An acclaimed geologist leads the reader on an adventure through the landscape that absorbed and inspired Charles Darwin.
Everybody knows—or thinks they know—Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the man who altered the way we view our place in the world. But what most people do not know is that Darwin was on board the HMS Beagle as a geologist—on a mission to examine the land, not flora and fauna.
Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America and beyond, geologist Rob Wesson treks across the Andes, cruises waters charted by the Beagle, hunts for fossils in Uruguay and Argentina, and explores sites of long vanished glaciers in Scotland and Wales. As he follows Darwin’s path—literally and intellectually—Wesson experiences the land as Darwin did, engages with his observations, and tackles the same questions Darwin had about our ever-changing Earth.
Upon his return from his five-year journey aboard the Beagle, after examining the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more, Darwin conceived his theory of subsidence and uplift‚—his first theory. These concepts and attitudes—the vastness of time; the enormous cumulative impact of almost imperceptibly slow change; change as a constant feature of the environment—underlie Darwin’s subsequent discoveries in evolution. And this peculiar way of thinking remains vitally important today as we enter the human-dominated Anthropocene age.
Expertly interweaving science and adventure, Darwin’s First Theory is a riveting and revelatory journey around the world with one of the greatest scientific minds in history.
Wesson, scientist emeritus at the U.S. Geological Survey, reexamines Darwin's life and his Beagle voyage to illuminate the great scientist's contributions to geology. Though known best for the theory of evolution, Darwin was initially given a berth on the Beagle as a geologist. In South America, Darwin's observations led him to the belief that a gradual process of uplift was the primary factor in the changes in the Earth. He also discovered examples of fossilized megafauna and, later in the voyage, developed a theory of the formation of coral atolls. Wesson journeys to some of Darwin's destinations, both to examine the theories in context and to evaluate the effects of recent earthquakes. He quotes Darwin often; giving readers a sense of Darwin's thought processes and occasionally beautiful writing. Darwin's theory of uplift was superseded by plate tectonics in the mid-20th century, but Wesson reminds readers that Darwin "simply did not have enough of the pieces to solve the puzzle." Later chapters address the development of the concept of plate tectonics as a logical follow-up to Darwin's work as well as current theories on megafauna extinction. Readers interested in Darwin, the earth sciences, and field-based research will find this well worth their time.