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Darwin's search for a theory of the earth: symmetry, simplicity and speculation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009


Frank H. T. Rhodes
Affiliation:
Cornell University, 300 Day Hall, Ithaca, New York, 14853–2801, USA.
Frank H. T. Rhodes
Affiliation:
Cornell University, 300 Day Hall, Ithaca, New York, 14853–2801, USA.

Extract

1990 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's first major scientific theory. The paper, first presented by Darwin to the Geological Society of London on 7 March 1838, was entitled ‘On the Connexion of Certain Volcanic Phenomena and on the Formation of Mountain-Chains and the Effects of Continental Elevations.’ The paper was a remarkable attempt to develop a global tectonic synthesis. It was the culmination of a period of intensive geological activity by Darwin – then twenty-nine – who had returned from the Beagle voyage only eighteen months previously. The present article reviews the development of Darwin's views, their impact upon his contemporaries, their role in shaping his later views on the origin of species, and their significance in scientific theory-making. It draws, in part, on Darwin's unpublished geological notes and jottings. This paper, and the papers by Sandra Herbert and James Secord that accompany it, were delivered at a symposium which I organized at the Geological Society of London on 31 October 1988 to mark the 150th anniversary of the reading of Darwin's paper.


Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1991

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References

1 DAR 41, fol. 36, Manuscript collection, Cambridge University Library.

2 Darwin, C., ‘On the connexion of certain volcanic phenomena in South America, and on the formation of mountain chains and volcanos, as the effects of the same power by which continents are elevated’, Transactions of the Geological Society of London, (1840) 2d ser., pt 3, 5: pp. 601–31, 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar text figure.

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4 Burkhardt, F. and Smith, S., The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. ii [18371843], Cambridge, 1986, p. 439.Google Scholar Additionally, speaking of a large glacial erratic boulder near his family home in Shrewsbury, Darwin wrote in his autobiography, ‘…I meditated over this wonderful stone.’ See The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882, with the Original Omissions Restored (ed. Barlow, N.), London, 1958, p. 53.Google Scholar

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6 Secord, James A., pp. 133–57Google Scholar, this volume.

7 Ibid., p. 64.

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11 Porter, D., ‘The Beagle collector and his collections’, The Darwinian Heritage (ed. Kohn, D.), Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, p. 984.Google Scholar See also Herbert, Sandra, ‘The place of man in the development of Darwin's theory of transmutation, Part II’, J. Hist. Biol., 10, no. 22, pp. 155227CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a discussion of Darwin's ‘private’ view of his ‘authorized’ role as a geologist, in contrast to his ‘frittering’ on transmutation (p. 215).

12 Barlow, , op. cit. (4), p. 101.Google Scholar

13 Ibid., p. 77.

14 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (8), p. 460.Google Scholar

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22 See, for example, his letter to Whewell in Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (4), pp. 910, 50–2, 69.Google Scholar

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25 Barlow, , op. cit. (4), p. 98.Google Scholar

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27 See Herbert, S., The Red Notebook of Charles Darwin, Ithaca, NY, 1980, p. 50.Google Scholar

28 Ibid., p. 62.

29 Whewell, W., ‘Address to the Geological Society’, Proc. Geol. Soc. Land. (1838), 2, p. 632.Google Scholar

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32 Laudan, R., From Mineralogy to Geology, Chicago, 1987CrossRefGoogle Scholar, has given a critical review of von Buch's work and of related Wernerian ‘causal geology’. See also Dean, Dennis R., ‘Graham Island, Charles Lyell, and the craters of elevation controversy’, Isis, (1980), 71, pp. 571–88.Google Scholar

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34 Greene, M. T., Geology in the Nineteenth Century, Ithaca, NY, 1982, p. 89.Google Scholar

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36 Rogers, W. B. and Rogers, H. D., ‘On the physical structure of the Appalachian Chain, as exemplifying the laws which have regulated the elevations of great mountain chains, generally’, Contributions to the Geology of the United States, Trans. Assoc. Amer. Geologists and Naturalists, (1843), pp. 474531.Google Scholar

