The eight years from October, 1846, to October, 1854, were mainly devoted to the preparation of his two important monographs on the recent and fossil Cirripedia. Apart from the value of his description of the fossil forms, this work of Darwin's had an important influence on the progress of geological science. Up to that time a practice had prevailed for the student of a particular geological formation to take up the description of the plant and animal remains in it--often without having anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of the living forms corresponding to them. Darwin in his monograph gave a very admirable illustration of the enormous advantage to be gained--alike for biology and geology--by undertaking the study of the living and fossil forms of a natural group of organisms in connection with one another. Of the advantage of these eight years of work to Darwin himself, in preparing for the great task lying before him, Huxley has expressed a very strong opinion indeed. ("L.L." II. pages 247-48.)
But during these eight years of "species work," Darwin found opportunities for not a few excursions into the field of geology. He occasionally attended the Geological Society, and, as we have already seen, read several papers there during this period. His friend, Dr Hooker, then acting as botanist to the Geological Survey, was engaged in studying the Carboniferous flora, and many discussions on Palaezoic plants and on the origin of coal took place at this period. On this last subject he felt the deepest interest and told Hooker, "I shall never rest easy in Down churchyard without the problem be solved by some one before I die." ("M.L." I. pages 63, 64.)
As at all times, conversations and letters with Lyell on every branch of geological science continued with unabated vigour, and in spite of the absorbing character of the work on the Cirripedes, time was found for all. In 1849 his friend Herschel induced him to supply a chapter of forty pages on Geology to the Admiralty "Manual of Scientific Inquiry" which he was editing. This is Darwin's single contribution to books of an "educational" kind. It is remarkable for its clearness and simplicity and attention to minute details. It may be read by the student of Darwin's life with much interest, for the directions he gives to an explorer are without doubt those which he, as a self-taught geologist, proved to be serviceable during his life on the "Beagle".
On the completion of the Cirripede volumes, in 1854, Darwin was able to grapple with the immense pile of MS. notes which he had accumulated on the species question. The first sketch of 35 pages (1842), had been enlarged in 1844 into one of 230 pages ([The first draft of the "Origin" is being prepared for Press by Mr Francis Darwin and will be published by the Cambridge University Press this year (1909). A.C.S.]); but in 1856 was commenced the work (never to be completed) which was designed on a scale three or four times more extensive than that on which the "Origin of Species" was in the end written.
In drawing up those two masterly chapters of the "Origin", "On the Imperfection of the Geological Record," and "On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings", Darwin had need of all the experience and knowledge he had been gathering during thirty years, the first half of which had been almost wholly devoted to geological study. The most enlightened geologists of the day found much that was new, and still more that was startling from the manner of its presentation, in these wonderful essays. Of Darwin's own sense of the importance of the geological evidence in any presentation of his theory a striking proof will be found in a passage of the touching letter to his wife, enjoining the publication of his sketch of 1844. "In case of my sudden death," he wrote, "...the editor must be a geologist as well as a naturalist." ("L.L." II. pages 16, 17.)
In spite of the numerous and valuable palaeontological discoveries made since the publication of "The Origin of Species", the importance of the first of these two geological chapters is as great as ever. It still remains true that "Those who believe that the geological record is in any degree perfect, will at once reject the theory"--as indeed they must reject any theory of evolution. The striking passage with which Darwin concludes this chapter--in which he compares the record of the rocks to the much mutilated volumes of a human history--remains as apt an illustration as it did when first written.
And the second geological chapter, on the Succession of Organic Beings-- though it has been strengthened in a thousand ways, by the discoveries concerning the pedigrees of the horse, the elephant and many other aberrant types, though new light has been thrown even on the origin of great groups like the mammals, and the gymnosperms, though not a few fresh links have been discovered in the chains of evidence, concerning the order of appearance of new forms of life--we would not wish to have re-written. Only the same line of argument could be adopted, though with innumerable fresh illustrations. Those who reject the reasonings of this chapter, neither would they be persuaded if a long and complete succession of "ancestral forms" could rise from the dead and pass in procession before them.
Among the geological discussions, which so frequently occupied Darwin's attention during the later years of his life, there was one concerning which his attitude seemed somewhat remarkable--I allude to his views on "the permanence of Continents and Ocean-basins." In a letter to Mr Mellard Reade, written at the end of 1880, he wrote: "On the whole, I lean to the side that the continents have since Cambrian times occupied approximately their present positions. But, as I have said, the question seems a difficult one, and the more it is discussed the better." ("M.L." II. page 147.) Since this was written, the important contribution to the subject by the late Dr W.T. Blanford (himself, like Darwin, a naturalist and geologist) has appeared in an address to the Geological Society in 1890; and many discoveries, like that of Dr Woolnough in Fiji, have led to considerable qualifications of the generalisation that all the islands in the great ocean are wholly of volcanic or coral origin.
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