In a world plagued by environmental crises, the Galápagos archipelago is often viewed as a last foothold of pristine nature. On the Backs of Tortoises 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. On the Backs of Tortoises 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.
– Long listed for the 2020 E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, sponsored by PEN America Literary Awards
"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
"Hennessy 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
"Fresh, insightful [...] Hennessy's melding of human and natural history makes for thought-provoking reading."
– Nancy Bent, Booklist, starred review
"'Gripping [...] well-researched and thought-provoking.' She concludes that, 'whether you're well-versed in the intricacies of conservation or have only just begun to long for a look at the tortoises yourself. On the Backs of Tortoises is a natural history that asks important questions, and challenges us to think about how best to answer them.'"
– Genevieve Valentine, NPR