The Evolution of Fear

There are many fears that humans share — being in the dark in an unfamiliar place; poisonous snakes; eating things that could cause us harm. Our fears are natural — that’s how it feels — but they evolved in us over the millennia. They’re in our DNA and serve to protect us individually and collectively.

None of this is new news. But it has struck me profoundly while being in the Galapagos Islands.

Black iguanas

Black iguanas cluster in groups — as few as three or four, or upwards of a dozen. They look like they’ve frozen in place, eyes closed. If you stand near them, they may open one eye to look at you.


A black iguana takes a swim in the warm waters.
A lone flamingo in the distance; the Bald-headed Bandy-legged BartBird stands in the foreground.

The flamingo population of the Galapagos has dwindled considerably, due primarily to changes in climate. Each time we saw flamingos… there was only one. Lonesome Leon, as I called him. He (or she) had no fear of us.


I took this photo a couple of days later. This flamingo stands on one leg and sleeps with her head beneath her wings. She could hear us — we were only six feet away. Occasionally she’d show her face, but within seconds she’d go back to sleep.

I was three feet away from this Booby. When she saw me, she opened her mouth as if she was smiling, then she walked right up to me and craned her neck to see me more clearly. I smiled back — how could I not?

But this is what astounded me —

IMG_3733This is her baby (yes, a big baby) only a few feet away. I tried to reconcile what I know of animals — of mothers — and their protectiveness for their offspring with what was happening in front of me.

IMG_3732These baby birds are everywhere this time of year. This one has its rump in the air and its head hanging off the nest. I noticed many of them would get into this odd-looking position to nap.

There are several types of Boobies — the Blue-Footed Boobies, the Red-Footed Boobies, the Nazca Booby. They were given this name from the Spanish “Bobo” that means the fool or the clown. The explorers were surprised when they first encountered them — they had no fear of humans and would walk right up to a person and check them out.

IMG_3724This mother is sitting on eggs. She let me put my camera right next to the nest. She looked at me with such nonchalance. I imagined her saying, “I’ve got these eggs to hatch right now. Let’s chat later…”


IMG_3737You can see two eggs beneath this Nazca Booby. The mother will only raise one chick, despite laying — and sitting on — two eggs each season. When the eggs hatch, the stronger of the two will kill the weaker one.


This is a male Galapagos land tortoise eating the peel of a plantain. They’re magnificent to watch as they move around with their thick powerful legs scaled like dinosaurs.

Their necks are incredibly long. When two males confront one another, they stand face to face and lift their heads as high as they will go. The male who lifts his head the highest “wins” and the other tortoise goes away. If their heads are the same height, they fight. I wish I could have seen that… it would be hysterical to watch their slow-motion “attack” …

The tortoises in water. I saw two males confront one another — they made an odd kind of whinny, like a horse. One of them “won”so no fighting.

Here is a Galapagos fur seal mother and her baby as they left the water and waddled up the beach. You can hear the soft mew of the baby midway, then see it eat a few tree leaves. She and the baby weren’t concerned that we were steps away.

IMG_3758The Galapagos fur seals are everywhere and tame as dogs. This one was napping underneath a bench on the last island, as we were preparing to go to the airport to fly back to Quito. He woke up when I sat down, then went back to sleep.

The animals of the Galapagos evolved without human contact; therefore, they don’t know they’re supposed to be afraid of us. To see a mother bird and her baby — without fear — made me feel a strange mix of emotions: thankful, yes, to have this experience; but also uneasy as I thought of the species who evolved to fear us so they could survive.

What strikes any visitor to the Galapagos is what is absent — the sudden flight of birds, watching animals scurry away when you get close. Fear is a learned emotion. Being here brought me face-to-face with what exposure to humanity creates.

When these animals waddle up to you then crane their necks to get a closer look, they seem so vulnerable. They’re at our mercy. And a part of me wishes they would experience fear. Sadly, when it comes to people, there are many reasons to justify it.

11 thoughts on “The Evolution of Fear

      1. Oh, good. I was wondering if they might be able to stay safe so it would be okay to be unafraid. What a concept for our world as a whole, hmmm? 😉


  1. Hola Bart.
    Out of all your wonderful stories i’ve been reading, this one hit me most because of the contact and amazing experience you had getting so close to the local fauna.
    I am fascinated by the idea of ‘learning to fear us’ and how it affetcs our world and how we perceive it.
    Thanks friend.
    Happy trails

    Much love to you


  2. Bart …. I found you. This is a very old friend of yours from your college days in Waco. Your friend whose father died in the airplane crash and then I left college for Houston. Please email me if you’d like to chat. …. Judy (aka know as Sierra)


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