I’ve got nothing, really. I was supposed to be watching a movie with a friend who’s in from out of town, but his family kidnapped him. I’ve spent the time finishing The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rhinehart, who has somewhat restored my faith in mystery novels written by late 19th – early 20th century women. I still prefer British authors, but how can I fail to love the woman who inspired Batman?
As a fake excuse for why I haven’t yet written about Darwin and geology, I present photographic evidence that my help was hindering:
You see that nice, fresh, shiny white notebook she’s lying on? I’d put that down not two seconds before, preparatory to picking up the Kindle and furiously taking notes. I know you can take notes on the Kindle, but it’s slow. Not quite as slow, though, as trying to take notes upon a notebook the cat has claimed.
Of course, there was another notebook available, so I defeated her nefarious schemes in the end.
She’s as helpful with researching Darwin’s geological research as some kittehs are with theses.
Reading Charles Darwin’s Geological Observations on South America would be a lot more fun if I knew more than bugger-all about South American geology. But it’s been instructive going in to this knowing next to nothing. Granted, I have more knowledge than he did: plate tectonics wasn’t a gleam in anybody’s eye (Wegener wouldn’t be born for nearly another 50 years, and his cogitations on continental drift for nearly 80). Geology was in its infancy; Lyell’s brilliant Principles of Geology was hot off the shelf, and Hutton’s Theory of the Earth had laid the kindling that sparked the whole revolution in thinking in 1785.
I find it fascinating to watch how the early geologists and naturalists wrestled sense out of the silent rocks. Continents rose and fell; they knew this much, that mountains became sea became mountains again. But it was all vertical. Horizontal movement, continents sailing along slowly, embedded in their rigid plates, hadn’t occurred to them. You get the sense of land bobbing in place, popping up and down like a giant whack-a-mole game, or possibly Riverdancers. It’s a funhouse mirror of geology. The images are there, they’re recognizable, but distorted. It’s amazing how clear the picture becomes when you add plate tectonics. The things that confounded the intrepid geologists exploring brave new worlds and systematizing the old one make exquisite sense once you know that not only the Earth moves, but its skin crawls.
Darwin stood on a subduction zone, and never knew it; visited passive margins and hotspots, and didn’t know what made them what they were. In light of how little was known, it’s amazing how much he came to know. Early geologists like him had to piece it together, rock by rock, fossil by fossil, patiently sampling and mapping and spinning possibilities that were often wrong but were sometimes, gloriously, right. Sometimes so right that other, older scientists didn’t believe them. Darwin’s theory of evolution wasn’t the only correct insight that was thoroughly disbelieved. Some of his geological revelations were scoffed at, too – until the evidence became overwhelming that he was, in fact, absolutely correct.
That’s one of the things I love about Darwin. In reading his geological books, I see the same methodical, patient collecting and collating and arranging of different bits of evidence. Darwin wasn’t one of those people who has a flash of brilliant insight and leaves it to others to find the proof he’s right. He didn’t seem to like to say anything until he had investigated thoroughly. He seemed obsessed by the tiny details others may have glossed over. You’ll see how obsessed when I write about his final geological work, which exemplifies the man’s attention to detail. But that obsession served him in good stead. It meant that when people called what they thought was his bluff, he could lay out a royal flush he’d spent a long time building, bit by bit.
He wasn’t always right. The science was too young, and the tools too crude, for him to get it all. But nearly two hundred years later, some of his discoveries still stand. Not bad for a man who once proclaimed he’d never so much as touch a book on geology, much less engage in its study.
But I’m going to turn away from Darwin for the moment – I’ve just received my long-desired copy of Geology of Oregon by Elizabeth and William Orr. It’s been incredibly hard to find a copy for under $50, but I did it, and it’s in excellent condition, too. And it is sitting beside me now, saying, “Put down the musty old mysteries. Turn from gentlemen on boats landing to scramble around South America’s geological wonders in a long-vanished age. READ ME DAMN IT.” I’m afraid I have no other choice but to obey.