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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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A Finished Task: Darwin’s Treatise on Coral Reefs

A Finished Task: Darwin’s Treatise on Coral Reefs

(p.185) 10 A Finished Task: Darwin’s Treatise on Coral Reefs
Darwin's Evolving Identity

Alistair Sponsel

University of Chicago Press

This chapter analyzes the content and strategy of Darwin’s 1842 book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. It was not the grand synthetic geological treatise he had originally envisioned writing, but it contained an elegant theory of reef formation supported by analysis of the structure and possible origin of every documented coral reef in the world. The first four chapters were ostensibly descriptive, but Darwin classified reefs into types that corresponded to developmental stages characterizing his theory, which emerged in chapter 5. The book concluded with extended discussion of the global distribution of different types of reefs, as illustrated and systematized on a fold-out thematic map (the only one of its sort Darwin ever published). Published reviews of the book emphasized (whether favorably or not) the ambitious scope of Darwin’s generalizing about reefs; he responded to some criticisms by heavily revising the chapter on coral reefs in a second (1845) edition of his Journal of Researches. Years hence he offered inconsistent and sometimes contradictory recollections about what he had accomplished with the book, reminding critics of his caution but privately reveling in the accuracy of his speculations when supporting evidence emerged from work by J.B. Jukes and J.D. Dana.

Keywords:   Charles Darwin, visual thinking, rhetoric of science, Journal of Researches, James Dwight Dana, Joseph Beete Jukes, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, theory ladenness, history of the book, geology, maps

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