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It started with a rock collection: Charles Darwin, Geologist

Heritage Gallery

Feb. 12 - April 24

Before he formulated his ideas about evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin considered himself more a geologist than zoologist, and “doing geology” was one of his main occupations during the five-year voyage of the Beagle. The young Charles Darwin had a rock collection and was largely self-taught in mineralogy and crystallography.  

Darwin’s formal geological training consisted of extracurricular lectures in mineralogy as a medical student in Edinburgh and, later, the tutelage of his mentor at Cambridge University, the Rev. John Stevens Henslow, a former Professor of Mineralogy.  Three weeks before receiving his fateful invitation to join the Beagle, Darwin spent a week “geologizing” in Wales under the supervision of Adam Sedgwick, the eminent Cambridge professor of geology best known for proposing the Devonian and Cambrian Periods of the geological time scale.

Among Darwin’s geological contributions during the Beagle expedition were his compilation of one of the first geological maps of South America, his collection of vertebrate fossils from Patagonia (southern Chile and Argentina), and his proposed explanation for the formation of circular coral islands (atolls). Upon his return to London Darwin was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London.  In 1859, the same year Origin of Species was published, Darwin was awarded the Wollaston Medal--the highest honor bestowed by the Society in recognition of his scientific contributions to the field of Geology. 

Darwin’s geological experiences imbued him with a grasp the immensity of geologic time and a realization of the contribution of both gradual and abrupt geological processes in shaping the physical environment, processes that affect the adaptation and survival of species.

This exhibit opening coincides with the MSU Museum's Annual Darwin Discovery Day, hands-on science education program, also on Feb. 12.