DARWIN'S FIRST THEORY: Exploring Darwin's Quest to Find a Theory of Earth.
DARWIN'S FOSSILS: The Collection That Shaped the Theory of Evolution by Adrian Lister. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2018. 215 pages, including sources, references, index, 16 figures, and 9 maps. Paperback; $19.95. ISBN: 9781588346179.
Charles Darwin, while en route to authoring On the Origin of Species, was widely appreciated as an explorer and as an observant field geologist. His geological and paleontological observations and inferences influenced his approach to nature as well as his appreciation for the significance of history for interpreting what we see today. The two volumes reviewed here narrate and interpret the effort, physical and mental, that Charles Darwin exerted as a young and vigorous naturalist while on board H.M.S. Beagle (1831-1836). Darwin's First Theory also covers Darwin's tutelage in field geology under Adam Sedgwick in the weeks prior to setting sail, and his field excursions in Scotland and Wales following his return. Together, the two books complement one another, revealing Darwin's growing understanding of Earth function, the implicated depth of geologic time, and the relationships of past biotas to those of today. These three subjects arguably provided the young scientist with a foundation for his later work on the mechanisms channeling the history of life.
The young Darwin was a keen geologist. His first book (1839) was his Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, only later retitled by a publisher as the Voyage of the Beagle. On the title page, the author's name is subtended by his credential as a scientist: "Secretary, Geological Society." This may have been meant in part as a claim to professional status, but it also declared the author's identity as a geologist. Wow! Darwin dedicated the second edition (1845) of the Journal of Researches to the geologist Charles Lyell, explicitly referencing Lyell's Principles of Geology. Darwin's debt to Lyell while a young scientist has been noted by many historians, but the intellectual link has often been developed merely to underscore Darwin's developing uniformitarian approach to natural history. This thinning of Darwin's early fascination with geology has been remedied by the biographies of Darwin by Desmond and Moore (1991) and by Janet Browne (1995; 2003). Further rehabilitation of Darwin the geologist and paleontologist has been provided by Richard Darwin Keynes, in Fossils, Finches and Fuegians (2003), a thorough account of the voyage of the Beagle; and by Sandra Herbert, in Charles Darwin, Geologist (2005), which examines many facets of Darwin's development as a scientific observer and communicator. The books by Lister and Wesson, here under review, continue this revelation of Charles Darwin, field geologist.
Darwin's Fossils, as the title suggests, is focused on the kinds of fossils that Darwin collected while on the Beagle expedition. A preliminary chapter introduces us to Darwin's associates on the Beagle and the paleontologists and zoologists to whom Darwin forwarded his fossils while en route. Following this chapter are three long chapters treating fossil mammals, fossil plants, and fossil marine life. The penultimate chapter takes a look at Darwin's examination of coral reefs while on the return voyage across the Pacific. The last chapter is a brief exposition of Darwin's development as a scientist following his return, and the significant impact of his paleontological collecting on his development as an evolutionary biologist. The numerous illustrations include many photos of the very specimens collected by Darwin. There are also photos of Darwin's South American landscapes and collection sites, as well as modern South American organisms relevant for comparison to the fossils. The illustrations are in color and uniformly well executed, resulting in an attractive volume that grabs and sustains the reader's attention. In addition, the several maps are clear and make the narrative much more understandable.
Darwin's First Theory is a more complicated read. It is actually three interwoven narratives. The fundamental narrative is that of Darwin's field geological researches in South America and in the Pacific. In this respect, there is great overlap between this volume and Darwin's Fossils. But the book also looks at the effects of plate tectonics--earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanism--on contemporary life (and death) along the Pacific margin of South America, a significant chunk of what is often termed the "Ring of Fire." The third interwoven component is that of author Rob Wesson's geophysical researches into tectonism in southern South America, plus his personal retracing of Darwin's inland excursions. The common theme to these three narratives is that of motions in Earth's crust, and the decipherment of the cause(s) of said motions. Wesson explicates the gamut of geologic and paleontologic phenomena (including the great Conception earthquake of February 1835) that Darwin encountered, which convinced him that Earth's crust had experienced a long but punctuated history of localized vertical motions. Darwin pondered over what he was seeing and continued to ponder after his return to England, where he wrote up his geological discoveries. Among his realizations was the necessary role of protracted crustal subsidence in the evolution of coral atolls.
Wesson demonstrates how Darwin grappled with geologic data. The eastern and western South American coastlines as well as the Argentinian coastal plain bore features indicating that in some places, land surfaces had bobbed down while in other places, they had been elevated. Confusingly, some localities provided evidence of complex motions in both directions. Lacking an understanding of plate tectonics and of underlying mantle dynamics, Darwin and his contemporaries attempted to resolve the whys of vertical crustal translations. In the process, Darwin developed a preliminary sketch of the geologic history of the Andes. Darwin also was drawn into the debates surrounding massive glacial advances and retreats in the past. In these efforts, Darwin relied on Lyell's work as a compendium of background information and as a foil.
The new volumes by Lister and by Wesson underscore Darwin's strenuous and sometimes risky journeys along shorelines or cross-country and often at high altitude, driven by his realization of the opportunity with which he had been presented. Darwin collected all manner of marine invertebrates, terrestrial plants, mammals, fishes, reptiles, birds, and fossils, which were periodically sent back to England to be referred to specialists. The fossil mammals went to Richard Owen. One of the helpful aspects of both of these books is to highlight the respectful friendship between Darwin and Owen during Darwin's early career, countering the common perception of Darwin and Owen as perennial intellectual adversaries. Darwin learned much from Owen's store of anatomical knowledge. Lister's book makes clear the personal impact upon Darwin that his up-close encounter with fossils provided: it was apparent that the fossils in more recent sedimentary layers resembled their modern counterparts more than the fossils in earlier strata. And the recent fossils of South America, including monster ground sloths and giant armadillo-like glyptodonts, were obviously more closely related to the modern biota of South America than to those of other continents. There were biogeographic patterns as well as historic patterns to be found, hidden in the rocks.
Darwin was poised at an interesting point in history. The preceding generation had elucidated the fact that fossils occurred in an order within the strata; Darwin's contemporaries were deploying that discovery to chronicle the major contours of the history of life. Meanwhile, the origins of major Earth features such as continents, ocean basins, and mountain chains remained highly problematic. Darwin was propelled into the study of natural history during this exciting period. His growth as a natural scientist while on the Beagle expedition has often been flattened to a two-dimensional perspective, focused on the revelatory power of biogeography linked to his evolutionary tool-kit. The volumes at hand help restore the third dimension and illuminate Darwin the historical scientist, pondering processes and time.
Readers of PSCF who wish to better understand the logical train of reasoning that led to the On the Origin of Species, and to remediate the distortions of the history and role of biostratigraphy that have been and continue to be put forth by the proponents of flood geology, will profit from these volumes.
Reviewed by Ralph Stearley, Professor of Geology, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546.
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|Title Annotation:||HISTORY OF SCIENCE; Darwin's Fossils: The Collection That Shaped the Theory of Evolution|
|Publication:||Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2019|
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