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Author Topic:   Charles Darwin, Geologist - by Sandra Herbert
bdfoster
Member (Idle past 2982 days)
Posts: 60
From: Riverside, CA
Joined: 05-09-2007


Message 1 of 7 (400522)
05-14-2007 1:39 PM


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
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jar
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Posts: 30935
From: Texas!!
Joined: 04-20-2004


Message 2 of 7 (400533)
05-14-2007 4:42 PM
Reply to: Message 1 by bdfoster
05-14-2007 1:39 PM


I'm not so sure that he would have considered himself a Geologist. Consider for example his reasons for turning down the position of Secretary of the Geological Society in 1837, long before he published Origin.

All my geological notes are in a very rough state, none of my fossil shells worked up, and I have much to read. I have had hopes by giving up society & not wasting an hour, that I should be able to finish my geology in a year and a half, by which time the description of the higher animals by others would be completed & my whole time would then necessarily be required to complete myself the description of the invertebrate ones.

It appears that his interest in Geology, even decades before Origin, was based on the fact that the biological evidence was there, in the ground, waiting to be explained.

I always felt that the "A-ha" moment for Darwin was when he realized that he could see in the processes going on around him the explanation for the evidence he saw in the fossil record.

AbE:

Quote from a letter from CD to JS Henslow in October of 1837

Edited by jar, : source quote


Aslan is not a Tame Lion
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bdfoster
Member (Idle past 2982 days)
Posts: 60
From: Riverside, CA
Joined: 05-09-2007


Message 3 of 7 (400541)
05-14-2007 6:22 PM


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!


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Chiroptera
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From: Oklahoma
Joined: 09-28-2003


Message 4 of 7 (400542)
05-14-2007 6:35 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by bdfoster
05-14-2007 6:22 PM


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!

Don't forget that people of his time were polymaths, too, and that Natural History was an especially eclectic field by today's standards.

If I recall correctly, he was the first one to figure out why coral atolls have a central lagoon. He also wrote a comprehensive monograph on barnacles (I recall that he spent years dissecting many, many different specimens sent to him in an effort to catalog all the known species).


Actually, if their god makes better pancakes, I'm totally switching sides. -- Charley the Australopithecine
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jar
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Posts: 30935
From: Texas!!
Joined: 04-20-2004


Message 5 of 7 (400547)
05-14-2007 7:21 PM
Reply to: Message 3 by bdfoster
05-14-2007 6:22 PM


The Naturalist
She also makes no mention of his early life which was marked by a fascination with bugs and flowers, not particularly rocks.

I think one important point is that at the time, there was not as great a differentiation between subject areas as there seems to be today. Like many of his time, including both of his grandparents, he was a generalist; he wanted to know about everything and how ALL of the parts fit together.

I think we also forget just how much influence the methodology of his Grandfather Josiah Wedgwood would have been. I remember looking at the copius notes that they made on different firings to create a consistent blue color and simply being astounded at the precision and documentation they went through. His experimental methods and scientific approach must have greatly influenced CD's later efforts.

And the money certainly didn't hurt.


Aslan is not a Tame Lion
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bdfoster
Member (Idle past 2982 days)
Posts: 60
From: Riverside, CA
Joined: 05-09-2007


Message 6 of 7 (400612)
05-15-2007 4:59 PM


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!

Edited by bdfoster, : No reason given.


Brent
  
bgmark2
Member (Idle past 4262 days)
Posts: 18
Joined: 05-04-2007


Message 7 of 7 (401319)
05-19-2007 7:20 AM


Yes apparently at the time he was to release his origin of the species findings at the Linnian society he was afraid the religious world might persecute him, possibly try him as a heretic and sentence him to death...and rightfully so...the heretic.


What about coconuts?
    
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