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The Daily Volcano Quote: Charles Darwin, geologist 13 February 2009

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Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh (Przemyslaw Graczyk, Creative Commons License).

During my second year at Edinburgh I attended Jameson’s lectures on Geology and Zoology, but they were incredibly dull. The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology, or in any way to study the science. Yet I feel sure that I was prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject; for an old Mr. Cotton in Shropshire, who knew a good deal about rocks, had pointed out to me two or three years previously a well-known large erratic boulder in the town of Shrewsbury, called the ‘bell-stone’; he told me that there was no rock of the same kind nearer than Cumberland or Scotland, and he solemnly assured me that the world would come to an end before any one would be able to explain how this stone came where it now lay. This produced a deep impression on me, and I meditated over this wonderful stone. So that I felt the keenest delight when I first read of the action of icebergs in transporting boulders, and I gloried in the progress of Geology. Equally striking is the fact that I … heard the Professor [Jameson], in a field lecture at Salisbury Crags, discoursing on a trapdyke, with amygdaloidal margins and the strata indurated on each side, with volcanic rocks all around us, say that it was a fissure filled with sediment from above, adding with a sneer that there were men who maintained that it had been injected from beneath in a molten condition. When I think of this lecture, I do not wonder that I determined never to attend to Geology.

In the above words, written in his Autobiography, Charles Darwin dismissed the extramural course in geology which he attended in 1826-7, the second year of his medical studies at Edinburgh University. Yet five years after those ‘incredibly dull’ lectures he was aboard HMS Beagle, charged with responsibility for mineralogical and geological investigations, reading Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) with enthusiasm, planning his own geological textbook and writing of his fascination with geological study. This apparent about-face is not as remarkable or inexplicable as it appears, however, for in the passage quoted above Darwin is clear that his geological interests were not switched off by his experiences at Edinburgh, but continued despite those experiences: ‘I feel sure I was prepared for a philosophical treatment of the subject … I gloried in the progress of Geology’. When, therefore, Darwin’s mentor and friend John Stevens Henslow suggested to him that he turn his attention once more to geology, and arranged for Darwin to accompany Adam Sedgwick on a ‘geologizing’ expedition to Wales, he was planting a seed in fertile ground.

Darwin disliked the geological education he received at Edinburgh not because of the subject but the presentation: it was not geology that was ‘incredibly dull’ but the instruction he received. In addition, not only were the lectures dull, but the lecturer’s point of view was one which Darwin found unamenable. ‘Jameson’ was Robert Jameson (1774-1854), professor of natural history at Edinburgh and a passionate adherent of the Neptunist theory of rock formation – the theory that all rocks were precipitated from seawater and that the igneous processes invoked by the Plutonist school of geology were of no importance. Darwin had only to use his eyes – as on that day at Salisbury Crags – to know that this was nonsense. The ‘geological perspective’ he developed in spite of that early disheartening geology field-trip continued to inform his insights, bearing fruit not only in his own early geological publications but also subsequently, as he turned his attention to the biological realm.

Quote from: Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (London: Collins, 1958), pp. 52-3. Available online at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online.

Image: Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh. Picture by Przemysław Graczyk, reproduced here under a Creative Commons License. [source]

For one week from 12 February 2009, the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, The Volcanism Blog will feature a volcano-related quote from Darwin each day.

The Daily Volcano Quote: from Monday to Friday, a new eruption of volcanic verbiage each day.

The Volcanism Blog