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Rosetta Stones


Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.
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Happy 205th, Charles Darwin!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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‘Tis Darwin Day, the day Charles Darwin was born in 1809, fifty years before he would publish the book that launched evolution as science. Everybody goes on and on about finches this and barnacles that, but we geologists get to claim him as one of our own, too! Darwin was a geologist, first and last.

Water-color portrait of a young Charles Darwin, painted by George Richmond. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Water-color portrait of a young Charles Darwin, painted by George Richmond. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In fact, he’s the one who inspired the tag line for this very blog: “Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.” In a letter to the father of modern geology, Charles Lyell, gushing over the copy of Lyell’s Elements of Geology he had just read, he wrote,

It must do good;—the hereticks against common sense must yield— Phillips* will not surely go on saying that the metamorphic schists are disintegrated granite redeposited. By the way do you recollect my telling you, how much I disliked the manner Phillips referred to his other works, as much as to say, “you must, ought & shall buy everything I have written”. To my mind, you have somehow quite avoided this.— your references only seem to say “I cant tell you all in this work, else I would, so you must go to the Principle,” & many a one, I trust, you will send there, & make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. You see I am in a fit of enthusiasm; & good cause I have to be, when I find, you have made such infinitely more use of my journal than I could have anticipated. [emphasis added]

“My journal,” of course, was Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, and Lyell was largely responsible for the information in it he later drew on. It was Lyell’s Principles of Geology that turned Darwin into an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking, got him exploring the geology all over the places the Beagle stopped, and made him realize that the earth was old enough, and dynamic enough, for species to gradually evolve. Darwin became no mean geologist himself. He and Charles Lyell both owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Lyell, who made so much of her husband’s work possible. And we owe all of them for setting us on the road to modern geology and evolutionary biology.

So on Darwin Day, don’t forget that Darwin was almost as passionate about rocks as he was barnacles. And let’s do our best to turn more people into adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. Both Charleses would be proud.

Image is a posterized version of an elderly Charles Darwin, meant to spoof the Obama Change poster. Caption says, "Very Gradual Change We Can Believe In"

Image by Mike Rosulek.

And if you’d like to sport this nifty Darwin image, you can find all sorts of merchandise with it at Mike Rosulek’s Zazzle store. The story behind the image is here.

* John Phillips. I don’t know if he went on saying that about schists or not – perhaps someday, I’ll find out.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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