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Charles Darwin, Geologist

Charles Darwin, Geologist

by Sandra Herbert

"Pleasure of imagination. . . . I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface &c truly poetical."—from Charles Darwin's Notebook M, 1838

The early nineteenth century was a golden age for the study of geology. New discoveries in the field were greeted with the same enthusiasm reserved


"Pleasure of imagination. . . . I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface &c truly poetical."—from Charles Darwin's Notebook M, 1838

The early nineteenth century was a golden age for the study of geology. New discoveries in the field were greeted with the same enthusiasm reserved today for advances in the biomedical sciences. In her long-awaited account of Charles Darwin's intellectual development, Sandra Herbert focuses on his geological training, research, and thought, asking both how geology influenced Darwin and how Darwin influenced the science. Elegantly written, extensively illustrated, and informed by the author's prodigious research in Darwin's papers and in the nineteenth-century history of earth sciences, Charles Darwin, Geologist provides a fresh perspective on the life and accomplishments of this exemplary thinker.

As Herbert reveals, Darwin's great ambition as a young scientist—one he only partially realized—was to create a "simple" geology based on movements of the earth's crust. (Only one part of his scheme has survived in close to the form in which he imagined it: a theory explaining the structure and distribution of coral reefs.) Darwin collected geological specimens and took extensive notes on geology during all of his travels. His grand adventure as a geologist took place during the circumnavigation of the earth by H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836)—the same voyage that informed his magnum opus, On the Origin of Species.

Upon his return to England it was his geological findings that first excited scientific and public opinion. Geologists, including Darwin's former teachers, proved a receptive audience, the British government sponsored publication of his research, and the general public welcomed his discoveries about the earth's crust. Because of ill health, Darwin's years as a geological traveler ended much too soon: his last major geological fieldwork took place in Wales when he was only thirty-three. However, the experience had been transformative: the methods and hypotheses of Victorian-era geology, Herbert suggests, profoundly shaped Darwin's mind and his scientific methods as he worked toward a full-blown understanding of evolution and natural selection.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Herbert covers Darwin's voyages thoroughly and includes an overview of other geological scientists from the era."—Library Journal, June 1, 2005

"It is good to have Darwin's achievements as a geologist accorded their proper place in his history, and Sandra Herbert has been almost geological in her cracking of the strata of his early years. I doubt whether this exhumation of Darwin's formative years will ever be bettered."—Richard A. Fortey, Times Literary Supplement, 13 January 2006

"In this illuminating portrait, Herbert outlines Darwin's contributions to the field of geology, from his collection and documentation of various geological specimens to his participation in the Geological Society of London. She examines Darwin's written observations about land features around the world and explores how geology influenced his ideas on species and evolution. Herbert, a professor of history, provides an unusual perspective on the intellectual development of this great thinker."—Science News, December 24 and 31, 2005

"Herbert rightly emphasizes that the geology to which the young Darwin contributed was already a well-established science. . . . Interspersed with Herbert's valuable analyses of Darwin's geological fieldwork and theorizing are chapters on other topics. . . . Herbert describes in fascinating detail the practical aspects of Darwin's geology: his hammer and other instruments, his methods for collecting specimens and making notes, and so on. . . . Perhaps of greatest interest to other Darwin scholars and to biologists, she analyzes with care the ways in which his geology generated the problems to which his eventual theory of the origin of new species was designed to be the solution. . . . This is a highly important contribution, not just to Darwin studies but also to the sadly neglected field of the history of geology itself."—Martin Rudwick, Nature, 21 July 2005

"Few are more eminently qualified to write this work than the historian Sandra Herbert. . . . Her well-written book examines the primacy of Darwin's geologic training and research in the formulation of both the 'species question' and the concept of organic evolution by natural selection. . . . This book broadens prior understanding of how Darwin's geologic ruminations informed his thinking about the transmutation of species. Highly recommended."—Choice, January 2006

"Herbert makes a strong case for reading deeper into the ways Darwin understood changes in time and changes in space. Rocks rise and sink; species appear and go extinct. What happens on one part of the globe is connected to another. Gradually, over long periods, small changes can accumulate into great effects. Continents will emerge, as do new animals and plants. For Herbert, what geology gave to Darwin was a gradualist's sense of time and a global perspective. For historians, what Herbert has presented is a broader view of the science of Charles Darwin."—Paul Lucier, American Scientist, January-February 2006

"Sandra Herbert's eagerly awaited analysis of Darwin as a geologist magnificently fulfills every expectation. Written with verve and scholarship, this lucid and profoundly knowledgeable book explores Charles Darwin's engagement with the early science of geology during the first half of the nineteenth century, taking us from his boyhood love of collecting pebbles, through the astonishing fieldwork of the Beagle voyage, on into the years of careful thought about global geological processes and the making of the world we know today. Herbert encourages us to see Darwin as he saw himself—'a geologist' as he declared after disembarking from the Beagle. She sets Darwin's geological work inside a richly nuanced picture of the emerging discipline, with its ambitious theories, clubs and societies, field trips, specimens, books and articles, correspondents and colleagues, and convincingly argues that Darwin's developing ideas about geological systems provided the crucial driving force for his creative insights into the evolution of species. She ends with the Origin of Species, indicating how that great book drew extensively on Darwin's long-term passion for the subject. The most comprehensive account ever written, and based on prodigious research in the archives, Charles Darwin, Geologist, offers a definitive study at a productive time in the history of science when the interplay between ideas and practice excite great interest. This book is an authoritative, refreshing, and enormously valuable picture of Darwin's geological work that takes us right into the heart of his achievement."—Janet Browne, author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place

"Sandra Herbert's Charles Darwin, Geologist is the product of a quarter-century of study of the unrivalled collection of documents in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University. By adopting the biographical approach to Darwin's geological work, she has been able to combine his voluminous notes of his fieldwork and diaries with his extensive personal correspondence with the leading men of science of the time. The result is a fresh view of the beginnings and growth of the new science of geology in the first half of the nineteenth century as well as a fresh view of Darwin's personal growth as a participant researcher and theorist. For Darwin these were years of exciting discovery and theorizing. Sandra Herbert's comprehensive, meticulously researched, and admirably well-written account of Darwin's work of those years makes an absorbing story."—Frederick Burkhardt, General Editor, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin

"Charles Darwin, Geologist is a definitive book about Darwin's geological work by one of the world's leading students of his manuscripts and his scientific thinking; it constitutes a major addition to the Darwin literature. The interlocking of Darwin's geological work with his better-known achievements in natural history is revealed, as is his stature as an observant and theoretically innovative geologist. The culmination of many years' work, this fine book is a tribute to the author's dedicated scholarship and her skill in the exposition of a large and complex topic."—David Oldroyd, Honorary Visiting Professor, The University of New South Wales

"This is the most important study of Darwin in the last decade. It answers many old questions and opens up even more new questions. Well written and fully documented, this is scholarship at its best."—Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University

"At last we have this beautifully written study of the importance of geology in Darwin's life and work and of the importance of Darwin's own geological work. For far too long he has been claimed by biology alone. This book demonstrates the vital role that Darwin's geology played in originating The Origin. Sandra Herbert deserves our thanks as we approach the bicentenaries of both the Geological Society of London (which awarded him their highest honor, just before The Origin was published) and of Darwin's own bicentenary, in 2007 and 2009. As one who lives in the region that inspired Darwin's first such studies, however far afield they later took him, I feel a particular gratitude."—Hugh Torrens, past president INHIGEO, University of Keele

"All Darwin scholars recognize the importance of the young naturalist's first serious research in geology for his later theories of species change, but few have devoted more than a couple of hurried lines to explicate that work. Sandra Herbert, with extensive knowledge of archival and published sources, has now written the definitive study of Darwin's geology. That geology, she argues, formed both the framework and central impetus for the biological ideas that emerged, really as part of a continuous intellectual development. Herbert follows Darwin's explorations during the Beagle Voyage, specifying his nascent ideas with numerous geological maps and illustrations, and then sketches his relationships with members of the Geological Society, London's premier scientific association. She is quite attentive to the religious implications of geological work during the period and to Darwin's careful moves through the dangerous terrain. The final part of this compelling monograph shows the indispensable role Darwin's geological thinking played in the Origin of Species. Herbert's book is written clearly and with a sharp eye for the telling anecdote."—Robert J. Richards, Fishbein Center for History of Science, University of Chicago

Library Journal
Most people associate Charles Darwin solely with evolution. Yet Darwin worked in a variety of other scientific areas and considered himself first and foremost a geologist. In 1859, in fact, the Geological Society of London awarded him its highest honor, the Wollaston Medal, for his contributions to the field; eight months later, The Origin of Species was published, and Darwin's work in geology was relegated to the background. Herbert (history, Univ. of Maryland Baltimore Cty.; ed., The Red Notebook of Charles Darwin) documents Darwin's interest in geology from age nine or ten, when he first began collecting stones. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain sealed its claim as the most powerful nation, particularly on the sea. This newfound stature, along with his family's wealth, enabled Darwin to pursue a life of scientific inquiry and embark on expeditions that provided him with the ingredients necessary to formulate his theories. Herbert covers Darwin's voyages thoroughly and includes an overview of other geological scientists from the era. For broadening our understanding of Darwin, this book is highly recommended for all larger academic libraries and specialized science collections.-Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City, MO Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Cornell University Press
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Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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