An amphibious being: Charles Darwin’s debt to marine science

Tuesday 2 August 11.00am

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Room 449 | Madsen Building | Eastern Ave | University of Sydney


Presented by the Geocoastal Research Group of the School of Geosciences

Charles Darwin’s success in science has often been traced to the opportunity presented by his voyage around the world on the British naval surveying ship H.M.S. Beagle from 1831-1836. Indeed, Darwin himself wrote that “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.” What exactly was the opportunity that the voyage presented to a young and ambitious naturalist? The usual answer is that it allowed him to compare the animals, plants, and fossils of a series of islands and continents he visited during the course of five years. I argue, however, that the manner in which he did that famous work was the consequence of his exposure to a set of maritime practices used by the ship’s hydrographic surveyors. Darwin developed an amphibious approach to natural history that was as consequential as it was innovative, for it provided the basis for both his theory of coral reef formation and his evolutionary theory.

Alistair Sponsel is Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, USA. He specializes in the history of science and exploration since the Enlightenment. His current research is focused on two interrelated projects: Charles Darwin’s early career and the history of ocean science. From 2009 to 2012 he managed the U.S. branch of the Darwin Correspondence Project at Harvard University. His book Darwin’s First Theory will be published by University of Chicago Press. A second book will trace the cultural and environmental history of coral reefs, examining how a natural phenomenon once viewed as a menace to human activity came to be seen as inherently fragile.