BOOK: Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth

This new book about Darwin will surely interest those who appreciate his work in geology, can’t get enough of the Beagle voyage, or like to follow along a current geologist as he travels in the footsteps of Darwin in South America.


Rob Wesson, Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Everybody knows—or thinks they know—Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the man who altered the way we view our place in the world. But what most people do not know is that Darwin was on board the HMS Beagle as a geologist—on a mission to examine the land, not flora and fauna. Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America and beyond, geologist Rob Wesson treks across the Andes, cruises waters charted by the Beagle, hunts for fossils in Uruguay and Argentina, and explores sites of long vanished glaciers in Scotland and Wales. As he follows Darwin’s path—literally and intellectually—Wesson experiences the land as Darwin did, engages with his observations, and tackles the same questions Darwin had about our ever-changing Earth. Upon his return from his five-year journey aboard the Beagle, after examining the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more, Darwin conceived his theory of subsidence and uplift‚—his first theory. These concepts and attitudes—the vastness of time; the enormous cumulative impact of almost imperceptibly slow change; change as a constant feature of the environment—underlie Darwin’s subsequent discoveries in evolution. And this peculiar way of thinking remains vitally important today as we enter the human-dominated Anthropocene age. Expertly interweaving science and adventure, Darwin’s First Theory is a riveting and revelatory journey around the world with one of the greatest scientific minds in history.

Brief reviews of Darwin’s First Theory from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Nature.

ARTICLE: Darwin the geologist in southern South America

New in Earth Sciences History:

Darwin the geologist in southern South America

Robert H. Dott, Jr. and Ian W. D. Dalziel

Abstract Charles Darwin was a reputable geologist before he achieved biological fame. Most of his geological research was accomplished in southern South America during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1831–1836). Afterward he published four books and several articles about geology and coral atolls and became active in the Geological Society of London. We have followed Darwin’s footsteps during our own researches and have been very impressed with his keen observations and inferences. He made some mistakes, however, such as appealing to iceberg rafting to explain erratic boulders and to inundations of the sea to carve valleys. Darwin prepared an important hand-colored geological map of southern South America, which for unknown reasons he did not publish. The distributions of seven map units are shown. These were described in his books wherein he also documented multiple elevated marine terraces on both coasts of South America. While exploring the Andean Cordillera in central Chile and Argentina, he discovered two fossil forests. Darwin developed a tectonic theory involving vertical uplift of the entire continent, which was greatest in the Andes where magma leaked up from a hypothetical subterranean sea of magma to form volcanoes and earthquakes. The theory had little impact and was soon eclipsed by theories involving lateral compression of strata. His and other contemporary theories suffered from a lack of knowledge about the earth’s interior. Finally with modern plate tectonic theory involving intense lateral compression across the Andean Cordillera we can explain satisfactorily the geology so carefully documented by Darwin.

BOOK: The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury

John Dvorak, The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature’s Most Magnificent Fury (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015), 356 pp.

Publisher’s description Volcanoes have fascinated—and terrified—people for ages. They have destroyed cities and ended civilizations. John Dvorak, the acclaimed author of Earthquake Storms, looks into the early scientific study of volcanoes and the life of the man who pioneered the field, Thomas Jaggar. Educated at Harvard, Jaggar went to the Caribbean after Mount Pelee exploded in 1902, killing more than 26,000 people. Witnessing the destruction and learning about the horrible deaths these people had suffered, Jaggar vowed to dedicate himself to a study of volcanoes. What followed was fifty years of global travel to eruptions in Italy, Alaska, Central America, Japan and the Pacific. In 1912, he built a small science station at the edge of a lake of molten lava at Kilauea volcano in the Hawaiian Islands, with the goal of solving the mystery of why volcanoes erupt and how they could be predicted. Jaggar found something else at Kilauea: true love. She was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed school teacher who came to Kilauea to restart her life. For more than twenty ears, she and Jaggar ran the science station, living in a small house at the edge of a high cliff that overlooked the lava lake. Maydwell would quickly becoming one of the world’s most astute observers of volcanic activity. Mixed with tales of myths and rituals, as well as the author’s own experiences and insight into volcanic activity, The Last Volcano reveals the lure and romance of confronting nature in its most magnificent form—the edge of a volcanic eruption.

BOOK: Darwin’s Sciences

This new book is so far my favorite Darwin book this year. Darwin’s Sciences (full title: Darwin’s Sciences:  How Charles Darwin voyaged from rocks to worms in his search for facts to explain how the earth, its geological features, and its inhabitants evolved) does not offer some new groundbreaking thesis about Darwin’s life, work, or legacy, but rather pulls together a lot of information about the various branches of the natural sciences Darwin studied into a detailed and readable account. An introduction looks over Darwin’s life, and then chapters on geology, zoology, botany, and the social sciences give an overview of Darwin’s studies and major publications, utilizing his journals, correspondence, and autobiography to place things in context. The bibliography for this book is in itself a treasure of references and Darwin scholarship. While I have only read into the chapter on zoology (note that each page has about perhaps twice the text as most other books, with a small font size), I recommend Darwin’s Sciences for anyone interested in a more than superficial look at what Darwin accomplished in science.


Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham, Darwin’s Sciences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 264 pp.

Publisher’s description A complete scientific biography of Darwin that takes into account the latest research findings, both published and unpublished, on the life of this remarkable man. Considered the first book to thoroughly emphasize Darwin’s research in various fields of endeavor, what he did, why he did it, and its implications for his time and ours. Rather than following a strictly chronological approach – a narrative choice that characteristically offers an ascent to On the Origin of Species (1859) with a rapid decline in interest following its publication and reception – this book stresses the diversity and full extent of Darwin’s career by providing a series of chapters centering on various intellectual topics and scientific specializations that interested Darwin throughout his life. Authored by academics with years of teaching and discussing Darwin, Darwin’s Sciences is suited to any biologist who is interested in the deeper implications of Darwin’s research.

Chapter 1, the Introduction, can be read online here.

BOOK: Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift

Readers here have surely heard of Alfred Wegener. If so, what they know of him is probably limited to “oh, he was the geologist who came up with continental draft, which later turned into plate tectonics,” and perhaps, “people didn’t accept his theory at the time, but we now know he was right.” A new biography aims to show that Alfred Wegener – not a geologist, in fact – was so much more than the originator of the theory of continental drift. Historian of science Mott Greene’s 600 page treatment of Wegener’s life, scientific work, and legacy has been a long project, and the result is a handsome and rich work that has its own book trailer:


Mott T. Greene, Alfred Wegener: Science, Exploration, and the Theory of Continental Drift (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 696 pp.

Publisher’s description Alfred Wegener aimed to create a revolution in science which would rank with those of Nicolaus Copernicus and Charles Darwin. After completing his doctoral studies in astronomy at the University of Berlin, Wegener found himself drawn not to observatory science but to rugged fieldwork, which allowed him to cross into a variety of disciplines. The author of the theory of continental drift—the direct ancestor of the modern theory of plate tectonics and one of the key scientific concepts of the past century—Wegener also made major contributions to geology, geophysics, astronomy, geodesy, atmospheric physics, meteorology, and glaciology. Remarkably, he completed this pathbreaking work while grappling variously with financial difficulty, war, economic depression, scientific isolation, illness, and injury. He ultimately died of overexertion on a journey to probe the Greenland icecap and calculate its rate of drift. This landmark biography—the only complete account of the scientist’s fascinating life and work—is the culmination of more than twenty years of intensive research. In Alfred Wegener, Mott T. Greene places Wegener’s upbringing and theoretical advances in earth science in the context of his brilliantly eclectic career, bringing Wegener to life by analyzing his published scientific work, delving into all of his surviving letters and journals, and tracing both his passionate commitment to science and his thrilling experiences as a polar explorer, a military officer during World War I, and a world-record–setting balloonist. In the course of writing this book, Greene traveled to every place that Alfred Wegener lived and worked—to Berlin, rural Brandenburg, Marburg, Hamburg, and Heidelberg in Germany; to Innsbruck and Graz in Austria; and onto the Greenland icecap. He also pored over archives in Copenhagen, Munich, Marburg, Graz, and Bremerhaven, where the majority of Wegener’s surviving papers are found. Written with great immediacy and descriptive power, Alfred Wegener is a powerful portrait of the scientist who pioneered the modern concept of unified Earth science. The book should be of interest not only to earth scientists, students of polar travel and exploration, and historians but to all readers who are fascinated by the great minds of science.

