Posted by: Rob Viens | February 23, 2012

Charles Darwin – Geology Teacher

February 23rd – No entry today – I guess not much add or just too busy with organizing his collections. (On the 25th he writes, ” These three days have passed by quietly & without note”.)

Through “trial by fire” Darwin would soon become one of the authorities on global geology.  In a field that was in a bit of a renaissance in the 1800’s, there were only a handful of naturalists who had a hands-on, global perspective of geology. So it is not surprising that in 1849 Charles Darwin was asked by John Herschel (son of the famous astronomer William Herschel) to write the chapter in his exhaustive book on field science.  Specifically, this was a book commissioned by the Admiralty to provide guidance to naval officers on all maters of scientific observation – titled A manual of scientific enquiry; prepared for the use of Her Majesty’s Navy: and adapted for travelers in general.  This was the age of exploration, and scientific knowledge was worth more than gold (as it should be), so the navy wanted its ships to return to England loaded with “scientific riches”. You’ll see from the book’s index that it covered virtually everything a young officer needed to know about the natural sciences. So what expertise was Darwin asked to expound upon for this great book?  – Geology, of course! (To be fair he did also write a few pages in the Richard Owen’s zoology chapter later in the book entitled “On the Use of the Microscope on board Ship”. )

Index from A manual of scientific enquiry; prepared for the use of Her Majesty’s Navy: and adapted for travelers in general.

A manual of scientific enquiry; prepared for the use of Her Majesty's Navy: and adapted for travelers in general

Darwin writes about 40 pages – a virtual field geology textbook. It starts with:

 “A PERSON embarked on a naval expedition, who wishes to attend to Geology, is placed in a position in some respects highly advantageous, and in others as much to the contrary.”

Most of these are good reasons (and poetic, in a geeky way), such as:

“He is borne on the ocean, from which most sedimentary formations have been deposited.”

“Again, on sea-shores, he can watch the breakers slowly eating into the coast-cliffs, and he can examine their action under various circumstances: he here sees that going on in an infinitesimally small scale, which has planed down whole continents, levelled mountain-ranges, hollowed out great valleys, and exposed over wide areas rocks, which must have been formed or modified whilst heated under an enormous pressure. Again, as almost every active volcano is situated close to, or within a few leagues of the sea, he is admirably situated for investigating volcanic phenomena, which in their striking aspect and simplicity, are well adapted to encourage him in his studies.”

Most of the chapter discusses specific types of geology, such as caverns, coral reefs, coal beds, uplifted landscapes, glacial regions, etc. He also covers the books (Lyell’s, of course) and tools a geologist should carry with them on a voyage (see the earlier post – Tools of the Trade. Finally he provides a lot of general advice, much of it still very applicable today. Here are a few highlights of the general advice (there are many more):

“In order to make observations of value, some reading and much careful thought are necessary; but perhaps no science requires so little preparatory study as geology, and none so readily yields, especially in foreign countries, new and striking points of interest.”

” Every single specimen ought to be numbered with a printed number (those which can be read upside down having a stop after them) and a book kept exclusively for their entry.”

“Label your specimens” and “put them in context” have got to be the points he mentions the most.  He’s right – much like forensic evidence, samples are worthless without context.

This next paragraph seems to be one of the things that Darwin is singularly qualified to address – how to approach the geology of a new continent:

” To a person not familiar with geological inquiry, on first landing on a new coast, probably the simplest way of setting to work, is for him to imagine a great trench cut across the country in a straight line, and that he has to describe the position (that is, the angle of the dip and direction) and nature of the different strata or masses of rock on either side. As, however, he has not this trench or section, he must observe the dip and nature of the rocks on the surface, and take advantage of every river-bank or cliff where the land is broken, and of every quarry or well, always carrying the beds and masses in his mind’s eye to his imaginary section. In every case this section ought to be laid down on paper, in as nearly as possible the real proportional scale, copious notes should be made, and a large suite of specimens collected for his own future examination.”

He summarizes the chapter with the following excellent advice:

” In conclusion, it may be re-urged that the young geologist must bear in mind, that to collect specimens is the least part of his labour. If he collect fossils, he cannot go wrong; if he be so fortunate as to find the bones of any of the higher animals, he will, in all probability, make an important discovery. Let him, however, remember that he will add greatly to the value of his fossils by labelling every single specimen, by never mingling those from two formations, and by describing the succession of the strata whence they are disinterred. But let his aim be higher: by making sectional diagrams as accurately as possible of every district which he visits (nor let him suppose that accuracy is a quality to be acquired at will), by collecting for his own use, and carefully examining numerous rock-specimens, and by acquiring the habit of patiently seeking the cause of everything which meets his eye, and by comparing it with all that he has himself seen or read of, he will, even if without any previous knowledge, in a short time infallibly become a good geologist, and as certainly will he enjoy the high satisfaction of contributing to the perfection of the history of this wonderful world.”

Darwin grew up dreaming of the great adventurer Alexander Humboldt (see the earlier post – Darwin on Humboldt). By the 1850’s I imagine that young explorers-to-be read Voyage of the Beagle and idolized Darwin.  In 1832 he was on the verge of setting the standard for the next generation of explorer-naturalists, and he was setting the bar high. (RJV)

Go straight to the source and read Darwin section and the entire 500 page book – A manual of scientific enquiry; prepared for the use of Her Majesty’s Navy: and adapted for travelers in general.



  1. […] trained officers to make scientific observations (see excerpts from one such training manual in Charles Darwin – Geology Teacher).  The same was true of French expeditions after the 1760′s (France was the world leader in […]

  2. […] was common for the time for officers of the Royal Navy to collect scientific data while at sea (see Charles Darwin – Geology Teacher).  But it is clear that Darwin’s enthusiasm was infectious, because when the Beagle met up […]

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