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Darwin's First Theory - Exploring Darwin's quest to find a theory of the Earth

dfgjI have never passed up the opportunity to remind the world that Darwin was, primarily, a geologist, nor that he owed his biological insight to the unique world view of a geologist who sees objects – be they landforms or species - not as perfect objects, but as the end result of historical processes.  And lo, on the very day I write this review of Rob Wesson's admirable and hugely enjoyable examination of Darwin's geological researches, my colleague Oliver Morton at The Times writes (in a box-text about the great man): "Charles Darwin - A geologist by training...".1

Clearly, the message is getting through, and this hugely readable book will ensure it is heard more widely – especially perhaps across the Atlantic.  Wesson has made it his task to examine Darwin the geologist, from 'training', at the hands of Adam Sedgwick, to his many significant geological contributions, notably on the uplift of the Andes, the subsidence of Pacific coral islands, and his less successful brush with glacial theory, which eventually trumped his eustatic explanation for the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy. 

Wesson, a geophysicist with USGS who (we gather) was 'seduced' by mathematical modelling early on and spent much of his life since in front of a computer, traded all that for some camping equipment and a trenching tool to get back in the field, retracing Darwin's extensive footsteps in company with field geologists.  Thus we encounter him - from Cwm Idwal to Glen Roy, Patagonia to the Isla Santa Maria, where Darwin and Fitzroy noted the abrupt raising of the shoreline following the 1835 earthquake which destroyed Concepcion and Valparaiso during the Beagle voyage.  This event, life-changing for Darwin, was paralleled by the 2010 Chilean earthquake, which thus enables the author to compare, contrast and fit both events into a modern plate tectonic framework, excitingly interlacing his dual narratives as he goes.   It is a compelling tale, engagingly told. 

Away from tectonics and seismology, Wesson occasionally finds himself on shaky ground - notably in palaeontology, over-egging the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous, which progressive opinion now views as one factor among many - no mass extinction ever having a single cause - and prime importance in that case resting instead with the Deccan Trap eruptions. 

I could have done, too, without all the trade-names (I won't mention them again, but the repetition of various brands of outdoor gear and motor vehicle brought out the Lord Reith in me).  Nor did I see the reason behind granting any publicity oxygen to those pernicious young-Earthers who masquerade as scientists and seek to portray 'Darwin's first theory' as his 'first big mistake', for their own fraudulent purposes.

But these blemishes, if such they are, are minor.  Others may not even find them so.  Although it can and should be read for pleasure and profit by all, principally this is a book for Americans - 42% of whom, it seems, prefer believing their Bible over what geologists say about the age and origin of the Earth; a lamentable fact that reduces the human race's already slim chance of escaping its own imminent extinction even further, Wesson concludes.


  1. Morton, O: 'Class of 2017 dumber than Victorians'.  The Times 72278 July 18, p15

More reading on Darwin the Geologist, in Geoscientists passim.

DARWIN'S FIRST THEORY - EXPLORING DARWIN'S QUEST TO FIND A THEORY OF BTHE EARTH by ROB WESSON 2017 Pegasus Books ISBN 978-1-68177-316-2 457pp (hbk) List Price $29.95 W: