Review: A travelogue on God, Darwin and the Galapagos Islands

A red rock crab on the Galapagos Islands. Known for their large number of endemic species, the Galapagos Islands were studied by Charles Darwin and contributed to his formulation of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection (iStock).

This book, like Charles Darwin’s life, consists of a few distinct phases.

Darwin (1809-82) spent years actively collecting specimens in England and then jaunting around the world on the H.M.S. Beagle (1831-36) before settling into a country home, family life and decades-long analysis of his collections, which ultimately resulted in the publication of the Origin of Species (1859) and other books on sexual selection, moral instincts and earthworms, among other topics.

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The Galápagos Islandsby Brian D. McLaren

Fortress Press

282p, $16.99

So, too, is the first half of Brian McLaren’s The Galápagos Islands a travelogue and the second part a wide-ranging and associative analysis that builds its argument in accretionary stages. While the travelogue record of McLaren’s travels on this, his second trip to the Galápagos, is noteworthy for travel tips, the cadence of days and the geography of islands, I found the first eight chapters to be plodding (with the exception of several enthralling encounters with fish and tortoises). It is in the latter part of this book that the magic happens: the associations and conversations among the animal worlds of the Galápagos (including human efforts to preserve other species), as well as McLaren’s own icons and practices of spirituality, and the questions that arise at their intersection.

The first eight chapters chart the days of McLaren’s voyage. They are interesting as a day-by-day account of how an eco-conscious traveler might experience the Galápagos, and if I ever have the privilege to go, I will return to the practical advice therein. But these chapters also tend toward self-indulgent travelogue (the insinuation that he was perhaps flirting with his readers; detailed accounts of texting with his son about laptop failure on the islands). These chapters’ merit is in their meandering naturalistic thoroughness, in slowing the pace of the reader’s expectation of what is being delivered and perhaps in providing a fair introduction to the kinds of second-order reflections—about technology, aging, destructive capitalism and Christianity—toward which McLaren is inclined.

While Brian McLaren is not Catholic, the book’s sacramental proclivities toward creation mean that there is much resonance with the writings of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Elizabeth Johnson and Ilia Delio.

In chapters 9 through 14, McLaren’s observations are honed into compelling, synthetic and provocative essays. Chapter 9, “Monster,” is a useful introduction to Darwin, of whom McLaren accurately writes that “where [Darwin’s] competing loyalties were in tension”—to family, culture, tradition and to his meticulously gathered and systematically queried data—“he was loyal to the tension itself. He lived with it, felt it, and refused to resolve it.” Most provocatively (and again, I think, rightly) McLaren suggests that there are some important similarities between Jesus and Darwin: “They both dared to say aloud the simple but revolutionary truth that what is has not always been, and what is will not always be. And they were both seen as monsters for doing so.”

Chapter 11, “Evotheology,” is noteworthy as well. Here McLaren re-images God while navigating questions of one’s own personal and cultural evolution. Chapter 12, “Herpetheology,” weaves together the book-long theme of what is sacred—from lament over biodiversity loss and species extinction to tortoise rehabilitation in the Galápagos to McLaren’s tortoise haven in Florida. “For humans to make sense to ourselves, I think we’re going to have to rediscover our kinship with the reptiles,” he writes, “and the fish, insects, birds, mammals, and palo santo trees—with which we share the world.”

McLaren is an accessible guide to perennial questions. What kind of God do various forms of Christianity presume? What threat has evolution seemed to pose, especially to biblical literalists? What does that threat reveal not just about God but about those of us who try to interpret signs of God in text, in tradition and in the natural world? And while McLaren is not Catholic, the book’s sacramental proclivities toward creation mean that there is much resonance with the writings of Pope Francis, Leonardo Boff, Elizabeth Johnson and Ilia Delio (all of whom he quotes at some length). This is a book that is about much more than one voyage, whether Darwin’s or McLaren’s own.

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