37 Lyell, C., Principles of Geology, 6th edn, 3 vols., London, 1840.Google Scholar See particularly vol. ii, pp. 449, 461. The prevailing view of Lyell, 's PrinciplesGoogle Scholar as the foundation of contemporary geology (see for example, Bailey, E. B., Sir Charles Lyell, London, 1962Google Scholar, and Wilson, L. A., Charles Lyell: The Years to 1841 – The Revolution in Geology, New Haven, Conn., 1972)Google Scholar has recently been challenged by Lawrence, P., ‘Charles Lyell versus the theory of central heat: a reappraisal of Lyell's place in the history of geology’, J. Hist. Biol. (1978), 11, pp. 101–28Google Scholar and Greene, , op. cit. (34).Google Scholar For a thoughtful analysis see Laudan, , op. cit. (32), pp. 201–21.Google Scholar It is noteworthy that Lyell made two other suggestions, both of which had novel implications. First, in rejecting the original central heat of the earth as an adequate source of heat to cause earthquakes and volcanoes, Lyell reasoned that ‘there must be a circulation of currents, tending to equalize the temperature of the resulting fluids, and the solid crust would be melted’ (Lyell, , op. cit. (37), ii, p. 449).Google Scholar In this he foreshadowed, to some extent, a view of subcrustal flow that was to gain acceptance more than a century later. Second, his demand for an earth in long-term dynamic equilibrium compelled him to seek a mechanism that would be self-sustaining, leading to a more or less steady level of vulcanism during the history of the earth. To provide this continuing source of energy he suggested that ‘hydrogen evolved during the process of saturation, may, on coming afterwards into contact with the heated metallic oxides, reduce them again to metals’. Thus, in suggesting a ‘circle of action’ by which the internal heat and ‘the stability of the volcanic energy’ were preserved (Lyell, , op. cit. (37), ii, p. 461)Google Scholar, he envisaged a continuous chemical reaction. In this he was willing to stretch contemporary credulity, in order to maintain his rejection of a uni-directional cooling mechanism. Only thus could his strict constructionist view of uniformitarianism be maintained. His view of uniformitarianism demanded the constant balance of uplift, erosion, submergence and deposition. Mountains, to Lyell, were a special case of this more general process. See, for example, Lyell, (op. cit. (37), ii, p. 479)Google Scholar, where he describes them as ‘the agents of a conservative principle above all others essential for the stability of the system’. Lyell had here become the captive of the ‘stability of the system’, the doctrine to which his own strict ‘kind and tempo’ uniformitarian methodology drove him.

38 Herschel, J., ‘Letter to Lyell’, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (ed. Babbage, C.), London, 1837, pp. 202–17.Google Scholar Also Babbage, C., ‘On the action of existing causes in producing elevations and subsidences in portions of the earth's surface’, Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment, Appendix G, London, 1837, pp. 187–8.Google Scholar

39 The other topic, in addition to the more specific question of the origin of mountain chains, that occupied the attention of Darwin's contemporaries was the legitimacy of any theoretical reasoning and mechanistic speculation in relation to what was then known of the structure of the earth. Sedgwick, for example, in his Presidential Address to the Geological Society (Sedgwick, A., ‘Address to the Geological Society, delivered on the evening of the anniversary, Feb. 18, 1831’, Proc. Geol. Soc. Lond. (1831), 1, pp. 281316)Google Scholar, cautioned, ‘Geology is a science of observation; and it is a humiliating fact…that the material combinations we investigate in an attempt to classify are too rude and ill-defined to be regarded as the appropriate results of any simple law of nature’. But, in spite of this admonition, Sedgwick proceeded in some ways to ignore his own advice; noting the connection of the laws of physics with the structure of the earth, he speculated expansively on an original molten state of the earth, with a high temperature and subsequent refrigeration, reflected amongst the fossils of ‘the ancient strata’. He also speculated on a contracting earth, ‘planetary perturbation’, changes in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit, and ‘returning cycles’ in earth history (ibid., pp. 298–301). After a lengthy review, he concluded, ‘Of the origin of volcanic forces we know nothing: but we do know that they are the irregular secondary results of great masses of matter obeying the primary laws of atomic action – and are aggravated or constrained by an endless number of causes, external and purely mechanical’ (ibid., p. 301). This mixture of admonition to theoretical restraint and indulgence to personal speculation was not uncommon in scientific writings of the period. Thus, Whewell, in his 1838 Presidential Address to the Geological Society, reviewed competing hypotheses in geological dynamics – including Darwin's – and distinguished between the ‘proximal’ effects (elevation, subsidence, vulcanism, etc.) and the ‘ulterior’ causes (Whewell, , ‘Address to the Geological Society’Google Scholar, Proc. Geol. Soc. Lond. (1838), 2, pp. 624–49)Google Scholar, which involved ‘subterraneous machinery’. He concluded that this ‘mighty maze’ was not without a plan that may allow the development of sound geological theory, but: Those who aspire to the felicity of knowing the causes of things, must not only trample underfoot the fears of a timid unphilosophical spirit, which the poet deems so necessary a preparation, but they must look with a steady eye on difficulty as well as violence. They must regard the terrors of the volcano and the earthquake, the secret paths by which hot and cold and moist and dry ran into their places, the wildest rush of the fluid mass, the latent powers which give solidity to the rock, – as operations of which they have to trace the laws and measure the quantities with mathematical exactness.

