Tortoises All the Way Down: A Conversation with Elizabeth Hennessy

Close up portrait of a giant tortoise

Everyone who visits the Galápagos has a story about tortoises, from early sailors who found the tortoises delicious, to scientists working to preserve ecosystems and species, to tourists passing through on cruise ships. The islands were even named after the iconic animals. Galápagos tortoises play an important role in the global understandings of evolution and conservation as well as the lives of people who inhabit the islands.

Book cover reads Elizabeth Hennessy, On the Backs of Tortoises. A giant tortoise extends his neck in foreground. Jungle in background.
Download a teaching guide for On the Backs of Tortoises here.

Elizabeth Hennessy’s recent book, On the Backs of Tortoises: Darwin, the Galápagos, and the Fate of an Evolutionary Eden, follows in the footsteps of tortoises to uncover enduring and contradictory ideas about the Galápagos islands as pristine nature, laboratory, vacation destination, and a home. 

In the summer of 2020, I spoke with Hennessy about On the Backs of Tortoises and what makes the Galápagos islands such a fascinating, and important, place to consider. We discussed how the fate of the islands is intertwined with global capitalism, why the famous Lonesome George isn’t the only tortoise worth getting to know, and why future conservation efforts must acknowledge both the “multispecies entanglements” between humans and animals as well as the islands’ colonial histories.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisa Sevilla: What is the main purpose of your book, and what audience you are targeting?

Elizabeth Hennessy: I really wanted to write this for a more popular audience and not just for academics. I think that a lot of people around the world, particularly in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, have an idea of Galápagos as this pristine paradise sanctuary of conservation, where there are lots of unique species like the giant tortoises and Darwin’s finches. When I would say that I was doing research in Galápagos, many people were surprised because they knew that I wasn’t a biologist or an ecologist but I was interested in social science and the humanities. I think they didn’t realize what there would be there for me to study, because most people that I’ve spoken to didn’t realize that anyone actually lives in Galápagos full-time—there are about 30,000 people who live there. So, I wanted to write the book for people like me who are coming in from the outside and often have a view of Galápagos that’s shaped by nature documentaries and other media that tends to focus on the natural part of the islands, the pristine, and does not get into all of the complexities of human life there.

ES: You start the book with a chapter called “What We Stand On.” Could you tell us a bit more about the story behind that title and what purpose it serves for the argument of your book?

Portrait of a brunette woman wearing glasses
Elizabeth Hennessy is a geographer and associate professor of history, history of science, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

EH: The story that I open the book with is one that I heard a lot when I was in graduate school: the story goes that in the early 20th century the famous philosopher William James (other people say it was Bertrand Russell) was giving a lecture on the history of cosmology and the solar system to a public audience. At the end of his lecture people get up and ask questions and this little old lady gets up and says “that was a very nice story but we all know that the world really rests on the back of a giant turtle.” James finds this funny but he engages with the woman and says “okay, but what does the turtle rest on then?” She says “ah very clever, but obviously on another turtle.”  James keeps pushing her and eventually she says “obviously we all know that it’s turtles all the way down!” This story is great for Galápagos because the tortoises are such a part of the history of the islands. Literally every part of the history has something to do with them all the way down. But the deeper meaning of the story is that it pushes us to think about what we stand on, the foundations of our knowledge. I think it points to different epistemologies and worldviews, and that was really important to bring out because I wanted to draw attention not only to the scientific conservationist worldview that we hear about in terms of the Galápagos all the time in the West, but a lot of other ways of understanding the islands and their species as well.

ES: You focus your research on the history of a group of tortoises in a very small and peripheral archipelago in the middle of the Pacific. However, this is a global and connected history. Could you discuss the global connections and also the local particularities that you find in your book?

EH: As you say, I was trying to tell a global history through the lens of a particular place. I wanted to think about global in terms of all of the different people, from all over the world, who have come through the Galápagos and shaped the history of this place over the last 500 years. The first historical record we have of Galápagos was written by a Spanish friar in 1535. He was sent to Peru to solve a dispute between warring conquistadors, and he got lost on the way in Galápagos. He wrote back and told the Spanish crown that the islands didn’t have anything worth exploiting, and so the Spanish left them alone for a long time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was whalers and buccaneers who would use the Galápagos as a stopover site to restore their stores on their ships. Darwin was on one of these ships that came through, and that really changed the history of scientific research in the islands. Over the 20th century there were more scientific expeditions and a U.S. military base in the Galápagos during World War II. So, these histories get layered upon each other and have really been important for shaping what’s happened in the archipelago.

A multispecies history thinks about how tourism and tortoises and introduced species all come together in one place.

Of course, it’s not only global connections but Ecuadorian connections too. The islands are directly west off the coast of Ecuador, right on the equator, and the Ecuadorian government claimed them right after it became independent in 1832. The Galápagos are an important frontier of the Ecuadorian nation, and Ecuador always wanted the Galápagos to be economically profitable. The first way that they did that was through cattle ranches that were run as penal colonies. That Ecuadorian connection has been very important in the last 50 years as the tourism economy has become so important for Galápagos and for the state in terms of funding conservation in particular.

