World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

The Queen of Santa Cruz

It’s Friday night in Puerto Ayora, a town of some 15,000 people on the island of Santa Cruz in the Galapagos archipelago. Avenue Charles Darwin runs from the harbour, filled with tour boats, and past the public plaza where on most nights young men play pick-up games of volleyball. The north side of the street is lined with restaurants, bars, Internet cafes and souvenir shops. Tonight, the street and plaza are alive with lights, music and a throng of hundreds of Galapagueños and tourists. A parade of floats plows its way along the avenue and through the crowd like ships through the surf, toward the stage at one end of the plaza.

The floats are carrying the contestants in the Queen of Isla Santa Cruz beauty pageant, a highlight of the island’s week-long Fiestas celebration. The first is covered with balloons, as well as little Galapagueño girls who wave to the crowd. Standing at the back of the float in front of a ten-foot tall heart made of red balloons is one of the beauty queens. She is dressed in a silver and white, sequin-covered costume. The next float is commanded by a pale-skinned, disinterested, overweight Nemo, complete with trident and crown. But all the attention is on the young beauty queen hopeful, standing in a giant seashell behind him.

Silver queen_2639_1200px         As each float arrives at the end of the plaza, the girls step down and make their way onto the stage. After the final float has come and gone, there are nine young contestants smiling and waving to the crowd. Each represents a different neighbourhood of Puerto Ayora or region of Isla Santa Cruz: Miss Barrio Pelikan Bay, Miss Barrio Pampas Coloradas, and so on. Some represent local companies. There is even a Miss Charles Darwin Foundation.

The girls take their turns greeting the crowd. My Spanish isn’t good enough to know what they’re saying, but my guess is they’re giving their “I want to cure world hunger” speech, which down here might sound more like: “I want to preserve Galapagos as a home for the flightless cormorants and marine iguanas”. Wow. Beautiful, and committed to conservation.

It turns out this isn’t the actual pageant ceremony. So there’s no bathing suit or talent competition, no crowning of a winner, no tiara, flowers or tears. Instead, the winner will be crowned Saturday night. But I and my companions will be leaving Puerto Ayora on a ten-day scientific field trip to another Galapagos island, Isabela, at 5:30 Sunday morning. It’s an early start, so I’ll have to wait until we return to find out the name of the new Queen of Santa Cruz.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos, Long-form non-fiction, nature

The Darwin Correspondence Project and other online Darwin resources

Just a post about some online archival resources I’ve found relating to Charles Darwin and The Origin of Species:

The first is the Darwin Correspondence Project, a fascinating website that lets you “read and search the full texts of more than 6000 of Darwin’s letters.” These include letters to and from his grandfather Eramus, Beagle captain Robert Fitzroy, Charles Lyell, T.H. Huxley, John Gould, Alfred Russell Wallace, and many others. Access to the letters is through a well-designed, interactive time-line that lets you browse through years of correspondence or search by name.

Darwin Correspondence ProjectFor example, in a letter to Charles Lyell, dated June 25, 1858, Darwin expresses his anguish at receiving Wallace’s manuscript describing the Welshman’s own thoughts on evolution. Can Darwin in all good conscience publish his “sketch” now that he has seen the other naturalist’s work? He writes, “I would far rather burn my whole book than that he or any man shd. think that I had behaved in a paltry spirit.”

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, Galapagos

How Does Understanding Evolution Make Us Better Citizens?

On his Discover blog today, Carl Zimmer asks “…how understanding evolution allows American citizens to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters. How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?” He invited readers to submit their views. Here’s the answer I posted in reply:

It is not so much our understanding of the fact of evolution that is so important to being an informed, responsible citizen. What’s critical is our understanding of how we know that evolution is a fact. Evolution instructs us how to understand. Evolution challenges us to ask: how do we know? Do we “know” God created the millions of species on Earth because that’s what religious doctrine declares? Or do we know that species evolved from common ancestors because of the century and a half of empirical evidence that proves the idea true, and because it makes sense of and explains all we see around us.

