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Darwin's Evolving Identity: Adventure, Ambition, and the Sin of Speculation

Coming Soon

By: Alistair Sponsel(Author)

336 pages, 13 plates with colour illustrations; 27 b/w photos

University of Chicago Press

Hardback | Feb 2018 | #236040 | ISBN-13: 9780226523118
Available for pre-order: Details
NHBS Price: £37.50 $48/€42 approx

About this book

Why – against his mentor's exhortations to publish – did Charles Darwin take twenty years to reveal his theory of evolution by natural selection? In Darwin's Evolving Identity, Alistair Sponsel argues that Darwin adopted this cautious approach in order to atone for mistakes he had made as a young geological author. Darwin recoiled from getting his "fingers burned" by the reaction to his ambitious theorising during the Beagle voyage and afterward in his publishing debut masterminded by the provocative geologist Charles Lyell. Far from being tormented by guilt about developing his evolutionary theory, Darwin was chastened by a publishing strategy that had forced him to disavow his "sin of speculation" about coral reefs, volcanoes, and earthquakes. It was this obligation to moderate his theoretical ambitions in general, rather than the prospect of public outcry over evolution in particular, that made Darwin such a cautious author of On the Origin of Species.

Drawing on his own ambitious research in Darwin's manuscripts and at the Beagle's remotest ports of call, Sponsel takes us from the ocean to the Origin and beyond, providing a vivid new picture of Darwin's career as a voyaging naturalist and metropolitan author and, through this example, of the range of skills involved in the development of scientific theories.



Part I Theorizing on the Move

1 Darwin’s Opportunity
- Coral Reefs as Objects of Fascination and Terror
- Studying Reef Formation as an Objective of the Beagle Voyage
- Darwin’s Training in the Sciences
- Enthusiasm for the South Sea Islands

2 An Amphibious Being
- Darwin’s Approach to Scientific Work at the Beginning of the Voyage
- Hydrography Becomes a Resource for the Naturalist
- An Ambitious Plan for Studying Zoophytes

3 Studying Dry Land with a Maritime Perspective
- Applying the Lessons of Hydrography to the Interpretation of Geology
- Elevation and Subsidence

4 The Making of a Eureka Moment
- The Dangerous Reefs of the Low Archipelago
- The View from Tahiti
- Theorizing Like Humboldt in a Floating Library

5 The Surveyor-Naturalist
- Darwin’s Sea-Level Study of the South Keeling Reef
- Seeing Underwater: The Hydrographic Survey at South Keeling
- Darwin’s Hydrographic Initiative at Mauritius

Part II Training in Theory

6 Lyell Claims Darwin as a Student
- Homeward Bound as an Aspiring Geologist
- Lyell as an Author
- Master and Student
- The Primacy of Geology in Darwin’s Private, as Well as Public, Activities

7 Darwin’s Audacity, Lyell’s Choreography
- Going Public
- Putting the Coral Theory to Work
- Species
- An Astonished Response from the Geological Elite
- Darwin’s Emergence as a Practitioner of Lyellian Geological Speculation

8 Burned by Success
- Darwin’s New Persona
- The Obligations of a Student to His Master
- The Beginnings of Darwin’s Anxiety about Speculation

Part III A Different Approach to Authorship

9 The Life of a Tormented Geologist (and Enthusiastic Evolutionist)
- Darwin’s Turn toward Empiricism and the Ideal of Comprehensiveness
- The Pressure of Public Expectations
- Lyell’s Appropriation of the Coral Reef Theory
- Studying Species as a Diversion from the Task at Hand

10 A Finished Task: Darwin’s Treatise on Coral Reefs
- The Space between Lyell and Darwin
- A Mountain of Facts
- The Theory Emerges
- The Immediate Reaction to Coral Reefs
- A Theory in Use and in Memory

Part IV Writing the Origin with His “Fingers Burned”

11 Atoning for the Sin of Speculation
- Balancing Speculation with Facts
- Rejecting Lyell’s Suggestion to Publish a “Sketch”
- Lyell Choreographs Another Debut
- Publishing an “Abstract” After All: On the Origin of Species
- Dealing with Darwin’s “Recollections”

- Lyell, Darwin, and Authorship
- Studying Practices, Learning about Theories


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Alistair Sponsel is assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University.

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