Plate Tectonics and People

Charles Darwin: An English Naturalist

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"I am turned into a sort of machine for observing facts and grinding out conclusions."

-Charles Darwin-

A cartoon about Darwin's theory of "Evolution"

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Biographical Information:

Charles Robert Darwin was born in February of 1809 in Shrewsbury, England and was the 5th of 6 children in his family.  Darwin was born into a very wealthy family that had a lot of connections.  His family members had all been very successful and Darwin lived a priviledged childhood.  Charles’s father was alive for most of his adult life and worked as a local physician and a financer.  Unfortunately, his mother died at a very young age, when she was only 52 years old. 

Darwin attended a nearby board school in Shrewsbury during his childhood, but after graduating that school, he decided to attend Edinburgh University in October 1985, along with his own brother to study medicine.  Darwin was studying to become a physician, much like his successful father had done.  While at Edinburgh, Darwin found himself studying marine invertebrates with Robert Grant, one of the most well known biologists of the early 19th century.  Darwin soon realized he did not like the field of medicine after he couldn’t stand to see blood or suffering of humans for a regular basis and believed surgery was a form of human brutality, so he quickly left the medical field of study.

Immediately after Darwin left the medicine field, his own father proposed that he get more involved in the church as an alternative.  Darwin liked the idea of being able to pursue natural history, and in 1827 became a student of Cambridge University to study theology, with the goal later on of becoming an Anglican parson.  While at Cambridge, Darwin studied a lot of the scientific ideas and papers written by geologist Adam Sedgwick and naturalist John Henslow, who were big believers in the idea of evolution of natural species.  At the time, Darwin was not a true believer in evolution yet but was exposed to the scientific beliefs behind the theory quite often in his studies. 

Darwin's Residence At Cambrige

The Residence of Charles Darwin his 1st year at Cambridge University

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From 1831-1836, Darwin was able to journey on the HMS Beagle, a ship whose mission was to travel around the world in search of new scientific discoveries.  Darwin served as the naturalist on board the ship, collecting thousands of specimens from various countries around the world, mostly being from South America.  Darwin later called this trip across the oceans, “by far the most important voyage of my life.”

Throughout Darwin’s life he continued to study the natural world and later published his most famous book, On The Origin of Species to help explain how evolutionary selection occurred amongst throughout the course of their existence on Earth.  “Natural Selection” and “Survival of the Fittest” were some of the scientific terms that originated from his studies published in the book.  These theories have laid the ground work for modern scientific evolutionary studies and research going on years later. 

Darwin lived to be 73 years old, dying in April of 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  His legacy in the scientific community continues to be respected and celebrated for all the significant contributions he made throughout his lifetime. 


*Who Wants to Live a Million Years? Interactive Darwin Game*



Contributions to Plate Tectonic Theory / Solid Earth Geophysics:

Charles Darwin’s education at both Edinburg and Cambridge was never as a geologist, but he found himself studying the geological structures because of his natural curiosity for science.  He was said to be “self-taught” in the concepts of geological phenomena and structures. Darwin was actually an accomplished geologist before he became a successful biologist, publishing his most famous work.  He actually published a few pieces of work on the geological structure of coral reefs and volcanic structures of off the coast of South America in the Galapagos Islands.    

Darwin began his HMS Beagle voyage under the captain Robert FitzRoy. 

A 3-D digital representation of the HMS Beagle - the ship Darwin spent 5 years traveling and studying off the coast of South America

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As a gift aboard the ship, FitzRoy actually gave Darwin the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology to help him become better acquainted with that field of science.  One of Lyell’s principles in his textbook was related to a steady state, non-directional Earth where land alteration processes such as deposition, erosion, and uplift altered and changed a landscape.  One of Darwin’s early exposures to geologic formations was in February of 1835 when he experienced a strong earthquake while exploring the area of Chile.  Darwin claims that he saw visual evidence of a strong uplift of several feet in the area he was located in. 

In further studies done by Darwin and principles discussed in the text, Darwin hypothesized that the coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean developed because they were bordering other landmasses that were being subducted downwards – producing three formation stages of coral reefs (Image 1).  This related to our modern ideas of plate tectonics because along fault boundaries there is direct evidence of landmasses creating a subduction zone.  This hypothesis was made remarkably before he even saw the coral reef himself.  Darwin was also able to test his coral reef hypothesis a year later in the Cocos Islands, off the Northwestern coast of Australia, by examining the reef’s structure that formed in this set of islands also. 

