Talk #02Sharing experiences on Galapagos

Talk: August 25, 2017 Photographer/Biologist/Designer

The members of our expedition team to the Galapagos Islands gathered on deck after the seventh day of filming for another talk, a three-way conversation that ranged far and wide as they shared their knowledge and impressions on experiencing Galapagos firsthand, and leading on from that, their thoughts on nature, evolution, people, and happiness.

Galapagos from the biological perspective

Designer We've been in {Galapagos} for seven days now. What are your impressions of the place as a biologist?

Biologist Biologically speaking, Galapagos is hallowed ground, so it's thrilling to be here. By “hallowed ground,” I mean that it's where, for a start, Darwin conceived his {theory of evolution} in the 19th century. And in the 20th and this century too, major biological discoveries have been made in and around Galapagos. In that sense, it feels like a gathering of hallowed lands to me.

Designer What kind of discoveries have been made here apart from Darwin's theory of evolution?

Biologist In 1977, {submarine volcanoes} (hydrothermal vents) were discovered at a depth of 2500 m on the sea bottom off the Galapagos Islands. This is exactly as predicted by marine geologists. The thing is, though, that mysterious creatures known now as {giant tube worms} were discovered around the vents. No one ever imagined that such a life form could exist in such an environment, making its discovery almost comparable to {heliocentrism}.

Giant tube worms are animals, but insofar as they don't eat, they are more like plants in the way they sustain themselves. Plants use the energy of the sun to make nutrients through photosynthesis, right? These tube worms use the energy of submarine volcanoes to survive. To survive, we humans eat mostly plants and herbivorous animals, so we too are effectively dependent on the sun. The food chains of our ecosystems start with the sun, but the ecosystems in which these giant tube worms live start with submarine volcanoes. And it's such submarine volcanoes that are thought to have given birth to life. What were once submarine volcanoes have been discovered on other planets too, suggesting that there might be life forms on such planets. Giant tube worms have since been found in various other locations, but it's striking that they were first discovered in Galapagos.

Galapagos was the site of another big discovery in 1993. Since the sea around Galapagos is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, you'd expect there to be a very active food chain in these waters, but the sea beyond the immediate vicinity of the islands is a virtual desert devoid of life forms. Marine ecologists had long puzzled over this mystery, but in 1993, it was finally solved. The human body requires iron, albeit in tiny amounts. In the vicinity of the Galapagos Islands, iron is supplied by volcanoes and such like, but further out to sea, there is no supply of iron. When some scientists added iron to the ocean in such locations, phytoplankton populations exploded. In other words, iron is as essential to marine life forms as it is to us. From the food supply and fishing industry perspectives, this was a very significant discovery.

Designer Wow, that's really interesting.

The tension of nature

Designer Photographer has been to all sorts of places worldwide. What are your impressions of Galapagos?

Photographer Particularly today, I was totally bowled over. It’s a world totally devoid of human presence. That's something I've been wanting to witness from long ago. Maybe you could call it life itself, but it seems that everything visible 360° around is emanating energy. I suspect that that's the original energy of the Earth, but where we live, it's getting very very difficult to feel that energy. In the previous talk, I think we mentioned the soul. Well, it's very difficult to put in words, but this place gets to my soul in a way that I've never experienced before.

Designer This is a very intuitive, figurative way of putting it, but this place feels taut, imbued with tension rather than harmony. I get the feeling that it’s held together by its tension, and that if something disturbed the balance of that tension, it would set off some kind of new oscillation. And it feels as if that tension has gradually increased as we've moved from island to island. It struck me that this tension I feel is probably nature itself.

Photographer The thing I’ve felt most keenly while here is the sheer beauty of everything, both near and far. The colors, the shapes, a little volcano nestled inside the crater of the big volcano, you name it, everything is incredibly beautiful. I can't think of any other words to describe it. And I can't help feeling that this vital energy would collapse if people intruded.

Designer The sight of that {flightless cormorant} colony astounded me, the way the rocks of the colony were plastered with white guano, and here and there, the nests made of piles of dried seaweed brought by the parent birds, the chicks in the nests, with their parents standing around so calmly. Even with all that guano around, it didn't feel at all dirty to me. It could be that when you see it like that as a part of the cycle of nature, you don’t connect it with excrement, and it just doesn't look dirty. Humans clean up their surroundings, don't they? Why is that? Animals don't clean up like that, do they?

Biologist I think that this goes back to what you were saying just now about tension. People tend to want to maintain certain conditions. If it's clean, we want to maintain that cleanliness. The natural world decomposes if you leave it alone. You described these mountains as beautiful, but gravity makes them unstable, and they’re destined to collapse eventually. People tend to want to keep things as they are, and do this and that to maintain that status quo.

