Charles Darwin, Geologist

We know that Darwin was a biologist, and in many ways he was the first prominent modern biologist. But many people do not realize that he was also a geologist. Really, he was mainly a geologist on the day he stepped foot on The Beagle for his famous five year tour. This is especially true if we count his work on coral reefs as a geological study, even though coral reefs are a biological phenomenon. After all, the standing model for coral reef formation at the time came from the field of Geology.

Here is a list of several of Darwin's first publications with their publication dates:

  • 1839 Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle. Known to us as "The Voyage of the Beagle"
  • 1842 The structure and distribution of coral reefs.
  • 1844 Geological observations on the volcanic islands visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle
  • 1846 Geological observations on South America.
  • 1846 "Note on sandstone and query on coral reefs" contribution to a book
  • 1851. Geology (book section)
  • 1851 A monograph of the sub-class Cirripedia, with figures of all the species. The Lepadidæ; or, pedunculated cirripedes
  • 1851 A monograph on the fossil Lepadidae, or, pedunculated cirripedes of Great Britain.
  • 1854. The Balanidae, (or sessile cirripedes); the Verrucidae.
  • 1855 A monograph on the fossil Balanidae and Verrucidae of Great Britain
  • 1857 Geologia (book section)
  • 1859 On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life

There are other items on his publication list, including small contributions to various books, and some letters, not listed here. The nature of publications in the mid 19th century was different from what we see today, so it is hard to define what is a publication and what is not. For the present purposes I've excluded Gould's monographs on birds, which make very heavy use of Darwin's field descriptions. These were published between 1838 and 1841. I've also excluded two book chapters on methods.

Some of these works are clearly about geology, others clearly about biology. Assume that the first item on this list, "The Voyage" is about half geology and half biology. This assumption underestimates the amount of geology and divides a lot of stuff that is neither between the two categories, but a rough estimate is suitable. This list ends with the first edition of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species..." in 1859. The following graph shows the cumulative word count of writings (given the above caveats and adjustments) for geology vs. biology. I've added a rough estimate of Darwin's contributions to Gould's bird monographs.


Notice that geology dominates in Darwin's writings up until the origin. Thereafter, most of Darwin's published works are biological and not geological (not counting an reprinting or new editions of geological or biological publications) so over time the Biology line would overtake the geology line. But up to this point, Geology dominates.

The leftmost part of this graph, where biology seems to surpass geology, I'm sure, would reverse if I spent more time classifying the verbiage in The Voyage.

Darwin may well have become the world's greatest biologist, but he started out as a notable geologist. Had he not written The Orign or any later biological work, and never published anything significant on Evolution, Darwin would today be a somewhat obscure but important geologist known to those who study South American geology, volcanic islands, and coral reefs.


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My paleontology professor says that geologists get to claim Darwin one of their own citing this 1938 quote from Notebook M:

"I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface & truly poetical."

From the M Notebook (the part where he is probably ill and writing about metaphysics and stuff).

I dare say Darwin himself would admit that my graph, based on collected data, lends more weight to the argument than his own meanderings written while almost certainly stoned. But it is a great quote.

Has anyone put together a collection of quotations from stoned scientists?

By Simea mirans (not verified) on 15 Feb 2012 #permalink

Greg, you are certainly correct that Darwin was primarily a geologist during the first half of his career, a fact noted by many other historians of science. His most important geological work was his first monograph on the structure and distribution of coral reefs in which he correctly deduced the origin of the three different types of Pacific coral reefs--fringing, barrier, and atoll--by the elevation of volcanic islands and the subsidence of the sea floor. He was spectacularly proven correct over a century later by deep drilling of atolls and sea mounts (submerged volcanic islands). Even later, sea floor subsidence was shown to result from sea floor spreading. You also list his second and third geological monographs on Volcanic Island and South America.

Now for some quibbles:

Your list omits one of Darwin's most famous geological papers, that on the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, read at the Royal Society (London) in 1839 and published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1839. Darwin made a "gigantic blunder" (his description) by claiming the three Roads were of marine origin. The very next year, Louis Agassiz (ironically, a life-long creationist despite being the greatest fish paleontologist of his century!) correctly explained the Roads as caused by a series of glacial lakes undergoing freezing and thawing along their shorelines. Agassiz was also the originator of the Glacial theory. The Roads are lake terraces formed along the shorelines of ancient lakes impounded by ice dams. Darwin didn't concede his mistake until just before his death.

Also, two of Darwin's famous barnacle books were totally zoological, based on living species, and shouldn't be on the list. The other two deal with fossil barnacles but have little to do with geology (biostratigraphy) and everything to do with paleozoology (Darwin was the greatest barnacle paleontologist of his century!).

Steven, thanks for the comments. You are right that Glen Roy is an interesting case. I did not include any of the read papers, articles, collected recollections or notes. This would add a number of items but not much to the word count. I'll do a version with that and a few other changes at some time in the future. There may be about 20 that would have to be counted.

That is not a list of geology publications, it is a list of monographs and books including biological ones up to the Origin.

Yes, my mistake. You included the biology books, too. You are correct.

By Steven Schafersman (not verified) on 17 Feb 2012 #permalink