40 Darwin, C., op. cit. (3), p. 658.Google Scholar

41 Ibid., p. 660.

42 See also Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘Darwin and the world of geology’ (Commentary) in The Darwinian Heritage (ed. Kohn, D.), Princeton, NJ, 1985, pp. 511–18Google Scholar and Herbert, S., ‘Darwin as a geologist’, Scientific American, (1986), 254, no. 5, pp. 116–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

43 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 630.Google Scholar

44 DAR 34.1, Cambridge University Library.

45 DAR 42, fol. 8, Cambridge University Library.

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48 See also Cannon, W. F., ‘The uniformitarian-catastrophist debate’, Isis, (1960), 51, pp. 3855CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a discussion of Lyell's view.

49 Sedgwick, A., ‘Address to the Geological Society, delivered on the evening of the anniversary, Feb. 18, 1831’, Proc. Geol. Soc. Land. 1, pp. 308, 311.Google Scholar

50 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 625.Google Scholar

51 Ibid., p. 628.

52 Ibid., p. 625.

53 Ibid., p. 625.

54 Ibid., p. 623.

55 Ibid., p. 605.

56 Ibid., p. 606.

57 Ibid., p. 606.

58 Ibid., p. 607.

59 Ibid., p. 608.

60 Ibid., p. 619.

61 Ibid., p. 615.

62 Ibid., p. 619.

63 Michell, J., ‘Conjectures concerning the cause, and observations upon the phenomena of earthquakes, particularly of that great earthquake of the first of November 1755, which proved so fatal to the city of Lisbon, and whose effects were felt as far as Africa and more or less throughout almost all of Europe’, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (1760), 50, pt 2, p. 580.Google Scholar

64 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), pp. 622–3.Google Scholar

65 Ibid., p. 623 (emphasis added).

66 ibid., p. 624.

67 Hopkins, W., ‘Researches in physical geology’, Trans. Camb. Philos. Soc. (1835), 6, pt 1, pp. 184.Google ScholarHopkins, William (17931866)Google Scholar was the Cambridge tutor of Kelvin, Stokes and Maxwell. A pupil of Adam Sedgwick, it was he who introduced the term ‘physical geology’. For an authoritative account see Smith, C., ‘William Hopkins and the shaping of dynamical geology: 1830–1860’, BJHS (1989), 22, pp. 2752.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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69 Ibid., p. 628.

70 Ibid., p. 629.

71 Ibid., pp. 629–30.

72 Ibid., p. 630 (emphasis added).

73 Ibid., p. 631.

74 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (4), pp. 87–8.Google Scholar

75 Hopkins, , op. cit. (67).Google Scholar

76 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 601.Google Scholar

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79 Rudwick, Martin, ‘Darwin and Glen Roy: a “Great Failure” in scientific method?Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. (1974), 5, No. 2, pp. 97185CrossRefGoogle Scholar has published Sedgwick's comparable report on Darwin's Glen Roy paper, which was written later in 1838. Though, as Rudwick points out, the logical structure of the Glen Roy paper is stronger than its predecessors, reflecting perhaps the influence of Herschel and Whewell, Sedgwick, while recommending publication of the paper by the Royal Society, repeatedly describes the paper as ‘far too long’ and ‘diffuse’.

80 See Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (4), pp. 175–6.Google Scholar

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82 Woodward, H., The History of the Geological Society of London, London, 1907, p. 146.Google Scholar That policy has deprived us of what might have been valuable information. On some occasions, informal records were kept of the conversations, and I have approached Dr John Thackray, Archivist of the Geological Society, to enquire about such a possibility on 7 March 1838. He tells me that he knows of no such record. I have examined the Geological Society minutes of the meeting, and they provide no useful commentary. The role of the Geological Society in the overall development of the science during this period is also discussed by Sandra Herbert, James A. Secord and Martin J. S. Rudwick.

