Island life

Islands are places apart. They breed special species of their own. And they encourage people, too, to go their own ways, fostering secrets unknown to strangers; isolation provides natural sustenance for cultures as much as creatures. Islands generate local riches, born in their own worlds of scattered geological fragments: various, hidden and often marvellous. Islands are fecund and creative.

Islands are - by definition - insular. Isolation often gives rise to endemic oddities. It may even narrow the mind to the bounds of one small rock in a boundless ocean; suspicion of strangers grows with unbroken loneliness. Islands can be shelters from the hard currency of natural selection that drives evolution and culture on a continental scale. Even if there are no actual chimeras, strange organisms still dwell in island redoubts, sequestered places safe for hopeful monsters.

Then again islands are a dream for billions of people who live in crowded lands. Who has not fantasised while stuck, bored, in a queue of traffic, of some place away from it all, where self-sufficiency is practical under a warm sky? A paradise, we would say - but more, an Island Paradise. The rich demonstrate their material independence by purchasing whole islands, buying their way into that dream and usually fencing the dream off from others. Mustique and mystique are first cousins in more than name. But the simple act of purchase is itself a contradiction of 'paradise'; in some ways, such an island becomes no different from a gated community, keeping outside all that does not conform to the paradisiacal.

It could be claimed that islands carry these various signals uneasily. Tension between one meaning and another lies at odds with the notion of islands as unsullied places, where nature prevails. The history of islands is almost always one of ruination, and the human species is usually the guilty intruder. And who, one might ask, can truly 'own' an island? There are conflicting claims on ownership, each prompted by a different vision of what is most important about the place. An island exists as much in the heads of the interested parties as it does alone in the sea, in more or less glorious isolation.

Geologically, oceanic islands are young, created from erupted lavas and built up from the sea floor. They are the tops of huge mountains, and like all mountains they will be eroded away, and they will eventually disappear back beneath the waves. Fresh made, such islands are black, because the volcanic rock, basalt, is black. They are pimples on the face of the planet, created by the slow march of the plates. Each one is a tabula rasa to be written on by time and evolution. Islands lying off continents can be much more complex and ancient, but they are still mortal in a way that continents are not. Whatever their origin, islands make for 'oases' in the wide seas. Fish throng around them and coral reefs encircle them at tropical latitudes. There is a living to be made on islands, an invitation to settle and prosper.

The Galápagos could be the archetype of a remote island group. These particular islands are hugely important to biologists because of their isolation, which makes them a natural evolutionary laboratory. They are holy places dedicated to Saint Charles Darwin (if secular saints were permissible he would surely be top of the list). Since knowledge of organic evolution, conceived on these islands, transformed the way we humans understood our place in nature, it would not be exaggerating to describe the Galápagos as the most pressing priority for conservation in the biological world. Indeed, many scientists would be convinced that they 'own' the Galápagos. They want to protect it in its original state as far as possible, although quinine plants and brambles have already desecrated its insularity. These vulgar, vigorous interlopers have already stamped their personality on San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz. But what remains on the other islands is still the great testing ground for the natural selection that Darwin recognised. The Grants, husband and wife biologists from Princeton University, have been studying with unremitting fervour for decades the finches famous for their adaptations to special diets on the different islands, noting down change after change. Surely an investigation that will never come to an end, always yielding something new, justifies that feeling of ownership, the conviction that these islands belong to the whole scientific world.

Doubtless, the Government of Ecuador would disagree. Sovereignty overrules the demands of mere scientists, and the magic of the Galápagos name alone guarantees the attention of tourists in search of that pristine island ideal. To have gone to these islands is something of a status symbol, a badge of intrepidity. Some might even argue that it is unrealistic to try to wind back time, to hold off a world full of curiosity. The scientific lessons have been learned, they might say, and the Islands are passing into a new phase: time to leave Darwin behind. After all, the history of Hawaii has shown us that island species are particularly vulnerable to extinction - and they would eventually die out anyway when their habitat foundered or eroded away. All we are doing is speeding up the clock. Some of the people living on the Islands might well agree with this. Why should marine iguanas and boobies take precedence over evolution's allegedly supreme creation, Homo sapiens? Who are these bespectacled people with their computers and callipers who place small brown birds above human necessity? Surely ownership derives first from occupation, and these scraps of oceanic basalt must 'belong' to islanders first, not academics from universities around the world.

