By Tony Azios
Perhaps no place on earth is more closely linked to the theory of evolution than the Galapagos Islands. It was here, off the coast of South America, that Charles Darwin found evidence that new species can evolve through natural selection.
But these islands have undergone major social changes in the last twenty years, and a growing number of people who now call the Galapagos home do not believe in evolution.
"We base ourselves on the Bible," says Esther Tacuri, a Seventh-day Adventist missionary. In front of the Adventist church on the Galapagos island of Santa Cruz, along bustling Charles Darwin Avenue, a large wooden sign reads: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
"We don't believe at all that man came to be by sheer chance, or that man evolved from monkeys," says Tacuri. "We really believe that God created man in the image and likeness of God."
Another Adventist missionary, Lucrecia Cobos, says the vast majority of people who live here share this view.
"It is said that this is the center of evolution, but in my experience visiting with people in their homes, I never hear them talk about it," she says. "On the contrary, the people here are much more accepting of the word of God."
This point of view represents a big change for the Galapagos.
Jack Nelson moved to Santa Cruz Island from the United States in 1967, when only a few hundred people lived here. He says back then many of the residents came from North America and Europe, and many had some involvement with biological research.
"The local people were much more in contact with visiting scientists," he says. "The people who live here now overwhelmingly have come from a very different kind of history."
The Galapagos Islands belong to Ecuador, and roughly thirty thousand Ecuadoreans have moved here from the mainland in the past twenty years. They have come in search of jobs in fishing and tourism. Nelson says many of these newcomers haven't had much science education.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station, where tourists and schoolchildren come to learn about the unique animals found on the islands, Park Service guides are hesitant to talk about evolution.
Víctor Carrión, a senior official with the Galapagos National Park, says that to stay on good terms with the community, the Park Service does not overtly promote Darwin's theory. Instead, it focuses its message on conservation efforts, which "one hundred percent of the public supports," he says.
But even if people say they support environmental protection, the growing population here has caused serious environmental damage.
Fishermen illegally harvest sea cucumbers and shark fins to sell to China. Locals import invasive plant species for their gardens, and those plants then spread into the wild where they threaten native varieties.
Jack Nelson — the American who moved here in 1967 — believes these environmental problems can be traced, in part, to the local population's waning appreciation for the science of evolution.
"This is a national treasure," he says, "and that it's being managed rather carelessly in a lot of ways is not helped along by the fact that you have a really large population that doesn't get it."
But another longtime resident of the Galapagos sees it differently.
Marco Antonio Aguirre moved here with his family forty years ago to serve as a Jehovah's Witnesses missionary. He now owns a bed and breakfast on Charles Darwin Avenue called La Peregrina (The Pilgrim).
Aguirre has also seen environmental destruction in recent years, but he argues that a belief in God's creation may inspire people to help with conservation efforts.
"In my case, for example, it causes me to show much more respect for what we have," he says. "And so I think that believing in a creator would be positive in that regard."
While Aguirre does not believe in the theory of evolution, he does respect the scientist behind it. He says Darwin was a brave and insightful man who struggled to reconcile his ideas about life on earth with the Bible's creation story.
Even those who disagree with Darwin are often grateful for what he did for the Galapagos, bringing world attention, tourists, and pride to the islands.