The birds of the Galápagos
Photo by Steve Murray
2009 was the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin (1809–1882), most famous for his book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Many of his ideas came from his voyage on HMS Beagle (1831–1836), and in particular his month-long stay in 1835 on the intriguing Archipiélago de Colón, better known as the Galápagos Islands, 972 km (604 miles) west of Ecuador.
The strange variety of creatures on these islands fascinated Darwin, including the giant tortoises from which they derive their name (Spanish galápago, “saddle”—after the shells of saddlebacked Galápagos tortoises). But the creatures that allegedly provided inspiration for Darwin’s evolutionary ideas, and alleged disproof of creation, were the varieties of birds.
The birds on the Galápagos Islands show an amazing adaptation to their environment, and provide excellent examples of the ability of animals to adapt to changing conditions. The flightless cormorant’s wings no longer function for flight, but it is able to swim and dive for prey better than its cousins who are still able to fly. The blue-footed, red-footed, and masked boobies show the variety of behaviours and appearances that can develop within the same kind. The 13 species of Galápagos finch show various beak sizes to be able to consume different foods, and even exhibit new behaviours.1
But are any of these variations examples of evolution? And how does the biblical creation model explain them?
The flightless cormorant is the only variety of cormorant that lives on the Galápagos Islands, and is the only variety of cormorant that cannot fly. It has even been classified as a different genus; it is in the genus Nannopterum while all other cormorants belong to the genus Phalacrocorax. The changes that the flightless cormorant underwent are similar to that of other flightless birds; the keel on the breast bone which supports the muscles used for flight is much smaller, and its legs are much stronger than those of other cormorants. Not needing to use its wings for flight, its wings have deteriorated in ways that would have been eliminated in flying birds. For example, its feathers are softer and more hair-like, much like the feathers of other flightless birds.2
Since the flightless cormorants could not have swum from the mainland to the islands (it never ventures more than 100 m (330 ft) from shore while fishing), how did it arise? Darwin proposed that it developed from cormorants that had flown to the island, but whose descendants had lost this ability. Now we realize that this loss occurred through a mutation, or genetic copying mistake. Such a mutation would normally be harmful for a bird species, but may have been beneficial to the cormorants on that particular island.3
This would be similar to the case of flightless beetles on windy islands that are more likely to survive, while the beetles that can fly are more likely to be swept away.4 Or else it may simply have been a case of reduced selection pressure—with none of the mainland predators and plentiful food in the sea, loss of flight would be a less serious disadvantage, much like cave creatures that lose their sight over generations.5 However, this would not be an example of evolution; the mutation that caused the flightless cormorant to lose the ability to fly is an example of a loss of genetic information. Goo-to-you evolution would require changes that result in new genetic information.
The name “booby” is likely a corruption of the Spanish bobo (clown or dunce), since it has an unusual dance and also their naïve landing on boats meant they could be captured easily.6 Boobies have forward-pointing eyes that give them stereoscopic vision (depth perception), and catch fish by spectacular plunge-diving from high in the air, hitting the water at 100 km/h (60 mph). It is easy to tell males and females apart by their sounds: males make a hoarse whistle while females croak.7 They incubate their eggs by warming them with their feet, which have an increased blood supply, and the chicks keep warm by standing on their parents’ feet for the first month.
Photo by Steve Murray
There are three varieties on the Galápagos: the blue-footed, red-footed, and masked boobies. They are all members of the same family, and are not only different in appearance but also in behaviours. The blue-footed and red-footed boobies mate throughout the year, while the masked boobies have an annual mating cycle that differs from island to island. All catch fish in a similar manner, but in different areas—the blue-footed booby does its fishing close to shore, while the masked booby goes slightly farther out, and the red-footed booby fishes at the farthest distances from shore. They also have different nesting environments. The blue-footed booby nests on the rocks close to shore, the masked booby nests on high cliffs, and the red-footed booby nests in trees. Because of their different nesting and fishing sites, there is very little competition between the three species.6,7
The bright foot colours are caused by both pigment (yellow carotenoids, like those that cause the orange of carrots) and structure (collagen fibres just beneath the skin). The different appearances are nothing more than varieties originally within a kind. They likely act as mate recognition signals, to attract mates of similar behaviours. Also, male foot brightness changes quickly with the state of his health, a helpful indicator to females seeking a mate.8
Sorting of pre-existing genes could produce variety in beak shapes. Then natural selection could remove information for thin beaks.
The Galápagos finches are more famous than the other two families of birds, and are commonly cited as a prime example of evolution; indeed, the example that allegedly inspired Darwin’s theory. Darwin postulated that all the varieties of finches, with varying beaks suited for their different food sources, were all descended from the same sort of finch and the different varieties of finch arose over time.9
This was actually reasonable. Suppose some finches with the genetic information for a wide variety of beaks came to the islands in a storm, and that some were on an island where the main food source was hard seeds. Birds with genes for thick and strong beaks could cope with them better, so would be better fed, and thus more likely to leave offspring. But birds on an island with few seeds but lots of grubs would do better with longer and thinner beaks, so they could poke deeper into the ground and pull out their prey.
This is indeed an example of adaptation and natural selection. But note that it actually removes genes from the populations—on seed-rich islands with few grubs, information for long, slender beaks would likely be lost; while the information for thick, strong beaks would be lost on grub-rich (seed-poor) islands (see diagram right). So this change is in the opposite direction from goo-to-you evolution, which requires new genes with new information.10 It can hardly be over-emphasized: natural selection is not evolution;11 indeed, natural selection was discovered by creationists before Darwin,12 and is now an important part of the biblical creation model.
