The title makes the book instantly attractive to any geologist! I wrote a review for this book on Amazon a while ago. I gave it 3 stars. After reading reading another Darwin biography I would probably change it to 4 stars, just for the sheer volume of information. The book essentially catalogues Darwin's work prior to The Origin, which from a publication standpoint was almost entirely in the field of geology. She stresses notebook entries and letters suggesting that Darwin considered himself a geologist. But the author implicitly raises a couple of questions that I think are very interesting, and worthy of discussion. First, if Darwin had never written "The Origin" how would he be remembered by modern scientists and historians? Would he be remembered along with prominent 19th century English geologists like Sedgwick, Murchison, and Lyell. And second, was "The Origin" itself really a geological work? Could it be that in writing The Origin Darwin was addressing geologic problems such as the "species problem", extinctions in the fossil record, faunal succession, and in doing so he produced a work so revolutionary that its impact was not confined to the field of geology, impacting biology and all of natural science? If Darwin was a geologist, then he certainly had two careers, before The Origin and after. After The Origin/Descent/Sexual Selection trilogy his publications were almost exclusively in the field of Botany.Brent
Yes I think Herbert may have pushed that idea a little too hard. She seems to selectively cite notebook entries and correspondence to support her case. Also she completely ignores his post Origin work, which was almost entirely non-geological. She also makes no mention of his early life which was marked by a fascination with bugs and flowers, not particularly rocks. This fascination stayed with him through the Beagle voyage and all his life. Most science historians have called Darwin a naturallist and that is probably the best lable to describe his career as a whole.
But in his early career he would almost certainly qualify as a geologist. Although he was reluctant, he did serve for a while in the post of Secretary of the Geological Society. And he was nominated because he was gaining a reputation as a geologist. His early mentors were geologists. In one notebook entry he actually said, "I, a geologist...". Although he didn't have a geological education, he was during the late 1830s and 40s publishing and making significant contributions to the field of geology. His peers certainly thought of him as a geologist. You couldn't really call him a professional geologist but that's just because he was so filthy rich he didn't have to work!
Ah, I hadn't thought of the Wedgewood science connection. And Yes you guys are right, science was very different back then. People were polymaths, the field of geology was in its infancy. That's one reason Darwin's lack of degree wasn't that big a deal. Cambridge didn't even offer a degree in geology at the time, even though Adam Sedgewick, one of the world's leading geologists was on the faculty. There was dispute over what the field should even cover. So Darwin's work was hard to pigeonhole, as was the work of many natural scientists at the time. But his "big picture" views on geology were very much on the cutting edge of the science. His views on the formation of coral atolls were tied in with his views on the elevation of continents. Many geologists of the time thought there was an unexplained force or mechanism that caused continents to elevate. Darwin's observations on the Beagle led him to think that there was a complimentary subsidence of the ocean basins. He published cutting edge work on coral atolls and oceanic islands that was widely praised by his peers. His theory for the formation of atolls wasn't too different from Lyell's. But in tying it in with subsidence and deep geologic time, Darwin's was much more powerful. Lyell simply thought the volcanic island would erode away and leave a circular atoll with a thin veneer of coral over volcanic rock. But Darwin had the entire island/reef subsiding, with reef building keeping up with subsidence. If Darwin was right, coral reefs should be very thick. Sure enough in the late 1940s on Bikini Atoll thousands of feet of reef were drilled before reaching volcanic rock. Plate tectonics and other theories have done away with the idea of elevation, but Darwin was right about oceanic subsidence, although he would be surprised at the reasons for it!