On the Backs of Tortoises: Conserving Evolution in the Galápagos Islands Public Deposited

Downloadable Content

Download PDF
Last Modified
  • March 20, 2019
  • Hennessy, Elizabeth A.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Geography
  • The Galápagos Islands are today considered a world-renown natural laboratory of evolution and one of the best-preserved ecosystems on earth. Yet even this remote archipelago is not immune from global environmental crises: in 2007, UNESCO put the Galápagos on its list of World Heritage Sites In Danger because of booming tourism development. Most analyses explain this crisis as a Malthusian problem of over-development on fragile islands. However, I argue that adequately understanding current problems in the Galápagos requires a return to the annals of evolutionary science to analyze how that history shaped the islands. This dissertation traces this history on the backs of the islands' most iconic species, giant tortoises, to show how the development of evolutionary science has reshaped understandings of island nature and how it is managed. The dissertation traces a history of the present through detailed archival and ethnographic attention to shifting human engagements with giant tortoises over the past century. Chapters chart the shifting biopolitical strategies through which endangered nonhuman life has been managed, from natural history and zoological collection to in situ conservation breeding. They analyze how changing methods of biological science--from morphological taxonomy to phylogenetics--articulate with different modes of valuing and saving nonhuman life. In particular, they track how scientific valuations of the islands as a natural laboratory justified both conservation work and tourism development. By detailing the relationship between conservation and tourism through which giant tortoises became charismatic icons, the dissertation reframes the recent crisis not as the intrusion of globalization into a space of pristine nature, but as produced through an alliance between scientific conservation and global capitalism. By engaging with the science and nature of evolution, the dissertation returns to the disciplinary history of geography. To avoid re-inscribing determinist interpretations that marked early twentieth century disciplinary engagements with evolutionary theory, the dissertation uses the Galápagos case to elaborate a critical geography of evolution. This perspective foregrounds the contingent, politicized processes through which nature and society co-evolve. It demonstrates how the circulation of evolutionary science orders relationships between nature and society and shapes the discursive and material production of landscapes.
Date of publication
Resource type
Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Wolford, Wendy
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2014

This work has no parents.