GEOLOGICAL OBSERVATIONS ON SOUTH AMERICA

BY

CHARLES DARWIN.

CRITICAL INTRODUCTION.

Of the remarkable "trilogy" constituted by Darwin's writings which deal with the geology of the "Beagle," the member which has perhaps attracted least attention, up to the present time is that which treats of the geology of South America. The actual writing of this book appears to have occupied Darwin a shorter period than either of the other volumes of the series; his diary records that the work was accomplished within ten months, namely, between July 1844 and April 1845; but the book was not actually issued till late in the year following, the preface bearing the date "September 1846." Altogether, as Darwin informs us in his "Autobiography," the geological books "consumed four and a half years' steady work," most of the remainder of the ten years that elapsed between the return of the "Beagle," and the completion of his geological books being, it is sad to relate, "lost through illness!"

Concerning the "Geological Observations on South America," Darwin wrote to his friend Lyell, as follows:--"My volume will be about 240 pages, dreadfully dull, yet much condensed. I think whenever you have time to look through it, you will think the collection of facts on the elevation of the land and on the formation of terraces pretty good."

"Much condensed" is the verdict that everyone must endorse, on rising from the perusal of this remarkable book; but by no means "dull." The three and a half years from April 1832 to September 1835, were spent by Darwin in South America, and were devoted to continuous scientific work; the problems he dealt with were either purely geological or those which constitute the borderland between the geological and biological sciences. It is impossible to read the journal which he kept during this time without being impressed by the conviction that it contains all the germs of thought which afterwards developed into the "Origin of Species." But it is equally evident that after his return to England, biological speculations gradually began to exercise a more exclusive sway over Darwin's mind, and tended to dispossess geology, which during the actual period of the voyage certainly engrossed most of his time and attention. The wonderful series of observations made during those three and a half years in South America could scarcely be done justice to, in the 240 pages devoted to their exposition. That he executed the work of preparing the book on South America in somewhat the manner of a task, is shown by many references in his letters. Writing to Sir Joseph Hooker in 1845, he says, "I hope this next summer to finish my South American Geology, then to get out a little Zoology, and HURRAH FOR MY SPECIES WORK!"

It would seem that the feeling of disappointment, which Darwin so often experienced in comparing a book when completed, with the observations and speculations which had inspired it, was more keenly felt in the case of his volume on South America than any other. To one friend he writes, "I have of late been slaving extra hard, to the great discomfiture of wretched digestive organs, at South America, and thank all the fates, I have done three-fourths of it. Writing plain English grows with me more and more difficult, and never attainable. As for your pretending that you will read anything so dull as my pure geological descriptions, lay not such a flattering unction on my soul, for it is incredible." To another friend he writes, "You do not know what you threaten when you propose to read it--it is purely geological. I said to my brother, 'You will of course read it,' and his answer was, 'Upon my life, I would sooner even buy it.'"

In spite of these disparaging remarks, however, we are strongly inclined to believe that this book, despised by its author, and neglected by his contemporaries, will in the end be admitted to be one of Darwin's chief titles to fame. It is, perhaps, an unfortunate circumstance that the great success which he attained in biology by the publication of the "Origin of Species" has, to some extent, overshadowed the fact that Darwin's claims as a geologist, are of the very highest order.

South American Geology Page 04

19th Century English Literature

Charles Darwin

Free Books in the public domain from the Classic Literature Library ©

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book
Observations Geologiques sur les Iles Volcaniques
Voyage of the Beagle