83 Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart (ed. Lyell, K. M.), vol. ii, London, 1881, pp. 40–1.Google Scholar

84 Ibid., p. 41. The strength of the criticism of Lyell's views may be judged by Sedgwick's comments in his Presidential Address of 1831, in which he described them as ‘merely a gratuitous hypothesis, unfounded on any of the great analogies of nature’. Sedgwick, A., ‘Address of the President’, Proc. Geol. Soc. Land. (1831), 1, pp. 281316.Google Scholar

85 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (4), p. 273.Google Scholar

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87 Rogers, and Rogers, , op. cit. (36).Google Scholar

88 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (86), p. 335.Google Scholar

89 Whewell, W., ‘Address to the Geological Society’, Proc. Geol. Soc. Land. (1839), 3, pp. 92ff.Google Scholar

90 One place where Darwin, 's 1838Google Scholar paper was thought worthy of notice was Germany. It was reprinted in 1841, translated into German, in the Annalen der Physik and Chetnie (von Poggendorf, J. G.), 52, pp. 484–96.Google Scholar

91 See Lyell, C., op. cit. (37), ii, pp. 425–79.Google Scholar

92 Ibid., p. 297.

93 Ibid., p. 300.

94 Lyell, C., Principles of Geology, 7th edn, vol. ii, London, 1847, p. 333.Google Scholar

95 Mallet, R., ‘On some secular and diurnal motions of the earth's crust…’, J. Geol. Soc. Dublin, (1846), 3, pt 3, p. 182.Google Scholar

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97 Hopkins, W., ‘Report on the geological theories of elevation and earthquakes’, Rept. Brit. Assoc. Adv. Sci. (1847), pp. 3192.Google Scholar

98 Rhodes, F. H. T., ‘Gradualism punctuated equilibrium and the origin of species’, Nature, (1983), 305, pp. 269–72.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMedRhodes, F. H. T., ‘Darwin's gradualism and empiricism’, Nature, (1984), 309, p. 116.CrossRefGoogle ScholarRhodes, F. H. T., ‘Darwinian gradualism and its limits: The development of Darwin's views on the rate and pattern of evolutionary change’, J. Hist. Biol. (1987), 20, pp. 139–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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101 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), pp. 607–8.Google Scholar

102 Ibid., p. 607.

103 Michell, , op. cit. (63), p. 8.Google Scholar

104 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 624.Google Scholar

105 Ibid., p. 626.

106 Hopkins, , op. cit. (67).Google Scholar

107 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 630.Google Scholar

108 Ibid.

109 Ibid., p. 631.

110 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (86), p. 348.Google Scholar

111 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2)Google Scholar, figs. 1 and 2. Darwin's annotated copy of Hopkins' 1835 paper is preserved in the Darwin collection at Cambridge (Phil. Tracts. 40)Google Scholar contained in a bound volume with several other ‘separates’.

112 Ibid., p. 626.

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119 DAR 34.1, fol. 64, Cambridge University Library.

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121 DAR 41, Recapitulation, fols. 28–9, Cambridge University Library.

122 DAR 42, fol. 52, Cambridge University Library.

123 DAR 41, Cleavage, fol. 3, Cambridge University Library.

124 See also Rosen, B., ‘Darwin, coral reef and global geology’, Bio Science, (1982), 32, pp. 519–25.Google Scholar

125 Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (86), p. 335.Google Scholar

126 Barlow, , op. cit. (4), p. 232.Google Scholar

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129 Barlow, , op. cit. (4), p. 120.Google Scholar

130 See Burkhardt, and Smith, , op. cit. (4), p. xiv.Google Scholar

131 Ibid., p. 238.

132 See Ibid., pp. xix–xx for details.

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134 Darwin, F. and Seward, A., More Letters of Charles Darwin, 2 vols., New York, 1903Google Scholar; reprinted, New York, London, 1972, pp. 16–17.

135 Herbert, S., ‘The logic of Darwin's discovery’, Ph.D. thesis, Brandeis University, 1968, p. 44.Google Scholar

136 See also Cannon, , op. cit. (48)Google Scholar and Rudwick, , op. cit. (46).Google Scholar See also Rudwick, , op. cit. (19).Google Scholar For a more general account of Lyell's influence on Darwin's theory-making. See also Hodge, M. J. S., ‘Darwin and the laws of the animate part of the terrestrial system (1835–1837): on the Lyellian origins of his zoonomical explanatory program’, Stud. Hist. Biol. (1983), 7, pp. 1106Google Scholar, and Rudwick, Martin, ‘Darwin and GlenRoy: a “Great Failure” in scientific method?’, Stud. Hist. Phil. Sci. (1974), 5, pp. 97185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

137 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), p. 631.Google Scholar

138 Huxley, T. H., ‘Biogenesis and abiogenesis’ (The Presidential Address to the Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Liverpool, 1870), Collected Essays, vol. viii Discourses: Biological and Geological, (1894), p. 244.Google Scholar

139 Kuhn, T., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 1962.Google Scholar

140 Darwin, C., op. cit. (2), pp. 629, 608.Google Scholar

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