ARTICLE: An Amphibious Being: How Maritime Surveying Reshaped Darwin’s Approach to Natural History

A new article in the journal ISIS:

An Amphibious Being: How Maritime Surveying Reshaped Darwin’s Approach to Natural History

Alistair Sponsel

Abstract This essay argues that Charles Darwin’s distinctive approach to studying distribution and diversity was shaped by his face-to-face interactions with maritime surveyors during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Introducing their hydrographic surveying methods into natural history enabled him to compare fossil and living marine organisms, to compare sedimentary rocks to present-day marine sediments, and to compare landscapes to submarine topology, thereby realizing Charles Lyell’s fanciful ambition for a superior form of geology that might be practiced by an “amphibious being.” Darwin’s theories of continental uplift, coral reef formation, and the origin of species all depended on his amphibious natural history. This essay contributes to our understanding of theorizing in nineteenth-century natural history by illustrating that specific techniques of observing and collecting could themselves help to generate a particular theoretical orientation and, indeed, that such practical experiences were a more proximate source of Darwin’s “Humboldtian” interest in distribution and diversity than Alexander von Humboldt’s writings themselves. Darwin’s debt to the hydrographers became obscured in two ways: through the “funneling” of credit produced by single-authorship publication in natural history and the “telescoping” of memory by which Darwin’s new theories made him recall his former researches as though he had originally undertaken them for the very purpose of producing the later theory.

One thought on “ARTICLE: An Amphibious Being: How Maritime Surveying Reshaped Darwin’s Approach to Natural History

  1. On the face of it, this is a really interesting and plausible idea that I would very likely have wanted to read. Unfortunately (for me) it’s behind a pay wall. Which I obviously do not resent as everyone has to make a living.
    I was wondering, do papers go into the public domain after some period has elapsed?

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