Posted by: paulgarner | October 15, 2009

Darwin the geologist

Entering the 'Darwin the Geologist' exhibition

Entering the exhibition

In February, when we held the Genesis Kinds Conference, we organized a day trip to Cambridge to see some of the historical sites associated with Charles Darwin as well as taking in the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the University Museum of Zoology. Unfortunately, the Sedgwick’s exhibition on Darwin the geologist wasn’t scheduled to open until July. Today, I finally managed to get along to see it and thought I’d post a few photographs here.

Few people are aware that Darwin originally regarded himself as a geologist before embarking on the Beagle voyage and making his name as a biologist with the theory of evolution by natural selection. His geological career didn’t get off to a promising start. In his Autobiography (p.52) Darwin recalls attending Robert Jameson’s geological lectures at the University of Edinburgh and finding them unutterably dull. He wrote, “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology or in any way to study the science.”

Sedgwick's map and field notebook from North Wales

Sedgwick's map and field notebook from North Wales

Nevertheless, later on at the University of Cambridge Darwin came under the influence of men like John Stevens Henslow, a mineralogist who had turned to botany, and Adam Sedgwick, the distinguished geologist. In fact it was Sedgwick who tutored Darwin in the practical skills he required to become a field geologist. During August 1831, Darwin spent several weeks with Sedgwick studying the geology of North Wales. He learned many field techniques from his mentor, including how to identify different rocks and minerals and how to accurately record his observations.

Rocks collected by Darwin in South America

Rocks collected by Darwin in South America

However, if Darwin’s observational skills and knowledge of field techniques were honed by his interactions with Sedgwick, it was from Charles Lyell that Darwin gained the conceptual framework that was to prove so influential in his geological thinking and future work. Between 1830 and 1833, Lyell had published a three volume book in which he proposed that only those forces that could be seen to be currently acting should be invoked to explain the record of the Earth’s past. This was a repudiation of the catastrophism favoured by men like Henslow and Sedgwick. Ironically it was Henslow who had recommended Lyell’s Principles of Geology to Darwin, while warning him that he was “on no account to accept the views therein advocated.” However, Darwin soon absorbed the Lyellian mode of thinking and it was to have a tremendous impact upon his intellectual development.

A reconstruction of Darwin's cabin on HMS Beagle

A reconstruction of Darwin's cabin on HMS Beagle

Darwin undoubtedly made some important geological contributions, publishing major works on the structure and distribution of coral reefs (1842), volcanic islands (1844) and the geology of South America (1846). In fact, as Greene (2009 p.666) has pointed out, almost all the books and papers published by Darwin in the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s were on geological topics.

‘Darwin the Geologist’ is well worth seeing if you’re in the vicinity of Cambridge, but if not I hope you enjoy the few photographs that I’ve been able to share here. Pedestrian access to the museum is off Downing Street and opening times are 10.00 to 13.00 and 14.00 to 17.00 (Monday to Friday) and 10.00 to 16.00 (Saturdays). Admission is free.


Greene M. T. 2009. Man, myth, geologist. Nature Geoscience 2:666-667.

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