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A voyage to the origin of speciesEdward Larson writes the first drafts of his books in pencil on yellow pads of paper, but he writes his articles straight onto a computer. For him, books are different things. And Evolution’s Workshop, newly paperbacked by Penguin this week, is a word-lover’s book: it evokes the desolate, cinder-strewn and tortoise-trodden Galapagos Islands, as seen by writers and voyagers over 300 years. Of course, the visitor that everybody remembers was Charles Darwin: what Darwin saw on the Galapagos changed both his life and the world’s vision of life. When Larson first visited the islands he knew little about them other than that Darwin had been there there. Then he caught a glimpse of a much more complex story, in which the islands themselves were adopted a metaphor, first of hell, then of paradise. The creationist naturalists of the early 19th century were deeply disturbed by what they found: they liked to think of the world as beautiful and orderly. The Galapagos islands were an anomaly, the landscape that didn’t fit. The harsh contours sheltered strange creatures that appeared nowhere else. The vista looked to them like the end of hope. Herman Melville amplifed this view. The author of Moby-Dick, Billy Budd and Typee thought them pretty dismal heaps of volcanic rubble. “It’s classic Melville,” says Larson. “I wasn’t going to feature him prominently until it dawned on me that Melville, in his own very precise and insightful fashion, was truly capturing the pre-Darwinian view of the place. He was describing what everybody before Darwin was seeing.” Melville knew his Dante and his Milton. He saw his New England home as a kind of purgatory, and the high islands of Tahiti and the Marquesas as heaven. In the Galapagos, he saw one of the circles of hell. “He thought that evil sea captains were forced to live forever as Galapagos tortoises. We don’t know how long they live; we only started measuring in the 1950s,” Larson says. “For Melville they could live essentially forever. Anybody like Dante would say that would be the greatest possibility of hell. They just walk, and if they run into a boulder of lava, they keep walking. So he makes a comparison to the scoffers in Dante’s fourth circle of hell: they push against immoveable objects.” Melville actually arrived on the islands six years after Darwin, unaware of the work that would cast them in an entirely new light. To Darwin, these were the islands of change: freshly thrown up by sea, slowly to be weathered and eroded and made hospitable over the eons. “For Darwin there could be hope in the Galapagos: he says this is all going to be like Hawaii some day,” Larson explains. “It’s pretty bleak now, but eventually this will erode, and eventually there will be soil, and green trees and this will be like… Tahiti. Without a view of change, Galapagos is stuck in the hellish world with calcinated rocks and clinkers and big slacks and weird animals.” Darwin was piggy-backing on another tradition of writing about the islands, exemplifed by Lord Byron – the poet’s uncle and a sea captain, who stopped off in the islands on a trip to Hawaii in the 1820s and discovered a place “like a new Creation”. Byron astutely wrote a popular travel book about it which Darwin would have read before embarking on his own best-seller. “In its own way, The Voyage of the Beagle is one of the best travel journals ever written. Well, he had read Byron and he went to a lot of places Byron had gone, and people know about these islands from reading Byron, so he wants to play off Byron’s writings. It all fits together,” says Larson. Larson is a historian, and a professor at the University of Georgia. When he was six or thereabouts, and when people asked him what he wanted to do, he would say: “I want to be a college professor in a college town.” He had been born among coal miners and farmers in northern Appalachia, but many on his mother’s side of the family were academics. “We’d visit them. I saw what the academic life was and thought: ‘My gosh, this is like Eden’,” he says. “You didn’t have to dig coal, you didn’t have to work hard. It didn’t look like it paid all that well, but who cared what it paid? They were travelling, taking lectureships all over the world for parts of the year; they were going in and teaching classes; they were reading books; they were writing things; they were in all sorts of fields – English, genetics, medicine, it seemed like there were dozens of them. It looked like a wonderful life.” Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for his Summer for the Gods, a book on the Scopes trial, in which American anti-evolutionists challenged science in the 1920s. He followed with Trial and Error, once again about the creation-evolution controversy. Right now, he is contemplating one book on the coming of telegraphy, another on Antarctica. Evolution’s Workshop grew out of a preoccupation with the history of ideas, rather than of kings and presidents. In the course of looking at the progress of the great Darwinian idea, it seemed to him that the Galapagos were the Clapham Junction of biology: all sorts of people passed through. “I believed that ideas in general are the most powerful thing in the world. An idea was more powerful than an army. In the western world it seemed to me that science was the criterion for truth,” he says. “Darwin wrote his Origin of Species in 1859. At that time Queen Victoria was on the throne in England and James Buchanan was president of the United States. Now who has a greater impact on us today? How we think, how we live, who we are?”

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