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Darwin's Evolving IdentityAdventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation$
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Alistair Sponsel

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780226523118

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226523255.001.0001

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Studying Dry Land with a Maritime Perspective

Studying Dry Land with a Maritime Perspective

(p.47) 3 Studying Dry Land with a Maritime Perspective
Darwin's Evolving Identity

Alistair Sponsel

University of Chicago Press

This chapter argues that Darwin’s theoretical insights on the geology and paleontology of South America were made possible by his experience with maritime surveying on the continent’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Specific ideas deriving from Darwin’s comparative approach included his conclusion that South America had been uplifted or elevated through a series of gradual movements in the recent geological past. He also speculated that elevation of this sort must be offset by subsidence in another region, and conjectured that the floor of the Pacific Ocean had deepened to compensate for the emergence of South America. Whereas other scholars have argued that Darwin developed his “subsidence” theory of coral reef formation while still in South America, Sponsel argues that the apparent discussion of reef growth in Darwin’s “Santiago Book” notebook was actually a theory about analyzing sedimentary rock formation on land. There is no evidence that Darwin already thought subsidence could explain the formation of atolls at the time he left South America, notwithstanding his much later recollections to that effect. Indeed, at the time the Beagle sailed onward to the Pacific, Darwin remained convinced that his research on corals would primarily be oriented toward zoology rather than geological questions.

Keywords:   Charles Darwin, South America, gradualism, uniformitarianism, elevation, subsidence, Patagonia, paleontology, sedimentology, coral reefs, marine geology

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