BOOK: Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth

A new book of interest:

James Lawrence Powell, Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 384 pp.

Publisher’s description Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists came to accept four counterintuitive yet fundamental facts about the Earth: deep time, continental drift, meteorite impact, and global warming. When first suggested, each proposition violated scientific orthodoxy and was quickly denounced as scientific–and sometimes religious–heresy. Nevertheless, after decades of rejection, scientists came to accept each theory. The stories behind these four discoveries reflect more than the fascinating push and pull of scientific work. They reveal the provocative nature of science and how it raises profound and sometimes uncomfortable truths as it advances. For example, counter to common sense, the Earth and the solar system are older than all of human existence; the interactions among the moving plates and the continents they carry account for nearly all of the Earth’s surface features; and nearly every important feature of our solar system results from the chance collision of objects in space. Most surprising of all, we humans have altered the climate of an entire planet and now threaten the future of civilization. This absorbing scientific history is the only book to describe the evolution of these four ideas from heresy to truth, showing how science works in practice and how it inevitably corrects the mistakes of its practitioners. Scientists can be wrong, but they do not stay wrong. In the process, astonishing ideas are born, tested, and over time take root.

BOOK REVIEW: Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution

I reviewed the second of the Terra Tempo graphic novel series for kids for the Portland Book Review in 2013:

In the first Terra Tempo graphic novel, Ice Age Cataclysm!, twins Jenna and Caleb and their know-it-all friend Ari find themselves, with the aid of a special map owned by their adventurous naturalist uncle, time traveling into the Ice Age of 15,000 years ago. They came across prehistoric mammals and witnessed the grand Missoula Flood, caused when a gigantic ice dam burst and Glacial Lake Missoula (in Montana) drained, its gushing torrent flowing west and sculpting the channeled scablands of the Pacific Northwest. The trio saw that the flood’s waters had covered their home – present day Portland, Oregon. Author David Shapiro, illustrator Christopher Herndon, and colorist Erica Melville continue the time traveling adventures in The Four Corners of Time, bringing the kids through several older time periods represented throughout the American southwest. They pass out in the Cambrian because of low oxygen levels, meet early tetrapods in the Devonian, get chased in the Carboniferous by humans, dodge pre-dinosaur reptiles in the Triassic, and face the tyrant lizard king in the Cretaceous. Those humans, by the way, are men out to abuse time traveling for profit, seeking to steal the maps the kids possess. A lesson in geology and paleontology, the Terra Tempo series so far has proved that learning science does not have to be boring. It can be – and perhaps should be – an adventure!

The third in the series has just been published, and when we got it in the mail, my eight-year-old son grabbed it and read it completely before I could even take a look at it!

terra tempo

David Shapiro, Christopher Herndon (illustrator), and Erica Melville (colorist), Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution (Portland, OR: Craigmore Creations, 2014), 168 pp.

In their latest adventure through time and space, Jenna, Caleb, and Ari find themselves as students in a summer program at the prestigious Academy of Planetary Evolution. Their classroom: environments millions of years old across what is now the western United States and classic American natural history museums. Their subject: various topics in geology – such as plate tectonics – and paleontology – such as mammalian evolution. Their instructors: paleontologists and naturalists from the past, like Alfred Russel Wallace, Herman Melville (he was a student of nature as well as a writer), and Winifred Goldring (a paleontologist from New York).

The conflict in the story is how the kids – who are joined by two other female students – are intertwined in the struggle between the geosophists (those who want to use the maps to time travel in order in add to humanity’s knowledge of science) and the treasure hunters (others who wish to time travel in order to exploit earth’s natural resources to get wealthy). Obvious as a statement about our current society’s issues with things like oil, climate change, etc., this third installment ends with the suggestion of a continuing series with an increasingly environmental theme.

Dinosaurs, a nod to Alfred Russel Wallace, and stressing the importance of learning knowledge for knowledge’s sake and taking care of our planet? All in one graphic novel? Terra Tempo: The Academy of Planetary Evolution not only entertained my son and made him think. Adults can get something out of it, too.