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This introduction forecasts the book’s main argument, that caution was not Charles Darwin’s original attitude toward publishing, and lays out what is at stake in examining Darwin’s self-fashioning as a man of science. His reticent approach to publishing on evolution was a conscious attempt to avoid repeating missteps he felt he had taken as a rash young author of geological theories. While this book focuses on Darwin, its purpose is to answer broader questions about science as a vocation and a body of knowledge. Through analysis of how Darwin came to transcend the role of voyaging observer-collector to become a credible author of grand scientific theories, the book will draw lessons about the importance of face-to-face mentorship, the status of theorizing, and the cultivation of audiences in nineteenth-century science. The chapter’s end-notes contain extended discussions of, inter alia, “identity” as a category of analysis, Bruno Latour’s methods in science studies, and the Strong Programme in the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK).

PART I: Theorizing on the Move

CHAPTER 1: Darwin’s Opportunity

This chapter opens part 1 of the book, “Theorizing on the Move,” by examining three major contexts or sources for Darwin’s ambition as a prospective naturalist. First, it describes the existence of a well-known and consequential scientific puzzle to which he would eventually offer a new answer: how were coral reefs formed? This question was of great practical significance to the British Admiralty and individual navigators, and it had important theoretical implications for geologists who were interested in the history of the earth. Second, the chapter explains the purpose of the 1831-1836 Royal Navy voyage of HMS Beagle and of Darwin’s presence aboard, emphasizing the role of Francis Beaufort in directing hydrographic surveyors to study coral reef formation in the South Seas. Third, it describes the range of intellectual and practical experiences Darwin brought to the voyage by examining his training at Edinburgh University and the University of Cambridge. This discussion calls attention to his expertise in the sciences of marine zoology and (terrestrial) geology, his early exposure to the work of Alexander von Humboldt, and the mentorship Darwin received from Robert Grant, John Stevens Henslow, and Adam Sedgwick.

CHAPTER 2: An Amphibious Being

This chapter uses the geologist Charles Lyell’s concept of an “amphibious being” (introduced in chapter 1) to illustrate why Darwin’s experience on a maritime surveying voyage had the potential to yield important theoretical insights in geology. Sponsel argues that during the Beagle voyage Darwin gained a familiarity with the seafloor that was unprecedented among naturalists of his day. The ship’s hydrographers furnished him with techniques for visualizing underwater topography and for sampling the ocean floor. This in turn allowed Darwin’s geological work on dry land to involve “amphibious” comparisons between terrestrial and submarine processes. Working with surveyors helped Darwin to develop a scientific approach resembling that of Alexander von Humboldt, and Sponsel argues that Darwin’s so-called Humboldtian Science (a term made famous by the historian Susan Faye Cannon) should be seen as a consequence of his first-hand familiarity with surveying as well has his interest in Humboldt’s writings. The chapter emphasizes Darwin’s study of zoophytes (colonial marine invertebrates) in the southern Atlantic Ocean along the shore of South America and argues that his early ambition as a naturalist was to study the zoology of corals rather than the geology of coral reefs.

CHAPTER 3: Studying Dry Land with a Maritime Perspective

This chapter argues that Darwin’s theoretical insights on the geology and paleontology of South America were made possible by his experience with maritime surveying on the continent’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Specific ideas deriving from Darwin’s comparative approach included his conclusion that South America had been uplifted or elevated through a series of gradual movements in the recent geological past. He also speculated that elevation of this sort must be offset by subsidence in another region, and conjectured that the floor of the Pacific Ocean had deepened to compensate for the emergence of South America. Whereas other scholars have argued that Darwin developed his “subsidence” theory of coral reef formation while still in South America, Sponsel argues that the apparent discussion of reef growth in Darwin’s “Santiago Book” notebook was actually a theory about analyzing sedimentary rock formation on land. There is no evidence that Darwin already thought subsidence could explain the formation of atolls at the time he left South America, notwithstanding his much later recollections to that effect. Indeed, at the time the Beagle sailed onward to the Pacific, Darwin remained convinced that his research on corals would primarily be oriented toward zoology rather than geological questions.

CHAPTER 4: The Making of a Eureka Moment

This chapter explains how Darwin came to have a moment of insight about coral reef formation while at Tahiti in November 1835. Sponsel argues that this eureka moment depended on Darwin’s ability to envision the underwater realm like a hydrographer, a skill gained working alongside the Beagle’s maritime surveyors. Darwin’s Tahitian insight was also stimulated by his earlier conjecture that the floor of the Pacific Ocean was sinking, an idea derived too from Darwin’s experience with hydrography. Meanwhile, his physical surroundings as he climbed inland at Tahiti and gazed at the reef-encircled island of Eimeo [Moorea] also helped spark his new explanation of reef structures. Darwin’s resulting theory (in which corals grew upward on subsiding foundations to form ring-shaped reefs) echoed Humboldt’s description of the vertical zonation of vegetation on mountainsides, a phenomenon Darwin independently noted while climbing in Tahiti. The eureka moment shifted Darwin’s attention toward puzzles he had not previously addressed (such as atolls’ annular shape) and made a set of previous experiences seem as though they had always been intrinsically relevant to explaining reef formation. He began to pursue his new research not only in the field but by studying printed maps and books aboard the ship.