Image 1:  Darwin's View of the 3 Stages of Coral Reefs


3 Stages of Coral Reefs

Cross-section views of the 3 stages of coral reefs that Darwin studied along the coastlines of specific continents

Key:         1:  Fringing Reef (Top)          2.  Coral Reef (Middle)          3.  Barrier Reef (Bottom)

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In 1842, Charles Darwin published a book titled, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. In this book, Darwin published a map inside of the southwest Pacific Ocean.  Darwin’s hypothesis proposed that three stages of coral reefs (fringing, barrier, and atoll) were concentrated along certain coastlines and boundary lines of specific continents.  Darwin discovered that coral reefs have a lot to do with the geology of this part of the Pacific Ocean. Fringing reefs, he claimed, were concentrated along continents that showed evidence of rising geologic areas.  On the other hand, atoll and barrier reefs are more located in the central parts of an ocean in which the landmass nearby is sinking.  We know today through the plate tectonic theory that subsidence of a landmass is due to the cooling of that material.  When the material begins to cool, its density begins to increase as it moves farther away from an active ridge or hot spot. 

Other Interesting Scientific Contributions

Darwin was a very rigorous naturalist his entire life, devoting a good majority of scientific efforts in the field of biology.  His major scientific theories are listed below.

On The Origin of Species

  • This is the book that Darwin is most famous and well known from.  Many scientists consider this text as the foundation behind the concepts of evolutionary biology.  In the text, Darwin shares his research and findings that all work together to support the idea of “Evolution.” 


    • The theory of evolution states that as species exist on our planet, they adapt and change to existing conditions that are present in a specific moment in time.  In order to survive to the constant changing environment, species must change gradually over time in order to continue their own existence.

      Natural Selection

        • The theory of natural selection dealt with evolution amongst species on our planet.  His theory of natural selection states, “Evolutionary changes come through the prediction of variation in each generation and differential survival of individuals with different combinations of these variable characters.”  He goes on to further explain that the species that have more opportunities to reproduce their offspring will have a greater probability of survival, which in turn, helps the offspring acquire these similar traits. 
        • When Darwin explored the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America, he began observing and collecting data for a bird that was a very common inhibitor of the island.   Darwin studied a species of Finches – a small bird that commonly was seen flying around.  Darwin did not realize it while he was on the islands, but he finally concluded there were a total of 14 species of finches on the island itself, but all with a common ancestor (Image 2).

          Image 2:  Darwin's Finches

          A set of Darwin's finches that are classified as different versions of the same bird with similar characteristics and a common ancestor.

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          Common Descent

          • This theory states that each type of organism comes from some ancient ancestor and have changed or diversified since the beginning of their existence.

            Species Multiply:

              • This theory states that in order to diversify the various organisms we have on our planet, one type of species has to diverge until they become two separate species.  Each time the new species are formed, they are slightly different from the original set.


                  • This theory states that evolution occurs through many small changes of the populations of species and that any new species that are created don’t happen instantly and suddenly.

                    Cool Stuff About Charles Darwin


                    • Darwin Ate An Owl Once:
                      • While he was at Cambridge University, he joined a club called the, “Gourmet Club.”  This club’s purpose was to meet once a week and eat animals you can’t typically find on a standard restaurant menu. 
                    • Darwin Didn’t Come Up With The Phrase:  “Survival of the Fittest”
                      • Herbert Spencer, a contemporary and philosopher of Darwin came up with the phrase.  Spencer wrote Principles of Biology in 1864 and came up with this phrase as he extended Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection into his text. 
                    • Darwin Played A LOT of Backgammon!
                      • Once Darwin returned from his voyage to South America and other parts of the world, he developed a lifelong sickness that kept him in bed for long periods of time.  To help alleviate the symptoms of his illness, he developed a very strict daily schedule where he would play backgammon every single night between 8 and 8:30 p.m.  He kept the score of every game he played for many years after he got ill.
                    • Darwin Married His 1st Cousin:
                      • The two married each other and actually kept their marriage going for over 40 years! (Wish you could say that about marriages today)  Darwin actually wrote a list of pros and cons to marrying Emma Wedgewood, of which the original document is available from this website:




                    Works Cited

                    "10 Fun Facts About Charles Darwin." Neatorama. 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.

                    "Charles Darwin & Evolution." Charles Darwin & Evolution. Christ's College. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.

                    "Charles Darwin: A Centennial Tribute | NCSE." Charles Darwin: A Centennial Tribute | NCSE. National Science Center for Education. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.

                    "Charles Darwin History." BBC News. BBC. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.

                    "Darwin: Who Wants to Live a Million Years?: Science Channel." The Science Channel. Discovery Communications LLC, 2012. Web. 23 May 2012. <>.

                    "Darwin's Theory Of Evolution." Darwin's Theory Of Evolution. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.

                    "Early Theories of Evolution: Darwin and Natural Selection." Early Theories of Evolution: Darwin and Natural Selection. 23 Feb. 2012. Web. 24 May 2012. <>.