The Hydrographer-Naturalist: How Darwin's Approach to Science Was Reshaped by Maritime Surveying Practices

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:50 AM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Alistair Sponsel, Vanderbilt University
Charles Darwin’s attention to geography has been widely noticed for its influence on his evolutionary theories, and many historians have pointed toward the Beagle voyage (1831-1836) as one source of his geographical sensibility. However, historians have previously offered little insight into the specific ways in which Darwin’s extended interaction with naval surveyors shaped his practical work and his theorizing. I demonstrate that Darwin was an active participant in the hydrographic enterprise during the voyage and I argue that the surveyors’ practices offered him a crucial new way of seeing. Providing him more than just a vague geographical sensibility, Darwin’s immersion in the world of maritime surveying offered a discrete set of tools and techniques, insights, and opportunities that shaped a great deal of his most consequential work. Specifically, I show that he relied on the everyday soundings aboard ship (and the data and specimens they produced) in his practice of marine zoology from the earliest months of the voyage. His consequent familiarity with submarine organisms, rocks, and topology was decisive in shaping his influential interpretations of the geology of South America. These experiences made possible Darwin’s new theory of coral-reef formation, which was at the time a problem of such practical concern to navigators and naval administrators that the Beagle’s Captain FitzRoy had been instructed to study reef formation himself. Thus I illustrate that through this theory, which was itself a mark of Darwin’s debt to naval expertise, by the final year of the voyage Darwin and the surveyors had come to share not only a set of techniques and interests but even a specific set of questions and rationales for their labors.