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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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Darwin’s Audacity, Lyell’s Choreography

Darwin’s Audacity, Lyell’s Choreography

(p.125) 7 Darwin’s Audacity, Lyell’s Choreography
Darwin's Evolving Identity

Alistair Sponsel

University of Chicago Press

This chapter reveals the dazzling strategy underlying the content and presentation of Darwin’s 1837 Geological Society paper on the formation of coral reefs. While the paper might appear in retrospect to have been a mere precursor to Darwin’s 1842 book on the same topic, its arguments were distinct from earlier and later renditions of Darwin’s coral reef theory. This paper was remarkably ambitious: in it Darwin not only explained the formation of barrier reefs and atolls and argued that such reefs in turn were the key to interpreting the geological history of vast regions of the earth’s crust, he also forecasted that his new theory of reef formation might reveal the internal composition of the globe and explain the origin of species. The paper was also a sustained tribute to Lyell’s geological system. Nevertheless, attendees were shocked when Lyell responded by immediately disavowing his own published theory of reef formation in favor of Darwin’s new one. Sponsel demonstrates that Lyell and Darwin had planned this strategic retreat beforehand, and he argues that both men stood to benefit from Darwin’s emergence as a theoretical author who used Lyell’s general approach to supersede him on the topic of coral reefs.

Keywords:   Geological Society of London, Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, William Whewell, mystery of mysteries, coral reefs, evolution, John Phillips, uniformitarianism, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK), front stage and back stage

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