Darwin’s eden reexamined in Elizabeth Hennessy’s first book

In the Galápagos islands, there are many layers to the human exploitation and conservation of the islands’ iconic tortoises.
Elizabeth Hennessy with book cover

The ancient belief that the Earth sits on the back of a turtle that rests on an infinite stack of ever-larger turtles has many interpretations. The myth becomes reality, however, on the Galápagos islands, where there are many layers to the human exploitation and conservation of the islands’ iconic tortoises.

Elizabeth Hennessy, an assistant professor of history and environmental science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, makes much of the metaphor in her first book, “On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden,” published last year by Yale University Press.

“The past 500 years” on the Galápagos, Hennessy writes, “have produced quite a tall stack of tortoises who have been everything from soup and steaks to natural history specimens, resources for economic development, endangered objects of conservation … [to] subjects of tourists’ photo-shoots and symbols of protest.”

Thanks to breeding projects, an estimated 20,000 wild tortoises now inhabit the Galápagos — about 10% of the population before human contact. Today some 30,000 people live on the 3% of the island chain not protected within the national park. And more than 250,000 tourists visit the Galápagos every year, and most of them want to see the tortoises.

Famed naturalist Charles Darwin is practically deified in the Galápagos, but the author of “On the Origin of Species” was one of thousands of sailors in the 1800s to ride on the backs of Galápagos tortoises and feast on their meat.

“Tourists may observe the animals Darwin saw, but they are not permitted to do as he did,” Hennessy writes.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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