Cover Story

Exploring Darwin

A Professor's Journey to Islands of Awe
By Jeff Murphy

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Young English naturalist Charles Darwin was on his way home in 1835 when he stopped at the Galápagos Islands, discovered three centuries earlier. He found a population of birds, reptiles and plants much different than those he encountered while charting the coastline of South America and on neighboring, almost identical islands.

He explained the phenomenon as a gradual transformation of different species with common ancestors. At a time when few scientists challenged the popular belief that all species were fixed and unchanging, it was a radical idea. Nonetheless, he refined and tested his theory, and in 1859, shared it with people across the globe through his famous publication, The Origin of Species.

Hess and Friends

John Hess says his "fabricated" non-scale self-portrait contains "a blue-footed booby, more than a little paranoid; a waved albatross, the world's greatest navigator; and a red-footed booby sweetly watching from a safe place who will eventually diddle on my shirt if I dawdle. Snatch a pathetic but cute sea lion pup, add a pinch of M.C. Escher and give a brief nod to the carbon freezing of Han Solo. Add a background suggesting that a knowledge base is the foundation of these relationships and make myself the center of interest."

Nearly 150 years after Darwin's work was unveiled, University of Central Missouri professor emeritus John Hess, Ph.D., is sharing his own insights into the Galápagos through his first book, a creative project that combines both his passion for science and photography. Sitting in the living room of the house he built board-by-board with great care in a wooded area southwest of Warrensburg, he appears surprised by a question about his visit to the land where Darwin nourished his theory about "natural selection."

"Oh, my," he says enthusiastically, when asked why he embarked on such a trip. "I'm a biologist - in fact, an evolutionary biologist. I remember when they were celebrating the 100th year of The Origin of Species. For someone interested in Darwin, the Galápagos is the place to go."

The inspiration for Hess' The Galápagos: Exploring Darwin's Tapestry, published this spring by University of Missouri Press, is the result of seven days he spent on the islands with his wife, Regina. Their journey began in 2006 when they joined about 60 other individuals who had an opportunity to visit the archipelago. Divided into small groups and accompanied by Ecuadorian guides and naturalists, they took hundreds of digital photos of the diverse and colorful wildlife, plants and landscapes, shooting from inflatable boats and occasionally going ashore to explore well-defined trails.

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