CHAPTER 5: The Surveyor-Naturalist

This chapter examines the two instances when Darwin had the opportunity to research coral reefs in the field, at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in April 1836 and at Mauritius the following month. The visits offered very different circumstances for research and offer contrasting case studies of Darwin’s approach to field work. At the first location Robert FitzRoy and the Beagle’s other officers and crew carried out a hydrographic survey of South Keeling atoll; at Mauritius there was no surveying activity for Darwin to draw upon. Taken together these episodes show how much Darwin’s scientific work had come to depend on his shipmates’ expertise and labor. At South Keeling, Darwin was eager to determine whether the atoll’s deep structure favored his new subsidence-based theory over the prevailing view that atolls formed atop shallow submarine volcano craters. In addition to his natural history investigation of the living and fossil corals atop the reef and in shallow water he gained support for his theory from the surveyors’ deep soundings. At Mauritius, by contrast, Darwin had to conduct soundings himself, revealing that hydrographic practices were essential rather than supplemental to his research on reef structure and the distribution of corals.

PART II: Training in Theory

CHAPTER 6: Lyell Claims Darwin as a Student

This initial chapter of part 2, “Training in Theory,” analyzes Darwin’s late-voyage scientific ambitions and his return to seek a place in the British geological community. It also introduces part 2’s major themes, particularly those of mentorship, collaboration, authorial credit, and the cultivation of audiences for scientific work. Sponsel argues that the well-known affinities between Darwin’s theories and those of the geologist Charles Lyell were more a product of their close working relationship than Darwin’s earlier reading of Lyell’s books. This master-and-student collaboration offered distinct benefits to both men while creating obligations on both sides. The chapter examines Lyell’s reputation as an eager generalizer or theorist who had been criticized and even parodied by contemporaries such as Henry De la Beche. Just as Darwin distributed zoological, paleontological, and botanical specimens from the voyage to relevant experts, so he shared his geological theories with Lyell, who helped craft them for publication in ways that would be mutually beneficial even when the two men disagreed, as they initially did on the formation of coral reefs. Not only did Darwin continue to develop his reef theory after the voyage, he did so in ways that emphasized his allegiance to Lyell’s geological principles.

CHAPTER 7: Darwin’s Audacity, Lyell’s Choreography

This chapter reveals the dazzling strategy underlying the content and presentation of Darwin’s 1837 Geological Society paper on the formation of coral reefs. While the paper might appear in retrospect to have been a mere precursor to Darwin’s 1842 book on the same topic, its arguments were distinct from earlier and later renditions of Darwin’s coral reef theory. This paper was remarkably ambitious: in it Darwin not only explained the formation of barrier reefs and atolls and argued that such reefs in turn were the key to interpreting the geological history of vast regions of the earth’s crust, he also forecasted that his new theory of reef formation might reveal the internal composition of the globe and explain the origin of species. The paper was also a sustained tribute to Lyell’s geological system. Nevertheless, attendees were shocked when Lyell responded by immediately disavowing his own published theory of reef formation in favor of Darwin’s new one. Sponsel demonstrates that Lyell and Darwin had planned this strategic retreat beforehand, and he argues that both men stood to benefit from Darwin’s emergence as a theoretical author who used Lyell’s general approach to supersede him on the topic of coral reefs.

CHAPTER 8: Burned by Success

This chapter shows how, with Lyell’s collaboration, Darwin navigated the social world of British science in the late 1830s. Lyell’s interventions were a mixed blessing. Although he groomed Darwin as a spokesman for uniformitarian geology, he complicated Darwin’s relationship with his Captain Robert FitzRoy and made Darwin feel intense pressure to publish his geological ideas rapidly and boldly. While Darwin struggled to make progress on his book of Beagle geology, Lyell incorporated the younger man’s unpublished findings and ideas into his own new book, Elements of Geology, and into revised editions of Principles of Geology. By mid-1838 Darwin was in a tense position: he had begun to regret that his geological work under Lyell’s guidance was earning him a scientific reputation for overzealous theorizing (or “speculation”) even as he was in avid private pursuit of a theory of the origin of species. Darwin tried to manage the situation by requesting that Lyell “quote [him] with caution” and studying books by John Herschel and William Whewell on scientific method. Darwin’s 1839 paper on the geology of Glen Roy, Scotland was boldly speculative, but he couched his theorizing in philosophical terms intended to demonstrate his matured judgment.

