hile my wife and I toured the Galápagos Islands following the conclusion of the Third World Summit on Evolution, convened in the Galápagos Islands, Ecuador, I spent time reading The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin’s journal chronicling his five-year journey around the world as the onboard naturalist of the HMS Beagle. The voyage essentially launched Darwin’s scientific career, and his experiences as a young man exploring the world gave him a foundation of knowledge that he returned to repeatedly while developing his later ideas.
The Beagle was commissioned to survey coastal South America, including the Galápagos Islands, where the Beagle spent about five weeks in 1835. We began our travels in the archipelago on the island of San Cristóbal, coincidentally the first place Darwin landed, as well. This island is representative of the Galápagos as a whole; the lowlands are hot, dry, and rocky, covered with, as Darwin put it, “wretched-looking little weeds” and cactus. Meanwhile, the highlands are cooler, usually covered with low clouds, and support “tolerably luxuriant vegetation.” Evidence of recent (in the geological sense, although eruptions in the islands have occurred in the last fifteen years) volcanic activity is widespread; lava fields, craters, and cinder cones pepper the terrain. Most of the landscape is hardly the tropical paradise most people imagine the archipelago to be.
My trip to the Galápagos Islands was actually my second time there; the first was a trip as an undergraduate almost ten years prior. I revisited several locations and saw them with new eyes: the eyes of a professional scientist. When we cruised past Daphne Major, the tiny island made famous by Peter and Rosemary Grant’s decades-long study of finch evolution, I thought of the thousands of hours spent by scientists (and many graduate students!) measuring bird beaks. We saw forests of Scalesia trees, which are actually giant members of the sunflower family. These trees, and many other species, such as the iconic tortoises, have evolved into curious forms in large part due to the isolation of the archipelago and the absence of other species that would normally be filling a particular ecological role (e.g. giant tortoises in the absence of large, herbivorous mammals). Life there is a strange assortment of species, drifting with the tectonic plate through the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by strong currents and volcanic activity. Wherever there is life, there is evolution, but evolutionary processes seem much more obvious in the Galápagos.
My wife and I took particular enjoyment in observing the birds that Darwin described in his journal. The many species of finches, of course, were an identification challenge, with their subtle variation in beak size and shape. We saw three of the four mockingbird species, which were actually more important than the finches to Darwin’s realization that different islands had different, but related, species. We even found the tiny and elusive Galápagos Rail, which Darwin found “confined to the damp summits of the islands,” which was exactly where we finally saw one after a couple hours of determined hunting. Surprisingly, (given their significance to his later thinking), little ofThe Voyage of the Beagle is devoted to Darwin’s observations of the Galápagos, but there are certainly hints of Darwin’s incipient theory of evolution by natural selection in the brief chapter on the Galápagos and elsewhere in his journal. Although Darwin would not publish his theory of evolution for almost twenty-five years following his stay in the Galápagos, he wrote about the islands in the second edition of The Voyage (1845), “…we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on the earth.”
As I read The Voyage, I often thought about Darwin’s other famous work, The Origin of Species, and the delight that Darwin clearly took in the natural world. Writing about a tropical forest in Brazil, he found himself at a loss for words, “…it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” I find the feeling of wonder Darwin often expressed to be essentially the same as the joyful noise of two of my favorite Bible passages, Psalm 8 and Psalm 104.
This wonder has been written about quite eloquently by theologian Celia Deane-Drummond in her book, Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Science, Spirituality, and Theology. She writes about the wonder which inspires our search for wisdom (knowledge about the world), “…wonder opens another dimension, namely the dimension of the transcendent. Wonder beckons us to a future that does not simply emerge out of our origin, but towards a new future that can best be described in theological language.”
In one of the most carefully written passages in all of Darwin’s writings, the conclusion to The Origin of Species, he uses a poetic style not so different from that of a psalm. He sets aside time in his closing statement of The Origin to describe life as “…endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.” Certainly, Darwin’s early training in religion (prior to his time on the Beagle, he was essentially a “pre-seminary” student) influenced his writing, and he was probably even familiar with my favorite psalms. However, I believe Darwin’s choice of words reflected both his most personal emotions as well as his anticipation that some would argue his evolutionary theory somehow diminished the beauty of life’s diversity by explaining it. The life of a scientist is to find greater wonder through deeper understanding.
With apologies to both Darwin and the psalmist, I have blended their words into a new rejoicing. I took some time during our open ocean travel between islands (when I wasn’t distracted by Waved Albatross cruising past) to study the words of the Psalms and The Origin, and considered the wisdom and wonder of both. However, I admit that the piece was written while viewing a much more familiar environment—my own backyard. That said, my yard has no shortage of its own things bright and beautiful, great and small, which are reason enough to voice praise. Readers can choose how they wish to experience the following piece; either start by reading the source texts (links below) before reading my psalm, or read mine first and try to guess which words are inspired by which author. Regardless, my hope is to show the similarities between the voice of the scientist and of the psalmist.
A psalm of David1 and Darwin2.
Lord, our Lord,
When I contemplate the entangled bank,
clothed with plants of many kinds,
I see the birds of the sky singing
among the branches of well watered trees.
As I look closer at the works of your hands
I see flitting insects and crawling worms.
When I reflect on these elaborate forms
and their production, I know
you are the author of highest eminence.
When you send forth your Spirit, they evolve
and continue to form endless species most wonderful.
In wisdom you make them all,
according to your laws acting around us.
When I consider the whole history of life,
a length quite incomprehensible to me,
Who am I that you are mindful of me,
a species that has existed a mere fragment of time?
Though light has been thrown on the origin of man,
and we have become rulers over the works of your hands;
still, with all creatures, we look to you
and with your open hand, you satisfy us.
When I view all beings as your creations, they are ennobled;
from the frolicking Leviathan to the tiny barnacle,
creatures teeming beyond number give you glory.
When you take away their breath,
they go extinct and return to the dust.
Yet I look with confidence to a secure future,
for I depend on you in so complex a manner
and your plan of creation is good.
There is grandeur in this view of life;
the Lord’s creation has been, and is being, evolved.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Praise the Lord.
2. See the final three paragraphs of Charles Darwin’s conclusion to The Origin of Species (1859)