WORLD SUMMIT ON EVOLUTION included a veritable Who¿s Who of evolutionary theory, including, pictured here, Darwin finch expert Peter Grant (left) and philosopher and evolutionary theorist Daniel Dennett. Image: MICHAEL SHERMER
Charles Darwin famously described the origin of species as the "mystery of mysteries," a phrase he cribbed from the astronomer John Herschel, whom Darwin visited in Capetown, South Africa during the five-year round-the-world voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. The meeting happened a few months after Darwin departed the Galapagos islands, at which point he had not yet solved the "grand mystery," despite the myth that Darwin first understood the mechanism of evolution in this magnificent archipelago. Darwin was, in fact, a creationist throughout the voyage, and did not accept evolution until he discovered natural selection a full 10 months after leaving the Galapagos, when he was home working intensely on his collections. The Galapagos were an after-the-fact inspiration, and he could have kicked himself for not taking better notes while he was there.
How appropriate, then, that the 2005 World Summit on Evolution was held at the very location where the Beagle first dropped anchor--¿Frigatebird Hill, on the coastal outskirt of the lively little fishing town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on the island of San Crist¿bal, one of a dozen major islands that make up the Galapagos archipelago, located on the equator and a province of Ecuador. The five-day conference (June 8 to 12) was held at the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences (GAIAS), a high-tech facility flanked by low-tech homes and businesses. GAIAS is operated by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, the host of the conference, which obtained additional support from the National Science Foundation (who paid the way for graduate students in evolutionary biology to attend), Microsoft (who provided computers and internet technology for GAIAS), UNESCO, and OCP Ecuador S.A., an oil conglomerate that provided additional funding.
I got involved in the conference planning in June of 2004, when I was on a Galapagos expedition led by U.C. Berkeley Darwin scholar Frank J. Sulloway, in which we explored the volcanic highlands of San Crist¿bal. On the way home through Quito I met Carlos Montufar, the co-founder of the university who also happened to be a reader of Skeptic magazine, who invited me to speak on his campus. A year later Carlos and his colleagues turned an idea into a conference so successful that many veteran scientists, who have attended dozens of such gatherings in their careers, proclaimed this to be the finest conference they had ever seen. One even called it "the Woodstock of evolution." It was a veritable Who's Who of evolutionary theory, including William Calvin, Daniel Dennett, Niles Eldredge, Douglas Futuyma, Peter and Rosemary Grant, Antonio Lazcano, Lynn Margulis, William Provine, William Schopf, Frank Sulloway, Timothy White and others.
For the eight days before the conference Frank and I led a tour of the archipelago that included 14 conference members on a 120-foot three-masted sailing vessel named the Sagitta. With a boatload of scientific minds, it was an exceptionally stimulating experience, and our naturalist guide, Juan Tapia (every tour must have a licensed Ecuadorian naturalist), was put through his paces with a never-ending barrage of questions from this august group.
With 210 people in attendance (in a healthy blend of graduate students and professors), the conference began on a hot and humid Wednesday night with a lecture on the geological history and biological diversity of the islands by Carlos Valle, the first resident of the Galapagos to ever earn a Ph.D. This was followed by Frank Sulloway's visually stunning presentation on his research project to document the ecological changes in the islands from his first visit in 1968 to the present (in which Frank has painstakingly hiked to the exact spots he stood decades ago so that photo comparisons are accurate and meaningful). Through before and after photos it became clear just how much damaged has been caused by such introduced species as goats, who have deforested entire mountains on some islands, thereby robbing the native species of a natural resource. Frank also debunked the myth that Darwin discovered natural selection in the Galapagos and became an evolutionist on the voyage. Darwin was a creationist from start to finish, says Sulloway, and he did not fully realize the importance of these islands until he returned home and began work on his extensive specimen collection. To his chagrin (once he became an evolutionist), Darwin realized that he had not recorded the island locations from which most of his specimens came from, and thus he had to rely on the notes taken by other Beagle crew members as well as the arch-creationist Captain Fitz-Roy.