On the Backs of Tortoises Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden Elizabeth Hennessy

Publication date:
26 Nov 2019
Yale University Press
336 pages: 235 x 156mm
20 b-w illus.


An insightful exploration of the iconic Galápagos tortoises, and how their fate is inextricably linked to our own in a rapidly changing world

In a world plagued by environmental crises, the Galápagos archipelago is often viewed as a last foothold of pristine nature. This book tells the story of how the islands’ namesakes—the giant tortoises—became iconic as living remnants of prehistoric nature. Yet the tortoises are not prehistoric. Their stories show that human and nonhuman life are deeply entangled.

This insightful exploration of the cultural and natural history of the tortoises uses these animals to demonstrate the archipelago’s inseparability from the flows of global history. As microcosms of ongoing co-evolution shaped by human action, these species bring into sharp relief the paradoxical, and impossible, goal of conserving species by trying to restore a past state of prehistoric evolution. The book illustrates how attempts to restore the Galápagos as an evolutionary Eden are insufficient in a world where evolution is thoroughly shaped by human history.

Elizabeth Hennessy is a geographer and assistant professor of history and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is on the steering committee of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment.

“Wonderfully interesting, informative, and engaging, as well as scholarly.”—Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

“Timely, fresh, and compelling. . .a must-read for anyone interested in the environmental history of the Galapagos and tortoise conservation.”—Jamie Lorimer, University of Oxford, author of Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature

"Hennessy’s book isn’t just about the controversial efforts to preserve the world’s most famous tortoises—it also provides an expansive tour de force of Darwinian ideas, the Galapagos, human entanglements in evolution, and the risks of icon-making."—Daniel Lewis, author of Belonging on an Island: Birds, Extinction, and Evolution in Hawai‘i

"Hennessy’s enthralling history of the iconic Galápagos Islands focuses on the tortoises after which they are named to deftly unpack the contradictions of global conservation in the name of science."—Claudia Leal, author of Landscapes of Freedom: Building a Postemancipation Society in the Rainforests of Western Colombia

“Hennessey finds that even though this archipelago is 97% a national park, humans can no longer consider themselves distinct from nature, but rather are an inseparable part of it with consequences for the identity of each.”—Deborah Cramer, author of The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey