Charles Darwin: Geologist

On the heels of the Beagle voyage, the magnificent Zoology of the Beagle drew attention to Charles Darwin as a promising young scientist, while at the same time the travel narrative made him well-known to the public. But Darwin established his reputation as one of the scientific elite with three substantial books on geology.

Coral Reefs, 1842; F271
First came his study of coral reefs in 1842. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin visited many coral reefs. He compiled reliable observations of additional sites through personal correspondence and the published literature.

Charles Darwin, Coral Reefs (1842), map

Coral reefs typically surround a volcanic island in a protective ring, creating a lagoon of quiet water within the reef. Darwin explained coral reefs as the cumulative result of small and gradual changes. He would follow the same methodology in his thinking about the history of life on Earth. At the time, Darwin’s explanation of the gradual origin of coral reefs was hailed as a major advance in geology, and it is still accepted today.

Charles Darwin, Coral Reefs (1842), section

VolcanicBombVolcanic Islands, 1844; F272
Next came Darwin’s study of volcanic islands in 1844. He gave pride of place to his description of Ascension Island. He observed volcanic bombs, including one the size of a man’s head.

Charles Darwin, Volcanic Islands (1844), Ascension Island

And he described the Galapagos Archipelago, where his observations later proved fertile for his theory of evolution.


Geological Observations on South America, 1846; F273
In 1846 Darwin published his geology of South America, the result of extensive fieldwork he undertook during the Beagle’s explorations there. Because of the many excursions ashore, Darwin actually spent more time on land than aboard ship during the Beagle’s voyage. To explain the geological features of South America, Darwin again argued for the significance of small and gradual changes. Had Darwin never written another word, he would still be remembered as a leading 
19th-century geologist.


Darwin@the Library info | Exhibit brochure (pdf)

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