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Virtual event to highlight Liz Hennessy’s book on the social and natural history of the Galápagos Islands

November 2, 2020

On the Backs of Tortoises
On the Backs of Tortoises

To view the recording of the event “Tortoises All the Way Down” or to purchase the book, please click HERE.

The Galápagos Islands, and their namesake species the giant tortoise, have long been a draw for everyone from pirates to professors. Made famous by Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection in the 1800s, the Galápagos Islands are often seen as a natural laboratory, but over the years tourism has brought industry and infrastructure to the archipelago. These sometimes opposing interests have created unique paradox, something Nelson Institute Vilas Associate Professor Elizabeth Hennessy will discuss during the November 12 Nelson Institute virtual event celebrating her book, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden, which was a finalist for a 2020 PEN Literature award for science writing.

During the event, “Tortoises All the Way Down,” Hennessy will be joined by environmental writer Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, for a discussion focusing on the entangled social and natural history of the Galápagos Islands and the ways in which human and nonhuman life co-exist on the Islands.

“I first visited the Galapagos Islands after my first year of graduate school and became interested in the social challenges I observed,” said Hennessy. “Many don’t realize that people live on the islands, as documentaries tend to focus on the theory of evolution and the unusual animals that live in the archipelago. It’s often seen as a natural laboratory, sort of a land before time, but there are about 30,000 people who live on there.”

Liz Hennessy
Liz Hennessy

In fact, the islands have long been influenced by people. Hennessy shared that some of the earliest visitors were pirates and whalers who used the famed giant tortoises as a source of meat. The Galapagos Islands also have a history as penal colonies. Since before Darwin’s visit in 1835, the archipelago has been popular with travelers from around the world, but the tourism industry picked up in the second half of the twentieth century. Since then, the local population has grown considerably, raising questions about how the islands are used, as well as who has a right to be using them. As there is no Indigenous population, some argue that the islands should be left as a natural laboratory, while others see value in allowing people to experience the islands and live on them.

For her research, Hennessy decided to focus on these questions, exploring the ways humans have influenced the islands as well as the ways in which competing interests impact conservation of the Galapagos Islands and their unique species. As a part of her research, Hennessy visited several natural history museums around the world to learn about the history of the islands. She also visited the Galapagos Islands several times to conduct ethnographic research about people’s everyday lives. During her visits, she volunteered with the Galápagos National Park’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Center and interviewed those who call the Galapagos Islands home as well as tourists.

“When we talk about the biological aspects of conservation, we sometimes eclipse the local voices,” said Hennessy. “So it was important to capture a variety of perspectives about the archipelago.”

Hennessy’s holistic approach resulted in a book that encourages the audience to consider the ethics of conservation and how various populations, both human and nonhuman, are impacted by conservation efforts.

“As a professor, I want my students to think for themselves, so there is an aspect of this book that is open ended,” said Hennessy. “I hope it will encourage the reader to think about the effects of certain conservation efforts. For example, what are the ethical implications of killing one species to save another? What are the ethics of valuing one life form over another?”