Reassessing Charles Darwin’s contribution to geological science
: A new perspective from the Galapagos

  • Gregory Estes

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Charles Darwin is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of science, whose work in organic evolution has revolutionized the way we think about ourselves and the living world. He is widely recognized for his seminal 1859 work On the Origin of Species. However, despite devoting much of his early career to geological science, Darwin’s geology – and in particular his geology of the Galápagos Islands – has been overlooked. The aim of this thesis is to demonstrate how the author’s work has provided a new perspective on Darwin’s contribution to geology, through an in-depth analysis of Darwin’s accounts of his research in the Galápagos and by geolocating the sites that were central to Darwin’s geological theories.

The thesis introduces Darwin’s work on geology, outlines the publications to be considered, and details the methodology used in both the author’s research and in the thesis. Two substantive chapters then chronicle the author’s contribution to knowledge, through (i) a critical examination of leading biographies and other works on Charles Darwin, and (ii) the identification of geological sites in the Galápagos Islands visited and surveyed by Darwin. The thesis closes with a brief conclusion, including possible directions for future research.

The author’s contributions come not only through the geographic focus of his research, but from the unusual combination of historical source analysis and fieldwork used to underpin this life work. Darwin’s scientific notes on the Galápagos are primarily on the geology, rather than the biodiversity, of the islands. These notes (his Geological Diary), which are in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, have been almost completely overlooked by biographers. The author made available online the first full transcription of the Geological Diary and, through the meticulous scrutiny and critical analysis of these notes and other primary manuscripts, was able to identify the sites that were central to Darwin’s theories.

By identifying the key sites visited by Darwin, the author’s work has filled a significant knowledge gap. His publications have provided a new narrative on Darwin’s visit to Galápagos, not only through an examination of all Darwin’s writings on the islands but also by the unusual approach of scaling and exploring the volcanic craters he described to gain a new understanding of what influenced his scientific thinking. The only time Darwin referred to himself as a scientist during the historic voyage of the Beagle, he used the word ‘geologist’. As the author’s work indicates, it is time that Darwin’s geological discoveries were recognized to the same degree as his contributions to evolutionary science.
Date of AwardJan 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDavid Nash (Supervisor)

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