Designer Which, to my mind, is effectively far more destructive, since we're stopping the natural flow of things.

Biologist Yes, indeed. Cities and ecosystems resemble each other. Neither represents the ultimate final solution, but increasing redundancy can help maintain them in a steady state. Just as a city might have enough rail lines that it could keep going even if one were knocked out, ecosystems aren’t seriously affected by the loss of a single species. Santa Cruz, the first island we visited, is old enough that its ecosystem has redundancy, and it gave the impression of being almost fully matured. Fernandina and Isabela are still young and lack such redundancy. I think it's that that imparts the tension we felt.

Designer Maybe it's a kind of natural logic, tension showing itself in places that lack redundancy. The younger the island, the easier it was to perceive. Photographer was taking shots of sand. I noticed that the sand grains were very coarse, suggesting the sand was young. When I picked up a fistful and looked closely, I could clearly tell it was made up of fragments of shells, animal bones, lava, coral and such like. It made me realize that sand is the end result of countless cycles of life and death, the remains of life forms that have evolved over the eons from their origins in volcanic eruptions. Those grains become smaller and smaller as they’re jostled by the waves of the sea. Looking at young sand, you can clearly see the island’s ecosystem reflected in its composition. I was struck by that simplicity and tension.

Photographer It’s certainly vivid, isn’t it? Vivid is perhaps an overused word, but it's thought to be derived from vividus, the Latin for “spirited, animated, full of life,” and that's the impression you get from the sand here.

Thoughts on Galapagos and humanity

Designer There’s this word, {autopoiesis}, that refers to systems capable of spontaneously reproducing and maintaining themselves, rather than systems created by others with a specific purpose in mind. This way of thinking is very important in design as well, since it's becoming increasingly important to look at things from the perspective of probing how they became what they are. In a sense, Galapagos is a prime example of autopoiesis. The antithesis of autopoiesis is man-made, and when people get involved, things tend to get very distorted.

Actually, one thing I felt on coming to Galapagos is that it once came close to breaking down. For a long time, it was isolated from human impacts, and even now, those impacts are very slight, but that doesn't change the fact that people are here now. At one time, the Ecuadorian government was recruiting people to settle on the islands and start farming. However, once it came to realize the value of the nature here, the government made a decision to restrict colonization and set about restoring nature from the 1970s. The problem is that such an endeavor is in itself contradictory, since they're using artificial means to restore the ecosystem to its supposedly virgin state. In other words, Galapagos too is not perfect. However, in a dimension unrelated to the confusion created by humans, the nature of Galapagos has not lost its vitality, and remain strong to this day. That's the impression I get, anyway.

Biologist I think that the most important thing about Galapagos is the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, most people’s understanding of evolution is mistaken. For a start, it's a major mistake to ask “why?” where evolution is concerned. Why is this creature living here? Why did it assume this form? Darwin hated such questions. He much preferred to ask “how?” Darwin talked about “{descent with modification},” which effectively means genetic mutation and natural selection, the essence of which is autopoietic. If you leave it alone, it decides its own fate. Its direction is determined, however, by environmental pressures, competition between individuals, prey/predator balance and other such pressures.

In biology, an entity that determines the direction of evolution is sometimes referred to as a {designer}. There was a time when people thought that there was an “intelligent designer”—in other words, a god—that directed evolution, but this designer theory is now disavowed. In ecology, there’s also a concept known as “{climax community}” that refers to a biological community that has reached a final steady state. Climax community was a popular concept in the 20th century, but it’s no longer used. Ecosystems are in constant flux, and we can't tell where they're headed. They have no purpose, and making predictions is impossible. The intrusion of people is also just another change. No one knows what will happen to the ecosystem of Galapagos in the future.

Designer When you visit a place like Galapagos, you tend to think of human activities in negative terms, but we too are people, and I’d like be more hopeful. Human beings are stupid, and I can't help feeling we won't be around for too much longer, but I wonder whether we're really such a lost cause. We humans are characterized by our big brains, and we're also constantly impatient. And {we discovered something called “the self.”} In nature, however, there’s no such thing as self. All life is connected. Only people invented the self, and I can't help feeling that we're alone as a result.

Biologist I'm going to talk about the theory of evolution again. There’s an idea that would've brought tears of joy to Darwin's eyes. That idea is that we are merely vehicles for our genes. This is the {selfish gene} hypothesis, which posits that genes are our masters, and our bodies are merely vehicles for passing those genes on from one generation to the next. Putting genes at the center in such a way makes everything easy to understand. I mean, what is an individual? If the self that is a vehicle for genes acquires awareness, which is the real master?