ES: Could you talk a bit more on how the global capitalist economy crosses the Galápagos through history?

EH: There’s a perception of the Galápagos as a pristine space of conservation outside of capitalism, and what I found is that that’s really not true. The whole history of the archipelago has been completely shaped by histories of global capitalism, from the Spanish conquistadors through to the whaling industry and agricultural penal colonies that tried to make the islands productive for the state. In 1959 the national park and its sister institution, the Charles Darwin Research Station, were both founded so that was really the beginning of in-situ conservation in Galápagos. Since then the tourism industry has really taken off. I think there’s a perception that conservation and tourism development are contradictory forces, but that’s really not accurate either. When these international conservationists and Ecuadorian scientists get the Ecuadorian government to agree to make this space that they have always wanted to be economically productive into a giant national park, they had to promise some kind of revenue stream through nature tourism. So, tourism and conservation really have been born at the same moment and have developed together into a booming industry on the island. The fate of Galápagos is so intertwined with the fluctuations of global capitalism, and I think that’s never been truer than now, as the tourism economy is so central to the people that live there and to conservation funding.

Woman kneels beside large tortoise.
Elizabeth Hennessy kneels beside a Galápagos tortoise. Photo courtesy of Hennessy.

ES: I was really intrigued about the idea of SES, or socioecological system, that you propose. Could you tell us more about that and about what multispecies histories means?

EH: At the end of the book I think about the metaphor of a natural laboratory that has been so crucial for the history of the Galápagos over the past 60 years since the national park was started. Galápagos is a really unique landscape because while there’s a lot of biodiversity, it’s actually a pretty pared-down landscape, and because of that it’s easier to trace out evolutionary pathways that are really difficult to see in continental landscapes. That’s the scientific rationality for this idea of a natural laboratory, but the natural laboratory model has been really problematic because there’s always been this three percent of the archipelago that isn’t protected as national park and is where people live. These people were largely ignored for generations by early conservationists, who weren’t trained to think about social life and for a long time tried to discourage development in the islands.

I wanted to write the book for people like me who are coming in from the outside and often have a view of Galápagos that’s shaped by nature documentaries that do not get into all of the complexities of human life there.

The socioecological system (SES) is a kind of modeling that’s really popular in the world of conservation biology today and has been adopted in Galápagos over the last ten years as a way of rethinking the natural laboratory metaphor. There’s been a huge shift in conservation thinking in Galápagos and other places around the world that’s trying to figure out ways of incorporating local communities and conservation efforts. It’s been a little late to come to Galápagos, I think because there’s been such a strong pristine imaginary there and because there wasn’t a historical Indigenous population in Galápagos. Resorting a prehistoric landscape has been at the top of the conservation agenda, but that vision is shifting and people now understand that Galápagos is a humanized landscape and has been for 500 years. The socioecological system has a lot of improvements over the natural laboratory as the model for conservation, but it also has a lot of limitations as models necessarily do because they are necessarily reductive. The way the model has been interpreted in Galápagos is through these figure-eight infinity loops of history, and it’s really a functional view of how history works. What I try and do throughout the book is dive into the middle of those figure-eight loops and get into the messier reality of what life looks like. So, this idea of multispecies histories is my counter to an SES model and what I see as a too-reductive view of life.

What I mean by multispecies histories is trying to think about the ways that the tortoises and people and a lot of other species are entangled in the Galápagos, so that you can start to see how tourism and tortoises and invasive or introduced species all come together in one place. I don’t know how to articulate that except through thick-description storytelling. I don’t see how you can represent that in a model with flows, so I go through several different examples in the book to try and tease out what some of the politics of these entanglements of natures and cultures in the Galápagos look like.

ES: What is the most important thing that you want readers to take away from this conversation?

EH: I want readers and listeners to take away a sense that the Galápagos, and many other places that are celebrated tourism destinations, are really not as simple or as straightforward as they seem to be. I also want people to take away that it’s really crucial that we develop frameworks for thinking about what is just for local communities and for nature in the same frame of reference, so that we don’t have these bifurcated structures of analysis and of management that have existed for a really long time now, but that we’re able to see how these things fit together and to think from there as a basis for conservation and for what sustainability will mean.

Featured Image: Galápagos tortoise. Image from The Grandma, 2018.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Elizabeth Hennessy is a geographer and associate professor of history, history of science, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her Galápagos book was a finalist for the 2020 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. A teaching guide for On the Backs of Tortoises is available to download. Website. Contact.

Elisa Sevilla is Lecturer in History at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. Her research focuses on the global circulation and production of knowledge by a diverse network of people during the 19th Century. She follows the intricate itineraries of natural history collections, explorers, letters, and ideas (like Darwin’s), particularly between Ecuador, Spain, France and the UK. She is also involved in the history of disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions), science and culture. Contact.