A geologist dives headfirst into an exploration of Charles Darwin and his work, demonstrating how he shares Darwin’s “passion for understanding the earth and Homo Sapiens’ place upon it.”
Everyone knows that Darwin’s observations during the voyage of the Beagle revolutionized our view of nature, but few know that the study of geology occupied much of those years. In this eye-opening account of a less well-known side of Darwin, Wesson, who worked at the U.S. Geological Survey for four decades and is now the scientist emeritus there, follows the oddball tradition that biographers retrace the footsteps of their subjects, no matter how tedious. The author chronicles his slogs through Brazilian forests, Argentine pampas, and Chilean and Scottish mountains, travels that, if nothing else, reveal the young Darwin’s inexhaustible energy. “Whatever rock, fossil, landscape, rodent, bird, or beetle that he found, he wanted to tell its story,” writes Wesson. Marine fossils had been turning up on mountaintops for a century. This didn’t bother traditional geologists, but younger scientists, led by Charles Lyell (1797-1875), claimed that gradual, observable processes could explain these phenomena. Early in the voyage, Darwin’s keen eye detected beaches hundreds of feet above shorelines. Examining coral reefs and atolls, he concluded that they could only form with uplift and subsidence of the islands they surrounded. Most dramatically, earthquakes shaped the landscape. Following a catastrophic Chilean quake, he measured, documented, and gathered eyewitness testimony as evidence that the land had risen. After the Beagle docked, Darwin’s lectures and publications thrilled advocates of this new view of geological processes. By 1840, when he turned his attention to natural history, he was a major British scientific figure. Wesson’s travels are mildly interesting, but he hits the jackpot when he concentrates on his subject and reveals that 20 years before Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, his genius was already in evidence.
A welcome addition to Darwin studies.