Darwin beats compromised creation, loses to biblical creation
An evolutionary propagandist book from the US National Academy of Sciences is typical:
“Darwin could not see how these observations could be explained by the prevailing view of his time: that each species had been independently created, with the species that were best suited to each location on the earth being created at each particular site.”13
However, this was not the biblical view; rather, it is a view akin to the progressive creationist view of the likes of Hugh Ross.14 This was the result of a prior capitulation to millions of years, which was due to an a priori rejection of the biblical Flood.15According to the biblical model, the Flood destroyed the whole earth, which was repopulated from animals dispersing from the Ark in the mountains of Ararat. So biblical creationists would expect animals on the Galápagos Islands to have arrived from mainland South America, and expect island creatures to be varieties of the mainland creatures.
Biblical creationists would also predict rapid formation of new varieties and even species. This is derived from the fact that many modern varieties of land vertebrates must have come from comparatively few animals that disembarked from the Ark only 4,500 years ago. In contrast, Darwin thought that such a process would take a very long time. But an 18-year study by zoologist Peter Grant indicated that variation was rapid enough for a new species to arise in only 200 years,16 which is inadvertent support for the biblical creation model.17,18 And sometimes variation seems to be cyclic—while a drought resulted in a slight increase in beak size, the change was reversed when the rains returned. So it fits with built-in adaptability to various climatic conditions rather than Darwinian evolution.
Thus compromise with millions of years was not only an appeasement that allowed Darwin to make further inroads into biblical authority, it also hindered the development of coherent models.19
- The birds of the Galápagos show remarkable variety.
- Some of the variety is due to information loss through mutation and natural selection.
- Churchian compromise with millions of years led to an easy target for Darwin, and hindered the development of a credible creation model.
References and notes
- For example, there’s even a ‘vampire’ finch—it has taken to using its sharp beak to prick the skin of boobies and lap up the blood. Catchpoole, D., Vampire finches of the Galápagos, Creation 29(3):52–55, 2007; <creation.com/vampirefinch>. Return to text.
- Flightless cormorant, <people.rit.edu/rhrsbi/GalapagosPages/Cormorant.html>, 21 October 2008. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Darwin’s Eden, Creation 27(3):10–15, 2005; <creation.com/darwin_eden>. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Beetle bloopers: even a defect can be an advantage sometimes, Creation 19(3):30, 1997; <creation.com/beetle>. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Let the blind see breeding blind fish with blind fish restores sight, Creation 30(4): 54–55, 2008; Sarfati, J., Christopher Hitchens blind to salamander reality, <creation.com/hitchens>, 26 July 2008. Return to text.
- Blue-footed boobies, <www.geo.cornell.edu/geology/GalapagosWWW/BlueFoot.html>, Cornell University, 21 October 2008. Return to text.
- Boobies, <people.rit.edu/rhrsbi/GalapagosPages/Boobies.html>, 21 October 2008. Return to text.
- At least in the blue-footed booby—see Velando, A., Beamonte-Barrientos, R. and Torres, R., Pigment-based skin colour in the blue-footed booby: an honest signal of current condition used by females to adjust reproductive investment, Oecologia 149(3):535–542, 2006. Return to text.
- Cromie, W., How Darwin’s finches got their beaks, Harvard Gazette, <www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2006/08.24/31-finches.html>, 24 August 2006. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., The evolution train’s a-comin (Sorry, a-goin in the wrong direction), Creation 24(2):16–19, 2002; <creation.com/train>. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Muddy waters: clarifying the confusion about natural selection, Creation 23(3):26–29, 2001; <creation.com/muddy>. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Darwin’s illegitimate brainchild, Creation 26(2):39–41, 2004; <creation.com/brainchild>. Return to text.
- Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC, USA, 1998. Return to text.
- See Sarfati, J., Refuting Compromise: A biblical and scientific refutation of progressive creationism (billions of years) as popularized by astronomer Hugh Ross, Master Books, Arkansas, USA, 2004. Return to text.
- See Mortenson, T., The Great Turning Point: The Church’s catastrophic mistake on geology—before Darwin, Master Books, Arkansas, USA, 2004. Return to text.
- Grant, P.R., Natural selection and Darwin’s finches, Scientific American 265(4):60–65, October 1991. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Darwin’s finches: Evidence supporting rapid post-Flood adaptation, Creation 14(3):22–23, 1992; <creation.com/finches>. Return to text.
- Wieland, C., Review of J. Weiner’s Book: The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time, Journal of Creation 9(1):21–24, 1995; <creation.com/beak_finch>. Return to text.
- Sarfati, J., Chamberlain and the Church, Creation 30(4):42–44, 2008; <creation.com/chamberlain>. Return to text.
Thanks very much, just heard Dawkins talking about the flightless cormorant on the Galápagos islands and how it was a good example of ‘evolution’. So I figured I’d come here and find out the truth about them.
Very enjoyable article. Shows how dangerous it can be to compromise the Bible. Darwin observed de-evolution, but it was still different from what the Christain theory of the day was and in this he could convince some that evolution occurs. If we stuck to the bible we could have interpreted in they way that it is just Degeneration/mutation and spreading of species after the flood.As is now brilliantly done by CMI.