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The History of the Earth

When Darwin first became a serious naturalist, geology was his primary interest. As a young man on the Beagle voyage he read Charles Lyell’s recently published Principles of Geology (1830–33), which guided his own researches. Like many other contemporary geologists, Lyell dismissed accounts of the earth’s history based on the biblical story of Noah’s Flood. Instead, he argued that the earth’s surfaces had been very slowly shaped by natural forces – such as water, ice, earth movements, volcanoes, geysers, erosion, and sedimentation – that were still active in the present.

Patrick Syme (1774–1845) Conrad Martens (1801–1878) Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
Patrick Syme (1774–1845)
“Greens,” from Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours.
Conrad Martens (1801–1878)
Portrait Cove, Beagle Channel, 1834
Thomas Cole (1801–1848)
The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge, 1829

Understanding that the earth must be hundreds of millions of years old was crucial to Darwin’s theory of evolution. He realised that the changes brought about by natural selection could only have occurred over very long periods of time. In On the Origin of Species, he insisted that ‘a man must for years examine for himself great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the sea at work grinding down old rocks’ before he could hope to comprehend the ‘incomprehensibly vast’ ages during which species had developed.

John Brett (1831–1902) Thomas Moran (1837–1926) Edward William Cooke (1811-1880)
John Brett (1831–1902)
The Glacier of Rosenlaui, 1856
Thomas Moran (1837–1926)
Lower Geyser Basin, 1873
Edward William Cooke (1811-1880)
Triassic Cliffs at Blue Anchor, North Somerset, 1866

Debates about the earth’s age and formation were never confined to scientific circles. The contemporary lay public studied geological phenomena at firsthand, with a new eagerness and insight. At the same time, the discovery of fossils of long-extinct giant reptiles, such as the dinosaurs, or ‘terrible lizards’ was persuasive evidence for a progressive – and potentially evolutionary – history of life on earth.

Artists shared the general enthusiasm for these discoveries. European and American painters now evoked the dynamic forces that had slowly but continuously shaped the landscape as they attempted to conjure up the strange sights of the prehistoric world.

William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) Robert Farren (1832–1910)
William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877)
The Geologists, c. 1843.
Robert Farren (1832–1910)
Duria Antiquior (An Earlier Dorset), c. 1850

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