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Darwin Correspondence Project

Geology

Darwin's work on species shows many marks of his geological training. While he was attached to the Beagle from 1831 to 1836, Darwin actually spent about two-thirds of his time ashore, where geology was his single most frequent pursuit. After his return, he published three books on geology and developed a major theory of crustal uplift and subsidence which became the basis of an innovative explanation for the origin of coral reefs.  Geology provided the long time span needed for a slowly acting process like natural selection to work, and tools for the reconstruction of processes operating in the distant past.  In the last book published during his life, Darwin returned to geological studies by studying the action of worms, demonstrating the profound impact that these seemingly insignificant creatures had in the economy of nature.


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Adam Sedgwick
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw40351/Adam-Sedgwick?
Adam Sedgwick by Samuel Cousins, after Thomas Phillips mezzotint, published 1833, NPG D5929Adam Sedgwick by Samuel Cousins, after Thomas Phillips mezzotint, published 1833, NPG D5929
mw40351
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin’s introduction to geology

Darwin collected minerals as a child and was introduced to the science of geology at the University of Edinburgh, but he only became actively interested in the subject as he was completing his degree at Cambridge.

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One of Darwin's annotated geological drawings
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DAR-00050/95
One of Darwin's annotated geological drawings
CUL DAR 50: C9
Cambridge University Library

Darwin & Geology

The lessons Darwin learned from Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, and in the field in North Wales, stood him in good stead during the Beagle voyage. While he was attached to the Beagle from 1831 to 1835, Darwin actually spent about two-thirds of his time ashore, where geology was his single most frequent pursuit. From the Beagle‘s first landfall at the Cape Verde islands, to the heights of the Andes, and the coral reefs of the Pacific, Darwin’s notes on geology accumulated twice as fast as those on zoology and botany combined.

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Volcano of Osorno, from Chiloé
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-ADD-07984/35
The volcano of Mt Osorno, Chile, from a contemporary sketch by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens
CUL Add. 7984
Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s earthquakes

Darwin experienced his first earthquake in 1834, but it was a few months later that he was really confronted with their power. Travelling north along the coast of Chile, Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, were confronted with a series of violent natural events that they were perfectly placed to study.

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Charles Lyell
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-DAR-00157-A/187
Charles Lyell
CUL DAR 157a: 107
Cambridge University Library

Darwin & the Geological Society

The science of geology in the early nineteenth century was a relatively new enterprise forged from the merging of several distinct traditions of inquiry, from mineralogy and the very practical business of mining, to theories of the earth’s origin and the study of its inhabitants through the fossil record.  When Darwin arrived in London in 1836 after the Beagle voyage, he found a thriving collective enterprise centred on the regular evening meetings of the Geological Society at Somerset House.  Darwin’s reputation preceded him at the society as his former geology teacher,

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Darwin’s hand-coloured geological map of islands off the South American coast
Darwin’s hand-coloured geological map of islands off the South American coast
CUL DAR 44: 13
Cambridge University Library

The geology of the Beagle voyage

The primary concern that linked much of Darwin’s geological work in the Beagle years was to understand the changing relation between the levels of land and sea.  In this he followed the example of the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, whose three-volume Principles of Geology Darwin read during the voyage.  Lyell argued that the history of movements in the earth’s crust should be (and could be) explained as the result of earthquakes, volcanoes, erosion, and other processes operating at the same intensity in the past as they did in the present.&

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Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy
https://archive.org/stream/philtrans01825665/01825665#page/n45/mode/2up
Observations on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy
Archive.org/Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Darwin & Glen Roy

Although Darwin was best known for his geological work in South America and other remote Beagle destinations, he made one noteworthy attempt to explain a puzzling feature of British geology.  In 1838, two years after returning from the voyage, he travelled to the Scottish Highlands to study the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy.

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Darwin’s hand-coloured cross-sectional view of the reef at Cocos (Keeling) atoll
Darwin’s hand-coloured cross-sectional view of the reef at Cocos (Keeling) atoll
CUL DAR 44: 24
Cambridge University Library

Darwin & coral reefs

No statement of the theory that could be described as ‘thought out’ has been found in the extensive notes on geological observations that survive from the time Darwin spent on the west coast of South America. There are, however, several references in the field notebooks and letters of the South American period, which, though fragmentary and indirect, give evidence that Darwin had the main points of the theory clearly in mind before he left that continent, and that he looked forward to verifying it when he could observe the Pacific islands.

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker
CUL DAR 257: 114
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1847-1850: Microscopes and barnacles

Darwin's study of barnacles, begun in 1844, took him eight years to complete. The correspondence reveals how his interest in a species found during the Beagle voyage developed into an investigation of the comparative anatomy of other cirripedes and finally a comprehensive taxonomical study of the entire group. Despite struggling with a recurrent illness, he continued to write on geologicy, and published notes on the use of microscopes.  Three more children, Elizabeth, Francis, and Leonard, were born during this period, but the death of Darwin's father in 1848 left the family well-provided for.  

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Joseph Dalton Hooker
Joseph Dalton Hooker, from the portrait by George Richmond, 1855
CUL 456.c.91.891
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1844–1846: Building a scientific network

The scientific results of the Beagle voyage still dominated Darwin's working life, but he broadened his continuing investigations into the nature and origin of species. Far from being a recluse, Darwin was at the heart of British scientific society, travelling often to London and elsewhere to attend meetings and confer with colleagues, including the man who was to become his closest friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker. Down House was altered and extended to accommodate Darwin’s growing family; and, with his father’s advice, Darwin began a series of judicious financial investments to ensure a comfortable future for all those under his care.

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Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin with Leonard Darwin as a child
CUL DAR 225: 93
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1837–1843: The London years to 'natural selection'

The seven-year period following Darwin's return to England from the Beagle voyage was one of extraordinary activity and productivity in which he became recognised as a naturalist of outstanding ability, as an author and editor, and as a professional man with official responsibilities in several scientific organisations. They are also the years in which he married, started a family, and moved to Down House, Kent, his home for the rest of his life. By 1842 he was ready to write an outline of his species theory, the so-called 'pencil sketch', based on a principle that he called ‘natural selection’. 

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