Genes never die. In terms of human cells, only egg cells—ova—are passed on. All the rest are doomed to die. That’s fate. Even so, I think it's important for things to pile up, to keep on accumulating rather than be cleared away. Such accretions of the past can be treasure chests offering solutions to factors causing instability or fluctuations in the future. The same goes for people. Our genes, the human {genome}, are accretions of evolution. If you're puzzled by humans as animals, all you have to do is look at the genome to find an answer. But Designer was referring just now to humans as culture, not as animals, right? In that case, the question becomes one of where are the accretions of humans as culture.

Still evolving, and living bravely

Designer Photographer took a lot of photos of iguanas, didn't you? Before coming here, I felt that the {giant tortoises} were the big stars of these islands, but now I'm here, it's the iguanas that have left the biggest impression on my mind.

Photographer Same here. They've definitely got something. {Land iguanas} tend to be solitary, and I found one yesterday lying quietly in among some trees. It looked quite beatific to me. {Marine iguanas}, on the other hand, group together and lie around sometimes on top of each other. Normally, there's something off-putting about the sight of so many of the same creatures all clumped together, but I didn't get any such negative vibes from the sight of those marine iguanas. They looked like lumps of life to me, a whole mass of them. And they blended into the landscape so perfectly that the volcanoes in the distance and the rocks on which they lay, everything felt tense with life.

Designer I think giant tortoises probably have very good defenses. I suspect that various creatures washed up on Galapagos shores, but giant tortoises were pretty much able to make it in any environment. I got the impression that iguanas actively adapted to what they are now, the lack of food pushing them to survive by diving into the sea and eating seaweed. They really do look part of the scenery.

Photographer Yup. Their skins too resemble volcanoes in their color and detail, so you can barely tell them apart when they're lying on the rocks like that. Why is that?

Biologist I think it's pure coincidence. Those rocks are {basalt}, so they're blackish, and the iguanas are blackish because individuals with blacker skin could absorb heat better and raise their body temperatures. Their survival rate was better as a result, and they were the ones that bred. Marine iguanas are still evolving, so their present form is not final. You never know, white marine iguanas might appear some day. What I mean is that we can only say anything authoritative within the bounds of what we know, and there's no telling what might happen in the future. Marine iguanas have been brave enough to invade the sea even with that imperfect form. They reminded me of the way our ancestors set out to sea in the flimsiest of boats.

Designer I saw marine iguanas feeding on seaweed, and noticed there was plenty available in the shallows. When the tide goes out, it would be easy pickings, and yet those iguanas inexplicably go diving deep into the sea to eat. I have to admire them.

Biologist Yes, it's hard to explain, isn't it? You'll have to ask the iguanas.

Photographer But I find this landscape, this environment really thrilling. Not because it's new to me, but rather because it lives up to the expectations I had of being able to see the Earth in action.

Designer Almost as if you’re feeling the heartthrob of life, maybe? I'm speaking metaphorically here, but it's as if I'm inhabiting this huge space, a universe sending out waves toward me, and the life in me generates waves that travel back out to space. It's the water's edge that serves as a stage for design or creation or whatever. If you overdo things, you end up spoiling the beach, so you should aim to use the lapping of the waves naturally to shape whatever you’re trying to make. Galapagos feels like just such a water's edge, a place where waves from space touch life, and where life on Earth returns those waves to the universe. It struck me that here was a place that lays itself bare as a concrete environment at that interface.

a place pulsating with constantly changing energy

Designer Photographer took a lot of photos, didn't you? It was as if this place was not going to allow you to stop doing your job.

Photographer I don't usually get so consumed by my subject. I almost felt like saying, “Enough, I can't take anymore.” I haven’t once tired of this scenery. It's almost scarily intriguing. It's as if the images are all out there in plain sight just waiting to be taken. It's a strange feeling, being able to just take the shots without attempting any interpretation whatsoever. It's as if I'm in the grip of a powerful force. The colors and shapes of the clouds here are also strangely different. Even in daytime, they have this purple tinge.

Biologist I see Galapagos as a container. It was an empty container into which some kind of force dropped life forms and left them to evolve, and all sorts of creatures emerged. You can't help wondering whether, if you set out another container, the same kind of evolution would take place. But when you think about it, there are umpteen Galapagos in progress at the moment in one container. This place is changing all the time, and will never stop changing. Even at this moment, species that have existed here up to now may be going extinct, and new species may have arrived these shores. Galapagos is still producing new creatures, and it’ll never reach completion. It's giving rise to new species even now, and you can feel the tension.