PART III: A Different Approach to Authorship

CHAPTER 9: The Life of a Tormented Geologist (and Enthusiastic Evolutionist)

This chapter opens part 3, “A Different Approach to Authorship,” by arguing that Darwin’s increasing anxiety was driven by the challenge of fulfilling his obligations as a geological author. With this argument, Sponsel pushes back against the notion that Darwin felt sickened by his private investigations into species. Darwin’s references to being ill while researching species indicate that this activity was far less susceptible to interruption by illness than his geological writing. He described his inability to make headway on geological projects in almost pathological terms while referring to occasions when he worked on his species notes as “idle” time that had been “frittered away.” Having decided to limit his first geology book to the topic of coral reefs, he used libraries in London to research every known reef in the world in an attempt to bolster his “theory” with “hard unbending facts.” Meanwhile, reviews of his Journal of Researches, which had finally been released two years after the pages were printed, criticized Darwin’s earlier speculative style. Adding to Darwin’s strain, Lyell grew impatient for Darwin to publish the coral reef book and proceeded to publish a new chapter on reefs that expanded on work Darwin had yet to release.

CHAPTER 10: A Finished Task: Darwin’s Treatise on Coral Reefs

This chapter analyzes the content and strategy of Darwin’s 1842 book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. It was not the grand synthetic geological treatise he had originally envisioned writing, but it contained an elegant theory of reef formation supported by analysis of the structure and possible origin of every documented coral reef in the world. The first four chapters were ostensibly descriptive, but Darwin classified reefs into types that corresponded to developmental stages characterizing his theory, which emerged in chapter 5. The book concluded with extended discussion of the global distribution of different types of reefs, as illustrated and systematized on a fold-out thematic map (the only one of its sort Darwin ever published). Published reviews of the book emphasized (whether favorably or not) the ambitious scope of Darwin’s generalizing about reefs; he responded to some criticisms by heavily revising the chapter on coral reefs in a second (1845) edition of his Journal of Researches. Years hence he offered inconsistent and sometimes contradictory recollections about what he had accomplished with the book, reminding critics of his caution but privately reveling in the accuracy of his speculations when supporting evidence emerged from work by J.B. Jukes and J.D. Dana.

PART IV: Writing the Origin with his “Fingers Burned”

CHAPTER 11: Atoning for the Sin of Speculation

Darwin’s well-known authorial decisions before publishing Origin were attempts to correct mistakes in his earlier efforts to author theories. He persisted in feeling he had erred by revealing his geological speculations (coral reef theory included) in short papers rather than books, avoiding this strategy for his species theory while periodically advising speculative younger naturalists likewise in confessional tones. The chapter analyzes three instances when Darwin made his publishing plans explicit: in 1844 when he instructed how not to publish his species theory posthumously; in 1856 when Lyell learned of the species theory and urged him to publish a brief version; and when A.R. Wallace mailed him a similar theory in 1858. Lyell and Darwin began planning to coordinate their public statements on the species theory as early as 1856, echoing Lyell’s earlier stage-management of Darwin’s reef theory. Sponsel points out Darwin’s methods for trying to convince readers of Origin that he had not been “hasty.” The chapter concludes with a novel interpretation of Darwin’s autobiographical recollections, arguing that Darwin described his (by then widely accepted) reef theory as merely “deductive” in order to contrast his youthful speculation with the mature inductive method that ostensibly produced his (still controversial) species theory.


This conclusion uses lessons from the book to offer broader reflections on the history and sociology of science, particularly relating to the attribution and distribution of credit (authorial and otherwise) for the development of scientific theories. While Darwin has been the book’s main character, the topic could instead be framed as the dissemination of Lyell’s approach to science (and likely would be had Darwin not eventually become much more famous than Lyell). In the text and end-note mini-essays Sponsel relates his arguments to the “author function” (Foucault), the “Matthew effect” (Merton), and other discussions of credit, self-fashioning, and scientific authorship (by Shapin, Biagioli, Galison, McSherry et al). Sponsel emphasizes the book’s lessons about the importance of face-to-face interaction (between Darwin and shipmates, for example, and between Darwin and Lyell), and amplifies arguments by SSK scholars that social “skills” should be seen as intrinsic to the practice of science. Sponsel closes by arguing that the now-common approach of studying scientific “practices” (rather than just scientific “ideas”) often marginalizes theories and theorizing despite their significance for historical actors themselves; this study of Darwin’s everyday activities sheds light on what it meant cognitively and socially for individuals and communities to “have” a theory.


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