Conflict, riches, ownership, politics, wilderness, paradise (and paradise lost): these are the kind of issues wrapped up in the status of islands. Such ambiguous stuff makes strange country for a scientist: it's so unclean-cut, so resistant to simple experiment. But it is familiar territory for the artist. From artist-naturalists like Sydney Parkinson who accompanied Joseph Banks around the Pacific Ocean, recording fauna and flora for the delight of Georgian society, to French artist Paul Gauguin's always respectful and often mysterious portraits of Tahiti and its women, there seems to be some kind of affinity between artists and island dwellers. Maybe it is because the successful artist is always apart: a certain distance from the mainland of humanity drives their originality. More simply, it could be because the strangeness or unexpectedness of islands sparks the creative process. Whatever the cause, you may be certain that an artist will root out unanticipated creations from the soil of islands. Those isolated warts that poke up above the ocean floor in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans will attract experiments from artists as much as documentation by scientists. Does an artist imagine themselves as a kind of Prospero, conjuring up an isolated and magical world? It could be that the difficult questions of 'ownership' are best explored through art because it can refract the complex truth in more ways than political posturing or even scientific analysis. We all wish to make islands our own, but there is no arbitration on the truth of possession.

Here I ought to come clean on my own view of island life, although I also find myself tortured by ambiguity.

I am a scientist, and a rational approach is important to me. I have to accept that, rather like virginity, when the virtue of a remote island is penetrated there really is no return to the innocent state. The annals of extinction are filling out as one remote island after another is changed forever by the introduction of rats, dogs or cats. Every number of Birds, the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, features some delightful, small, feathered creature whose continued existence is in peril somewhere in the world. There is no question that human interference is accelerating the decay of what time has stitched together in remote places. Our arrival always seems to oust the special things from special places. Perhaps we should simply bow to the inevitable - at least some part of my scientific self might make such a supposition.

Yet when I was researching my book Survivors, about organisms that had come through from deep geological time, I learned about a small midwife toad called the ferreret living on the holiday island of Mallorca. It had been known as a fossil before it was found still alive, clinging on in limestone mountains living in remote pools. Was it doomed, I wondered, like so many island endemics? After I visited it in its redoubt and learned about its complex and intriguing biology from a student who had devoted years to its study, I became acutely aware of the individuality of this particular living fossil. I found myself caring acutely about its continued survival. Then I realised that every species has a narrative of its own, a biography. The loss of a species is not just one lower point on the graph of biodiversity - it is also the loss of a unique story. So the scientific counting of loss, the mere statistic, becomes immediately much more complicated. What right does our particular species have to impose obliteration on other creatures which have not even had time to tell their particular tales? We cannot 'own' the narrative of a species, nor can we condemn it to an early obliteration without diminishing the richness of the whole biosphere. There have to be moral issues to do with the rights for the continuing existence of biological species wrapped up in the stories of what we humans do to islands that are not the business of a scientist, but which might well concern an artist or a philosopher. When that is intertwined with the all-too-human narratives of the island dwellers themselves, we have a mixture that is as fraught with issues as any scenario coming from an inner city. That island paradise begins to seem more and more illusory.

Yet there remains something oddly wonderful about approaching an island from the sea for the first time. There lingers still the promise of some kind of Eden. I imagine that special feeling is hard-wired into us all, perhaps an atavistic longing for an unsullied hunting ground, or the intimation that, as that inveterate traveller Robert Louis Stephenson put it: 'to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.' It is part of our nature to explore, probe and lift up stones to see what lies beneath. It is one small step further to become a naturalist, geologist or, come to that, an artist. But it remains true that the mere fact of our arrival already seals the Fall from Paradise.

Richard Fortey is Honorary Research Associate at the Natural History Museum, where he was a senior palaeontologist for several decades. He is an authority on trilobites. His parallel career as a writer has produced seven books, including those shortlisted for the Aventis and Samuel Johnson Awards. For his work on science communication he has been awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize from Rockefeller University and the Michael Faraday Award of the Royal Society. He is a Fellow both of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature. His BBC television series Survivors: Nature's Indestructible Creatures was broadcast in 2012.