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Darwin Getting His Due

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Charles DarwinAs I’ve previously stated (or tweeted), I felt a little bit bad that Charles Darwin shared his 200th birthday with Abraham Lincoln.

It’s safe to say that one of the most widely recognized and influential scientists in history was somewhat overshadowed by the celebration of one of America’s greatest presidents.

My colleague Donna Urschel recently covered a lecture on a book about Darwin, shedding new light on the “origin of ‘On the Origin of Species.'”

Her story in its entirety follows the jump.

Darwin’s Early Interest in Science Evolved From Geology

by Donna Urschel

Charles Darwin is best known for his theories on evolution through a process called natural selection, one of the foundations of modern biology. Yet few realize that as a young man Darwin was known as a geologist.

“Darwin’s earliest grand ambition involved geology,” explained Sandra Herbert, one of the world’s leading authorities on Darwin. “He wanted to create a ‘simple’ geology based on the movements of the Earth’s crust.”

Herbert discussed her book “Charles Darwin, Geologist” at the Library on Feb. 18. The Library’s Science, Technology and Business Division (STB) sponsored the talk in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth (Feb. 12, 1809).

A recently retired professor of the history of science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Herbert researched and wrote her book largely at the Library of Congress.

Herbert discussed the wonders of the Library before she launched into her lecture. “It is the most exceptional library in the world,” she said, and praised the richness of the collections and the Library’s openness and accessibility.

Herbert said Darwin was born into a highly educated family. “Like Mozart, he got a running start,” she said. Darwin’s father practiced medicine and permitted his sons the run of the house. The boys even set up a chemistry lab in the toolhouse of their garden. Throughout his college years, as in his childhood, Darwin demonstrated a keen interest in science. He initially studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He switched to theology at Christ’s College, Cambridge, but pursued his interests in science and developed a friendship with botany professor John S. Henslow at Cambridge.

It was Henslow who suggested that Darwin would be a good candidate for the position of naturalist on the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle. After receiving his degree in January of 1831, Darwin was not ready to settle down, and the idea of the voyage appealed to him. Henslow helped Darwin school himself in geology during the spring and summer of 1831. At the end of 1831, the Beagle post was offered to the budding young scientist. This is the same voyage that informed his landmark work on evolution, “On the Origin of Species” (1859).

In those days, a shipboard naturalist received no wages and only a free berth. Darwin’s father footed the bill for his son to travel the world, a voyage that took five years, from 1831 to 1836, at a cost of $50,000 in today’s money.

According to Herbert, Darwin collected 2,000 geological specimens while sailing on the Beagle. He carefully collected the items, taking extensive notes. He was so disciplined in observing and recording data that “all specimen[s] that came back with him were usable,” Herbert said.

During his voyage, Darwin believed it would be possible to create a “simple” geology based on an understanding of the vertical motions of the earth’s crust, elevation and subsidence. He believed that these movements determined the appearance of the Earth.

“Upon return, it was his geological findings that first excited scientific and public opinion,” Herbert said. In 1837, Darwin presented a paper to the Geological Society.

“He thought he cracked the egg,” said Hebert. “He was full of his theory of elevation and subsidence.” At the time he did not view glaciers as having a major geological significance.

Soon afterward, Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born geologist, came onto the scene. He presented his theory of a past ice age and the impact of the glacier movement on the earth’s surface. Darwin initially reacted with hostility to Agassiz’s hypothesis. But Agassiz’s ideas became most popular.

Darwin, according to Herbert, eventually became a convert to the glacial theory. “He really got burned by his ‘simple geology’ falling apart,” she said.

From that point forward, Darwin presented his scientific work deferentially and with caution, often claiming “there’s a lot we don’t know.”

“He was not presumptuous at all in his later writings,” said Herbert, who is also editor of the “Red Notebook of Charles Darwin” (1979) and “Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836–1844: Geology, Transmutation of Species, Metaphysical Enquiries” (1987).

Through the years, only one part of his geological theories has survived in a form similar to what he imagined: an explanation of the structure and distribution of coral reefs, according to Herbert.
After publication of “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, Darwin’s reputation as a biologist superseded his renown as a geologist.

Herbert’s lecture was taped by the Library and will be posted as a webcast on the Library’s Web site at a later date. On display at the lecture were Darwin-related books from the Library’s collections.

Connie Carter, head of the Library’s Science Reference Section, can be viewed discussing the books on C-SPAN Book TV (YouTube link). [Matt’s editorial note: Connie is one of the Library’s greatest treasures!]

Comments (9)

  1. Very Interesting, Thought this was very good reading. Wished I Had been there to have heard and seen the whole thing.

  2. Basically I do not agree with your statement:

    “It’s safe to say that one of the most widely recognized and influential scientists in history was somewhat overshadowed by the celebration of one of America’s greatest presidents.”

    Darwin is one of the most important scientists on history, every educated person you ask will know who is he.

    The problem with your assumption is that you are comparing two totally different people with different backgrounds.

    I am not sure who are the people who read this blog, but i think it is safe to assume, people who come to these pages is educated enough to know both Lincoln and Darwin.



  3. “It’s safe to say that one of the most widely recognized and influential scientists in history was somewhat overshadowed by the celebration of one of America’s greatest presidents.”

    Anyone who read a magazine, cruised the Internet, or watched television in the month of February can testify to the fact that Darwin’s birthday celebration far overshadowed any mention of Lincoln’s birthday. Google featured a Darwin-themed logo on February 12. Darwin documentaries became ubiquitous nearly to the point of insanity, with both old and new shows playing daily. Newspaper websites, blogs, and science sites overflowed with adulation for Darwin. Nary a mention of Lincoln could be found, aside from one new documentary on the History Channel.

    The frenzy over Darwin’s birthday highlights how the man has become a demigod. No one worships Pasteur or Newton, though both made significant contributions to science. No one worships Watson and Crick either, though their discovery concerning DNA has affected our lives far more than any of Darwin’s ideas. Darwin’s hypotheses, on the other hand, remain controversial and full of holes.

    Lisa A. Shiel
    author of The Evolution Conspiracy

  4. I know Lincoln better than Darwin

  5. I believe that Charles Darwin is one of the most significant scientists in history. However, the United States is so influenced by ultra-conservative religiosity that our culture is still afraid to embrace him. I, a progressive evangelical Christian, hope that some day as President Obama has advocated we will be willing to separate ideology from science. When this takes place, maybe we as a society can pay the rightful respect to science.

  6. Charles Darwin is a name that can be recognized by most academics. I would assume that anyone reading a blog for the Library of Congress would have a great understanding of who he is and what his progressive ideas did for his country. In regards to his sharing a birthday with Lincoln, I would not think that this hinders on the knowledge people have about him or the impact he had on our society.

    In my education, I would say that over the years I probably learned just as much about Darwin as I did Lincoln, so I do not believe that Lincoln’s impact on America in anyway puts a damper on the impact Darwin had. In addition, while they both made substantial accomplishments, they are in such vastly different fields that I do not believe either one took away from their other’s accomplishments. Lincoln was a great leader and Darwin was a great scientist and I believe that the knowledge they both provided in their time still carries on today, which is a better recognition than celebrating their birthdays.

  7. Some events have already taken place locally, while nationally celebrations have included high-profile television documentaries and features on the BBC.

    Now preparations are under way for a Festival of Ideas and a series of talks and other events, which will include appearances by mathematician and television personality Johnny Ball, scientist and historian Adam Hart Davies and Professor Heinz Wolf.

  8. I used to believe the Darwinian thories but once I became “educated”, as noted in post 2 above, I realized they don’t hold water. If anyone is willing to explain the evolution of the human eye or the evolvement of monkey to man then I’m back on board. But…until every monkey is a man I am not. He did a lot of great research and the fact that he shares a b-day with a great American should not take detract from either event.

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