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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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The Making of a Eureka Moment

The Making of a Eureka Moment

(p.63) 4 The Making of a Eureka Moment
Darwin's Evolving Identity

Alistair Sponsel

University of Chicago Press

This chapter explains how Darwin came to have a moment of insight about coral reef formation while at Tahiti in November 1835. Sponsel argues that this eureka moment depended on Darwin’s ability to envision the underwater realm like a hydrographer, a skill gained working alongside the Beagle’s maritime surveyors. Darwin’s Tahitian insight was also stimulated by his earlier conjecture that the floor of the Pacific Ocean was sinking, an idea derived too from Darwin’s experience with hydrography. Meanwhile, his physical surroundings as he climbed inland at Tahiti and gazed at the reef-encircled island of Eimeo [Moorea] also helped spark his new explanation of reef structures. Darwin’s resulting theory (in which corals grew upward on subsiding foundations to form ring-shaped reefs) echoed Humboldt’s description of the vertical zonation of vegetation on mountainsides, a phenomenon Darwin independently noted while climbing in Tahiti. The eureka moment shifted Darwin’s attention toward puzzles he had not previously addressed (such as atolls’ annular shape) and made a set of previous experiences seem as though they had always been intrinsically relevant to explaining reef formation. He began to pursue his new research not only in the field but by studying printed maps and books aboard the ship.

Keywords:   Tahiti, Moorea, coral reef formation, Charles Darwin, Galapagos Islands, Alexander von Humboldt, eureka moment, subsidence, indigenous informants Polynesa, Polynesia, histories of scientific observation

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