Darwin the Geologist
Charles Robert Darwin (1809 -1882) is principally famous for the theory of evolution by natural selection and for his authorship of the Origin of Species. However, for much of his early career Darwin thought of himself as a geologist.
Darwin the Geologist tells the story of the rocks that Darwin collected on the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836). It begins with Darwin's schoolboy passion for collecting and identifying stones and the exciting geological debates he was exposed to while studying medicine in Edinburgh.
When Darwin abandoned his medical studies, he came to study in Cambridge to prepare for the Anglican Clergy. Darwin was inspired to learn about natural philosophy by the Professor of Botany John Stevens Henslow (1796-1861), who arranged geological fieldwork training with Adam Sedgwick in North Wales and recommended him as a scientific companion to Captain Fitzroy on the Beagle voyage.
The exhibition shows how Darwin collected, recorded, analysed and interpreted his geological specimens on the voyage. It takes you on a journey through the geological ideas that Darwin developed from the first stop at the Cape Verde Islands through to his studies of the coral reefs at Tahiti, Cocos-Keeling and Mauritius towards the end of the voyage. Along the way you can discover how Darwin's fossil finds of large extinct creatures at Punta Alta (Argentina) made him famous back home, what his journey on horseback for weeks in the Andes told him about the formation of mountains and why his study of the rocks of the Galapagos Islands led to new ideas about what was going on inside volcanoes.
When Darwin returned home he became very active in the Geological Society of London and he used his geological collection to support his talks and articles about global-scale geological processes. These were followed by a trilogy of books on Coral Reefs (1842), Volcanic Islands (1844) and South America (1846) that made his early reputation as a scientist. Although his later work was mainly concerned with how animal and plant species evolved, geology featured prominently in Origin of Species and continued through his later life with his work on fossil barnacles and his final book on the action of the earthworm.
Desk reconstructions of Robert Brown (1838), Alfred Harker (1905) and Sally Gibson (2007) show how other researchers have used Darwin's collection to create scientific knowledge. There is also a virtual microscope interactive to display thin sections of the Beagle rocks that was developed with the Open University. The exhibition concludes with how contemporary geologists have been influenced by Darwin's geological work on evolution, volcanoes, coral reefs and the movement of the Earth's crust.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a globe projection interactive that tells you about some of the places that Darwin collected his rock samples from on the voyage. A reconstruction of Darwin's Beagle cabin shows the rocks he collected on one day at Wollaston Island (south of Chile) and the notebooks and scientific instruments that he used to record and analyse them. On display are Darwin's geological field notebook, pistol and hand lenses from Down House (English Heritage) and the types of microscope, goniometer and compass clinometer that Darwin would have taken on the voyage from the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.
There is also a two-layer jigsaw of the inside and outside of HMS Beagle and a touch screen and drawers that open to explore the collection further.
Want to try your hand as a geologist aboard HMS Beagle? Tools of the Trade is a Flash interactive that will help you to find out more about the tools that Darwin used to map the locations he visited and to analyse and identify the geological specimens he collected.
To go behind the scenes of the exhibition, visit the blog.
A website that will allow you to explore Darwin's geological collection online will be launched in the Autumn.
Darwin the Geologist was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund