By DONNA URSCHEL
Charles Darwin is best known for his theories on evolution through a process called natural selection, one of the foundations of modern biology. Yet few realize that as a young man, Darwin was known as a geologist.
“Darwin’s earliest grand ambition involved geology,” explained Sandra Herbert, one of the world’s leading authorities on Darwin. “He wanted to create a ‘simple’ geology based on the movements of the Earth’s crust.”
Herbert discussed her book “Charles Darwin, Geologist” at the Library on Feb. 18. The Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division sponsored the talk, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12, 1809).
The recently retired professor of the history of science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Herbert researched and wrote “Charles Darwin, Geologist” largely at the Library of Congress. Herbert discussed the wonders of the Library before she launched into her lecture. “It is the most exceptional library in the world,” she said, and praised the richness of the collections and the Library’s openness and accessibility.
Hebert said Darwin was born into a highly educated family. “Like Mozart, he got a running start,” she said. Darwin’s father practiced medicine and permitted his sons the run of the house. The boys even set up a chemistry lab in the toolhouse of their garden. Throughout his college years, as in his childhood, Darwin demonstrated a keen interest in science. He initially studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He switched to theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge, but pursued his interests in science and developed a friendship with botany professor John S. Henslow at Cambridge.
It was Henslow who suggested that Darwin would be a good candidate for the position of naturalist on the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. After receiving his degree in January 1831, Darwin was not ready to settle down, and the idea of the voyage appealed to him. Henslow helped Darwin school himself in geology during the spring and summer of 1831. At the end of 1831, the Beagle post was offered to the budding young scientist. This is the same voyage that informed his landmark work on evolution, “On the Origin of Species” (1859).
In those days, a shipboard naturalist received no wages and only a free berth. Darwin’s father footed the bill for his son to travel the world, a voyage that took five years, from 1831 to 1836, at a cost of $50,000 in today’s money.
According to Herbert, Darwin collected 2,000 geological specimens while sailing on the Beagle. He carefully collected the items, taking extensive notes. He was so disciplined in observing and recording data that “all specimen[s] that came back with him were usable,” Herbert said.
During his voyage, Darwin believed it would be possible to create a “simple” geology based on an understanding of the vertical motions of the earth’s crust, elevation and subsidence. He believed that these movements determined the appearance of the earth.
“Upon return, it was his geological findings that first excited scientific and public opinion,” Herbert said. In 1837, Darwin presented a paper to the Geological Society.
“He thought he cracked the egg,” said Hebert. “He was full of his theory of elevation and subsidence.” At the time he did not view glaciers as having a major geological significance.
Soon afterward, Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born geologist, came onto the scene. He presented his theory of a past ice age and the impact of the glacier movement on the earth’s surface. Darwin initially reacted with hostility to Agassiz’s hypothesis. But Agassiz’s ideas became most popular.
Darwin, according to Herbert, eventually became a convert to the glacial theory. “He really got burned by his ‘simple geology’ falling apart,” she said.
From that point forward, Darwin presented his scientific work deferentially and with caution, often claiming “there’s a lot we don’t know.” “He was not presumptuous at all in his later writings,” said Herbert, who is also editor of the “Red Notebook of Charles Darwin” (1979) and “Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries” (1987).
Through the years, only one part of his geological theories has survived in a form similar to what he imagined: an explanation of the structure and distribution of coral reefs, according to Herbert.
After publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, Darwin’s reputation as a biologist superseded his renown as a geologist.
Herbert’s lecture was taped by the Library and will be posted as a webcast on the Library’s website.
On display at the lecture were Darwin-related books from the Library’s collections. Connie Carter, head of the Science Reference Section, can be viewed discussing the books on C-SPAN Book TV.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.