Field of Science

"What a confusion for Geologists" - Geologizing with Darwin

The first stop of the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836) was “Quail Island” (today Island of Santa Maria) – a small island located in the bay of Praia of the larger island of St.Jago (today Santiago, Cape Verde Islands). This visit is especially interesting as it provides some glimpses in Darwin’s geological background at the beginning of his adventure and his later “evolution” as geologist.
Darwin collected basic experience as geologist during a field trip across Wales and surely know the geological theories of the time, especially regarding the formation and age of the earth. The notion of a 6.000 year old earth was already dismissed by scholars and even the interpretation of gravel and sand deposits as the remains of the biblical flood (the “Diluvium“) was questioned. However the notion of earth’s history of a succession of catastrophic events was still fiercely discussed.

Many geologists at the time proposed that geologic processes in the past differed significantly from recent processes; even certain types of rocks (and the formation of these rocks) were limited to certain time periods, when today unknown geological processes were shaping the earth. The lawyer Charles Lyell challenged this interpretation of earth’s history, arguing that common and slow processes still observable today also acted long time ago.
Captain FitzRoy offered Charles Lyell’s recently published and controversial “Principles of Geology” as welcoming gift, but Darwin probably didn’t find time to read the book in the first weeks of the expedition. His former mentor, botanist John S. Henslow, even “advised me to get and study the first volume of Principles, which had then just been published, but on no account to accept the views therein advocated.

It’s therefore even more surprising to read in Darwin’s autobiography (1876-1881) the following phrase:

The very first place which I examined, namely St. Jago, in the Cape de Verde islands, showed me clearly the wonderful superiority of Lyell’s manner of treating geology.”

Darwin also emphasises how the visit of St.Jago converted him to Lyell’s geology:

The geology of St. Jago is very striking, yet simple: a stream of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of triturated recent shells and corals, which it has baked into a hard white rock. Since then the whole island has been upheaved. But the line of white rock revealed to me a new and important fact, namely that there had been afterwards subsidence around the craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth lava. It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a book on the geology of the various countries visited, and this made me thrill with delight. That was a memorable hour to me, and how distinctly I can call to mind the low cliff of lava beneath which I rested, with the sun glaring hot, a few strange desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal pools at my feet.

Fig.1. Profile of the island of St. Jago as seen by Darwin in 1832. Darwin was the first to study the geology of the Cape Verde Islands (from DARWIN 1876). Darwin recognized three distinct layers of rocks, a lower series with volcanic rocks composed of volcanic breccias and magma dikes (deposited under water - identified with "A"), a limestone with fossils ("B") and finally a cover of basaltic lava ("C"). Darwin, trained by Sedgwick, noted also the contact metamorphism between the former hot molten lava and the earlier cool limestone.
It is curious to note that Darwin adopted the geological terms used by German (not British) geologists to describe the rocks observed in the field, here the strong influence of Alexander von Humboldt works, read by the young Charles, is recognizable

Darwin uses in later publications the similarity of the fossils found in the carbonate sediments (Darwin’s line of white rock) and the still living animals on the shore as evidence that no substantial change in the geologic processes forming these rocks occurred over time.  
However from the geological notes he made during the field trip on St. Jago it emerges that young geologist Darwin was still struggling to accept this idea. More important, accepting slow geological processes made it necessary also to accept a very old earth.

During one of his daily excursions on St.Jago Darwin discovered a mature baobab-tree (gen. Adansonia) growing on the bottom of one of the large valleys carved into the hard basaltic rocks of the volcanic island.

In this [one of the valleys north of Praya] grows the celebrated Baobab or Adansonia; this tree only 45 feet high, measured two feet from the ground round the solid trunk. 35.-Some of the same species in Africa were supposed by Adanson to reach the enormous age of 6000 years.-The very appearance of the tree strikes the beholder that it has lived during a large fraction of the time that this world has existed.

Darwin notes that a 6.000 year old tree would have experienced a significant period of earth’s history, implying that earth, despite older than proposed by scrupulous clergymen, would be not much older. However the eroded valleys in the thick lava shields, characterizing the landscape on St. Jago, need vast periods of time to form, as he continues:

Of course the valley must be older & it is this one that has finally left the neighbourhood of Praya in the state we now find it.-How long a time intervened between this period and the deposition of former beach it is impossible to say.-during it three great phenomena occurred, the flowing of the lava.-the upheaving of the coast. & the great beds of diluvium collected in the older valley.-To what a remote age does this in all probability call us back & yet we find the shells [in the 'former beach'] themselves & their habits the same as exist in the present sea.

In the final note Darwin considers the possibility that the similarity between the fossil shells and the recent ones could also be explained by a short interval of time between the formation of the white rock and the deposition of modern beach deposits (so there was no time for a faunal turnover).
However accepting a young age for the fossil beach deposits and the even younger eroded remains of the volcanic island of St. Jago (the coastal lava shields are covering Darwin´s white rocks and therefore according to stratigraphic principles are younger) would invoke some unknown – and presumably catastrophic – geological event in the not-too distant past to explain its actual deep incised valleys.

I conceive it to be clear, from the pieces left standing and from the corresponding appearance on each side of the valley, that the country was originally covered with a uniform bed of this rock.-and that after being shattered by some great force: these valleys were formed by the agency of large bodies of water: To this latter force the valleys nearer the coast give abundant evidence.

Darwin will admit in his diary “what a confusion for geologists.

To be continued…


CHIESURA, G. (2010): A Santiago sulle orme di Darwin. Darwin – Bimestrale di Scienze No.40: 32-36
CHIESURA, G. (2013): Isole di Darwin – Un curioso in mezzo al mare. CD-Rom
HERBERT, S. (2005): Charles Darwin, Geologist. Cornell University Press: 485
JOHNSON, M.E.; BAARLI, B.G.; CACHAO, M.; da SILVA, C.M.; LEDESMA-VAZQUEZ, J.; MAYORAL, E.J.; RAMALHO, R.S. & SANTOS, A. (2012): Rhodoliths, uniformitarianism, and Darwin: Pleistocene and Recent carbonate deposits in the Cape Verde and Canary archipelagos. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology Vol.329-330: 83-100
PEARSON, P.N. & NICHOLAS, C.J. (2007) : ‘Marks of extreme violence’: Charles Darwin’s geological observations at St Jago (Sao Tiago), Cape Verde islands. in WYSE JACKSON, P. N. (ed.) Four Centuries of Geological Travel: The Search for Knowledge on Foot, Bicycle, Sledge and Camel. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 287: 239-253

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