resistant strains of bacteria. Using bug killers often unnaturally selects bugs that can resist these sprays. We breed cats, horses, all sorts of pets and plants. We created the mule: the sterile creation of mating a horse with a donkey. All sorts of species are evolving indirectly due to our impact on the environment. Many are going extinct as we take over their habitat. Due to climate change it looks like the polar bear will soon be one of them. As we throw toxins and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some are better adapted to these changes and will thrive, or at least not decline as fast as other species. We are evolving our world at a pace probably never experienced naturally on our planet before.

So evolution is not some abstract theory. It is all around us and it happens continuously. Much of it is created directly or indirectly by our presence, but much of it still natural. You too can practice evolution. I practiced it by getting a vasectomy after having one child, thus indirectly showing preference for non-Caucasians. You can become a molecular biologist and work for Monsanto and practice evolution by inventing tastier tomatoes. Or you can get credentials in in vitro fertilization and create some cloned animals or perhaps a new species. Or you can just spray some Black Flag around your kitchen.

So let’s call a spade a spade. Everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants. But those who believe that the earth was created in seven days some six thousand years ago are either simple incurious and ignorant people or, much worse, ignoramuses. One wonders why they don’t try to walk through walls. For to deny that evolution is real when it is something you can do yourself is, well, nuts. And if you can do it, surely Almighty God can, and did.

The Angst of Evolution

Another day, another article in the Washington Post on the seemingly never ending evolution controversy. This latest article is more about the controversy in Cobb County, Georgia, whose school board is insisting that biology textbooks that discuss evolution have a prominent sticker on it that says evolution is a theory and not a fact.

Regular readers know that I have discussed evolution before. I will not beat the God vs. Evolution meme to death again, except to point out once again that there are two definitions to “theory”. As it applies to evolution, it more simply stated as the law of evolution. For Cobb County to declare that evolution is only a theory means they are either letting their personal biases creep into public policies, or they cannot be bothered to consult a dictionary.

Still, I have to wonder what engine is feeding all this antievolution hysteria. Religion seems to play a big role in it. However, the more I read about the issue the less convinced I am that the creation myth in the Bible and other holy books is its root cause. I think much of it is because to accept evolution we have to come to grips with evolution’s obvious conclusion that our little lives simply do not matter.

The billions of years that our planet has been around is, after all, a hard concept to get our minds around. If our planet is about 4.5 billion years old, let us wrap that timescale into something we can get our mind around: the radius of the planet. The Earth’s radius is 6378 kilometers or about 4000 miles. Divide that distance into 4.5 billion units. Let each unit represent one year. By my calculation, a year would amount to 1.42 centimeters.

Now pick up a metric ruler and look at the size of 1.42 centimeters (about .55 inches). Then imagine an airline trip of 6378 kilometers, the distance to the center of the earth. That is roughly the distance from where I live (near Washington, D.C.) to Zurich, Switzerland. In the span of a human life, say 80 years, you would travel about 113.6 centimeters, or about 3.7 feet toward Switzerland. That would not even amount to the initial bump of our airplane out of the gate!

According to scientists, it took about a billion of those 4.5 billion years before primitive life (bacteria) evolved on earth. The first mammals evolved around 565 million years ago. (Our plane, which left Washington D.C., has traversed all but 502 miles of the distance to Zurich.) Dinosaurs roamed the earth 150 million years ago. (We are 133 miles from Zurich.) The first human ancestors appeared 13 million years ago (11 miles from our destination.) 3.7 million years ago (3.28 miles away) the Australopithecus Afarensis, one of our distant ancestors, left footprints in the sands of Kenya. 27,000 years ago (1,257 feet to go!) the Neanderthals became extinct. The start of recorded history was 4000 years ago (186 feet from our destination gate).

On such timescales, all individual lives become irrelevant. A million years from now, it is unlikely that human life will even exist on our planet. In the timescale of the earth’s evolution, our species is going to be just another flash in the pan.

If we could acknowledge our insignificance in the grand scheme of things then perhaps evolution would be better accepted. However, many of us cannot. We see our lives as having purpose, meaning and most importantly some enduring value. However if we were to imagine our life as being random chance then it is hard not to embrace atheism as a religious philosophy, because it seems to be the only one that makes any sense. What is the point of anything including the belief in an intelligent and creative force to the universe if nothing we do in our lives endures?

While some part of our logical mind can accept it, our emotional side has a tough time with the knowledge. Indeed, it is hard not to even recoil at the very idea. It is no wonder then that evolution is such a flashpoint in our society. For to accept evolution at its face value we must in some sense to deny our intrinsic human feelings. Our genetics inform us that life matters, and consequently that we matter. We are a hopeful species, likely as a direct result of evolution. So for some, by our schools endorsing evolution then the government in some sense is advocating atheism and spreading hopelessness. We recoil.

Therefore, we look for any rationalization that we can find. For many we leave God to sort it out. Evolution becomes yet another big mystery in our wonderful and amazing universe. However, we are still confident that despite evidence to the contrary that our lives do have lasting meaning. For others though perhaps a pure faith-based response is insufficient. Therefore, they give it many names including “creation science” and “intelligent design”. They all amounts to the same thing: trying to use pseudo science to refute evolution’s truth. To accept evolution on some level we must also admit that we are alone in a random and pointless universe. Accepting it can lead many of us to madness. After all, our brains are biological organisms. They exist to bring order to chaos, so we can live another day. Accepting evolution then becomes something of an acknowledgement of existentialism. We feel reduced to the parts of Vladimir and Estragon, waiting endlessly for Godot to show up.

Those of us pondering metaphysics have other potentially plausible ways to reconcile the contradictory feelings. For me, as I outlined elsewhere, there is some comfort found in the simple laws of thermodynamics. For while time marches relentlessly forward and all things seem to change, while form changes matter and energy do not. They are simply transformed endlessly from one state to another. This in itself is a big mystery, and one physicists are trying to understand, but offers some feeling of hope to the rational.

The Cost of Indoctrination

I went to public school in Florida in the early 1970s. As part of a requirement for graduation all students were required by the state to take a course called “Americanism vs. Communism”. As I recall it lasted a quarter and was part of what would otherwise pass for a history credit.

The course purported to clearly distinguish between the American way of life and the totalitarian/fascist nature of communist governments. In it I learned more than I ever expected to about communist theories and leaders. Our class even had a guest speaker who had lived behind the Iron Curtain. She provided a first hand account of what it was like to live in a totalitarian state. I confess after completing the “course” I had no desire to become a communist. But I had none before the course either.

Yet the course has bothered me to this day. And this was because it was not really learning. It was indoctrination, courtesy of the Florida state legislature. While it certainly had its educational aspects, it was neither fair nor balanced. No communists were invited to counterpoint. No mention was made that Communism was a direct result of the brutal oppression of the Russian people. Nor was the very real exploitation of the workers at the time (both in Europe and here in the United States) and the fact that laborers lived lives in poverty with no hope of a better future given any mention as the conditions that bred communism. The course was really about the evils of communism as perceived through the lenses of a nation twenty years or so into The Cold War. It did not provide a genuine understanding of communism. It did not provide context. It was not really education.

At the time this was an isolated example. Today though students have to pass more and more “courses” that are really just indoctrination. In some cases the courses are worse than indoctrination. Why? Because they present themselves as unbiased when they clearly are not.

The best example that I can think of is the modern sex education course taught in our public schools. In many school districts abstinence is openly preferred. Indeed this is Bush Administration policy. Any suggestion that sexual curiosity between boys and girls of that age might be natural is rebuffed. Homosexuality is often not discussed, and when discussed is discussed in a tightly scripted way so that the size and scope of homosexuality is difficult for the student to understand. In many school districts masturbation is not discussed. Even discussing birth control is off limits for many students. Instead of discussing sexuality in context, sex education has become a discussion of the potential horrors of premarital sex. It does little to give a student any idea how to actually cope with their feelings. Sex education has become indoctrination. It usually fails to present the balanced set of information needed by students to make informed choices.

In Cobb County, Georgia school officials require a sticker on biology textbooks indicating that the Theory of Evolution is simply a theory, and not a fact. The educators in that school district are apparently not sufficiently advanced to understand there are multiple definitions for theory. The first definition is “A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena” not “An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture”, which is the least used definition. Nor apparently could they be bothered to find out from scientists which definition applies to the Theory of Evolution. Hint: it’s not the second. Another school district in Pennsylvania wants to require students to also learn about so-called “Intelligent Design Theory”. And you can be certain that if this theory is discussed no mention that it falls into the “assumption” category of theories will be made. It’s much easier to talk about theories in general and let every crackpot theory in than to limit discussion to theories with actual merit.

Let’s be clear what is going on here. Increasingly we are sending this message to our children: we don’t want you to have the best-known information. We will tell you what the truth is. But our version of the truth is based on our faith and prejudices, not on an impartial assessment of the facts. We think it is better to ignore certain facts, present facts selectively, and provide alternative viewpoints with no basis in reasoned analysis than to present the modern understanding of the current world put together by academics with no axe to grind. The message is pretty much this: it’s okay for us to lie to you. It’s for your own good.

So what is the purpose of education then? How does a student handle the real world without a clear understanding of it? Increasingly our children cannot. Perhaps this is why although global warming is as much a theory as is the Theory of Evolution we’d rather live in denial. Those pesky, abstract, non-biased scientists can be really annoying telling us things we don’t want to hear.

Imagine if driver’s education course included no mention of what to do if you see a stop sign. Most of us would be appalled to put our children in the driver’s seat without this basic understanding. But for many of us parents we would rather pamper our prejudices than do what is best for our kids: just give them the best-known facts. Life will be complicated enough for them in the 21st century. Why make it needlessly difficult?

Where is our sort of brave new world thinking also happening? I bet you can find it resurgent throughout the Muslim world. It’s been going on in the Vatican for millennium. Spanish bishops are still scared to admit that condoms prevent sexually transmitted diseases. I bet you won’t find this sort of wishy washy learning happening in most of today’s emerging high tech economies. I bet in India “Intelligent Design” is not taught along with the Theory of Evolution. Guess which society is going to be better prepared to move and adapt to the future?

There is a cost to ignorance. There is a cost to selectively presenting the facts. There is a cost to lying. For a country that claims to worship freedom, it’s odd that we won’t give our children the freedom to learn free from our own petty biases. Let’s give our students the freedom to see the clearest picture of the universe, as we know it. We do them no favor by placing them in a world where they must always engage with one arm tied behind their backs.