Photographer Yes, something that's finished probably wouldn't radiate such energy. I think it's because Galapagos is still in a state of flux that we feel that energy.

Designer It's kind of place where the flywheel of life never stops rotating. And perhaps the most powerful aspect of this is that, rather than creating life itself, it appears to induce life to re-create itself. It's been hugely inspiring to come to a place like this and sense that kind of wheel of life spinning, sense that rhythm and vitality. I hope people who view your photographs will be able to feel it too.

Photographer The wondrous thing about photos is the way they reflect the thoughts or intent of the photographer. I firmly believe that the viewer can follow the same path as I have and feel what I've experienced. I just gaze, actually. I aim to do so wherever I go, not just here. It's as if the soul buried beneath my {neocortex} is making me take the photos I do, rather than me taking them by volition. Hopefully people will be able to sense that.

The happiness to be found at the interface between nature and man

Designer I'm hoping that with this trip, we'll be able to share our experience rather than just create an ad, a one-way message. I think it's a good thing for companies to take the lead in seeking out new experiences. It's an unusual approach, but finding value together through sharing experiences as a new form of dialog between companies and consumers, getting beyond just selling products to join customers in thinking about happiness is, I think, a valid way for companies to express themselves.

Biologist Thinking of companies as living species enables you to consider their evolution. When you do so, the only purpose or direction is happiness, whether it's an iguana, or human or company. Happiness is probably the most important theme of science in the 21st century. The aim of 21st century science is to make everyone happy. I think that companies too have every right to seek happiness.

Designer Recently, I find myself thinking a lot about what exactly happiness is. I think that happiness is being able to manifest a love for life. We touched on the subject of cleaning earlier, didn't we? Humans like to clean up. I used to think that we clean out of a sense of guilt at the way we always make a mess of our environment, but rather than being something we do for others, I get the feeling that we clean so as to be able to go on living ourselves. In other words, I think that we clean as a means of revitalizing and brightening our own lives.

Nature pulls everything into the swamp of {chaos}, which means that {entropy} or disorder increases. If you build a house, lay down mats, fit sliding doors and such like, dust is still going to find its way in. Whenever we move, we shed fibers from our clothes that also mount up as dust around the house. When enough dust accumulates, it becomes soil, and seeds that have blown in from somewhere sprout up from it. Leave a wood-framed house to its own devices for 30 years, and it returns to nature. It's always at risk of being pulled into the bottomless swamp of nature. There's something in people that drives them to fight this decay and purposely build something substantive. That's why I can't help feeling that there’s quite a close connection between human happiness and cleaning.

Photographer Say when you're weeding the garden, you sometimes come across a weed that strikes you as being beautiful, don't you? But if you allow it to live, in two or three years time it will have crossed a line and become a nuisance, so you disown and eliminate it. And that makes you feel good. You can stake out your territory, but if you relax your guard, before you know it, you've been invaded and eventually have nowhere that you can call your own.

Biologist Yes, plants can be frightening.

Designer Gardens are symbolic, aren't they? They're like a kind of border between nature and the man-made world. People make their gardens with a specific plan in mind, but nature doesn't play along, and is always trying to impose itself. However, when human endeavor gets too much of an upper hand, the result is usually tasteless, so you give in and leave it to nature, but when you do, plants show no mercy whatsoever. And the garden is that battleground. It’s amazing that traditional Japanese gardens last for so long. Pine trees grow as a matter of course, so are changing all the time, and if the intentions of the person who first made the garden are not understood by succeeding generations, or they don't have the will to go on maintaining it, you'll never see a garden last more than 100 years. That battle is the point of the garden. I think it's the signs of that 100-year struggle between nature and man that people are impressed by.

Biologist Designer used the word “chaos” just now, but I think the chaos you were referring would be phrased as “random” in science. "Chaos" lies between "random" and "harmony". I think that chaos is a battleground, a place of autopoiesis, creating form at your water’s edge through the endless lapping of waves.

Designer And that’s always beautiful. I see nature as something that wells up, so we have lava and iguanas welling up under the force of chaos. There are of course other forces at work suppressing them, and it's that balance that gives natures its tension. There’s tension in gardens too. When you think about it, human thought is also a part of nature, so maybe the garden is a good metaphor for our relationship with nature. I’m really happy when I feel that my involvement with nature has breathed new life into it. When you have forces driving the welling up of nature pitched against forces trying to suppress that welling up, the result is tension. And I feel Galapagos is probably a great example of that tension.