Do we know what we know through fear, irrationality, ideology, a lack of education, or fundamentalist beliefs? Or through rationality, reason and empiricism? In this way, evolution touches issues and ideas that are important to any informed citizen. How do we know anthropogenic global warming is real? How do we determine what causes AIDS, cancer or autism? How do we know flying saucers, time-traveling cellphone-users, homeopathic cures, and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction don’t exist? We know by looking at these questions in the same way Darwin looked at the world around him.

Filed under: evolution, science literacy

Lamarck is Alive and Well and Living in Language

On the 266th anniversary of the birth of Jean Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck, Lamarckism is alive and well, and living in the language we use to describe the evolution of species.

Lamarck

Long before the English naturalist Darwin set sail for the Galapagos Islands, the French biologist Lamarck proposed his own theory of evolution. According to the Chevalier, species did indeed evolve—and as Richard Dawkins writes in The Blind Watchmaker, he deserves to be honoured for this accomplishment alone. Furthermore, Lamarck said, species were transformed by forces that guided each individual creature toward complexity and toward a greater degree of adaptation to their environment.

The mechanism behind this transformation was twofold: the use and dis-use of certain organs, which led to the strengthening or weakening of those organs over the course of a creature’s life; and the inheritance of those newly acquired or discarded characteristics by the animal’s immediate offspring.

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Filed under: darwin, evolution, ,

Just how much science does our science minister understand?

To many in the research community, last week’s federal budget cut to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Sciences is a sign that the Harper government is “skeptical of climate-change science and hostile to those who provide evidence that aggressive action must be taken to avert catastrophic global warming.” As a result of the cut, scientists have begun to shut down the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, located on Ellsmere Island some 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, which served as a base for the collection of data on climate change.

Skeptical of climate-change science? The report reminded me of the flap from a year ago, when Gary Goodyear, our science minister, refused to reveal if he believed in evolution. His initial refusal, followed by a confusing and disingenuous “yes, I believe in evolution”, bolstered the suspicions of many that our science minister was a creationist and wasn’t quite on the same page as Darwin when it came to the origin of species.

You have to wonder what other scientific concepts–along with climate change and evolution–Goodyear doesn’t quite have a handle on. Germ theory, plate tectonics, gravity, atomic theory? Should we worry about future cuts to Canada’s space program because he’s pretty sure the Earth is flat?

Filed under: climate change, evolution, politics, science literacy, , , ,

March 18, 2009: Canada’s Minister of Science accepts Darwin’s evolution. Or does he?

So, Gary Goodyear, Canada’s minister of state for science and technology, thinks his views on evolution are “irrelevant”. When asked in an interview whether he believed in Darwin’s big idea, the minister refused to answer, saying that his religious beliefs had nothing to do with government policy.

As a tax-paying voter, I think they are very relevant—particularly if, as many suspect, Goodyear is a creationist. If the minister believes that all the species on Earth were created by a divine being, whole and complete, and that they didn’t evolve from common ancestors, then he has made a choice based on his religious faith. He’s chosen an explanation that goes against the vast body of evidence accumulated in the 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. He is rejecting the foundation on which all of biology is constructed, an idea universally accepted by science because it has been proven at every step.

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Filed under: creationism, evolution, politics, religion, , , ,

About me

CHRIS SASAKI
I am a Toronto-based writer, author and photographer who is inspired and fascinated by science. Science is our best way of understanding the natural world, but it is much more than that. Science is culture, and its pursuit ultimately leads to meaning, values and wonder.  My interests include evolution, Darwin, the Galapagos Islands, secular humanism, religion, skepticism, climate change, and science culture.  For many years, I wrote and produced astronomy programs for the McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Ontario Museum. I am author of many books for young readers (Sterling Publishing and Penguin Young Readers, N.Y.) and articles for children's magazines. I also write non-fiction related to the themes reflected in this blog. You can read some of my longer non-fiction and view my photographs at www.chrissasaki.com, and follow me at www.twitter.com/chrissasaki.

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