December 2, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin Was Wrong About Geology

Field geologists have revisited a site Darwin visited on the voyage of the Beagle, and found that he incorrectly interpreted what he found.  A large field of erratic boulders in Tierra del Fuego that have become known as “Darwin’s Boulders” were deposited by a completely different process than he thought.  The modern team, publishing in the Geological Society of America’s December issue of the GSA Today,1 noted that “Darwin’s thinking was profoundly influenced by Lyell’s obsession with large-scale, slow, vertical movements of the crust, especially as manifested in his theory of submergence and ice rafting to explain drift.”  Lyell, in turn, felt vindicated: “Lyell celebrated these observations because they supported his idea of uniformitarianism—that continued small changes, as witnessed in the field, could account for dramatic changes of Earth’s surface over geologic time.”  In this case, though, a more rapid phenomenon provides a better explanation for the observations.
    The observations consist of large granite boulders, up to 16m in diameter, scattered on the whole eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego.  Here’s Darwin’s story: as the land rose slowly over millions of years, icebergs carrying boulders from far away became stranded in the shallow water.  When they melted, the boulders were left behind.  The new story is much different: avalanches up in the Andes dropped the boulders onto glaciers, which ferried them many miles toward the coast.  When the glaciers melted, the boulders remained.  Notice the differences.  Darwin had the rocks underwater (subaqueous) and embedded in ice; the new account has them on top of the ice, exposed to the air (subaerial).  Avalanches occur suddenly, but Darwin envisioned land rising and subsiding slowly and gradually.  Rafted rocks in icebergs would come from some unknown distance; but now, the source of these boulders can be traced back to the Andes, a far “distance from any then-known glaciated region” in his thinking.  Today, geologists appreciate the potential of massive avalanches and long-distance glaciation.  Based on cosmogenic nuclide dating methods, the authors estimated the boulder deposits to be in the 22-74 thousand year range – not millions of years old.  Even so, they had their own problems: “our Bah�a San Sebastian dates reveal anomalously young ages (74.4 to 38.1 k.y.) for moraines previously interpreted to be ~1 m.y., thus requiring significant reworking.
    By saying Darwin got it wrong, the team certainly meant no disrespect toward the old naturalist.  In all fairness, Darwin lacked the detailed maps of the Andes first made in 1932 and substantially improved 60 years later and beyond.  Glacial theory was new in Darwin’s day.  There were no ways to estimate the dates of the rocks and the deposits.  The authors ended with a compliment to the old man for his good intentions: “‘Darwin’s Boulders’ are not ice-rafted blocks, but rather glacially transported detritus of alpine avalanches; yet, his accounts of them beckoned us to reexamine the deposits, thus reinforcing his intent to explain landscapes within the constraints of physical evidence.”  In another place they found space to praise Darwin despite his error:

Here we report another example of Darwin’s predilection for interpreting landscape anomalies with inductive reasoning.  One-hundred-seventy years later, we share his fascination with the gigantic granitic boulders on the Atlantic coast of Tierra del Fuego.  Under Lyell’s influence, Darwin invoked the submergence�ice-rafting hypothesis to explain them, which was further supported by reports of icebergs transporting boulders.  His ice-rafting hypothesis is herein superseded by one involving supraglacial transport of rock avalanche debris from one coast of Tierra del Fuego to the other, where they were abandoned upon a coastal till plain.  Nevertheless, Darwin’s request to delay the voyage of the HMS Beagle in order to document the unusual boulders has led to a clearer understanding of Cordillera Darwin glaciodynamics and should serve to encourage geologists to explore unexpected encounters that fall beyond the defined tasks at hand.

Modern readers may be surprised to learn that Darwin was first a geologist, thought of himself as a geologist, concentrated on geology on the voyage of the Beagle, and portrayed himself as a geologist for many years afterward.  “Influenced by Adam Sedgwick and Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (v. 1, 1830), Charles Darwin became established as a geologist as a result of his voyage on the HMS Beagle,” they said.  Over his career he published 20 geological articles.  Incidentally, he was awarded the Wollaston Medal, the highest honor of the Geological Society of London, in 1859 – the same year as the publication of the Origin of Species.  The authors noted that his push to publish his geological work delayed the publication of the Origin for years.
    The authors also noted the influences on Darwin’s geological thinking.  Four times they said Darwin was “influenced by Lyell” – in one statement, they said he was “profoundly influenced by Lyell’s obsession with large-scale, slow, vertical movements….”  Yet they had to conclude that “Darwin incorrectly interpreted” Darwin’s Boulders.
    Another Darwin geological interpretation has been debunked – this time by a creationist geologist, Dr. Steve Austin.  In his Darwin birthday present video that has been watched over 13,000 times on YouTube, Austin described another case where a catastrophic process produced an effect Darwin (influenced by Lyell) thought took millions of years – the production of the vast canyon of the Rio Santa Cruz in Argentina (02/12/2009).  This and other mistaken geological interpretations by Darwin are shown in the film The Voyage that Shook the World (Resource of the Week for 09/19/2009).


1.  Evenson et al, “Enigmatic boulder trains, supraglacial rock avalanches, and the origin of ‘Darwin’s boulders,’ Tierra del Fuego,” GSA Today, 19:12 (December, 2009), pp. 4-10.

So, Darwin was influenced by Lyell and got it wrong, but these guys were influenced by Darwin and got it right.  Bad examples can provide inspiration, presumably.  Notice that the authors did not have anything particularly nice to say about Lyell and uniformitarianism.  They were only mentioned once in the paper as “his idea of uniformitarianism—that continued small changes, as witnessed in the field, could account for dramatic changes of Earth’s surface over geologic time.”  There was nothing uniformitarian in their re-interpretation.  Avalanches occur in minutes.  Glaciers can transport rocks for miles in years, centuries or millennia.  It doesn’t take reckless drafts on the bank of time (07/02/2007) to explain them.  Before expecting us to accept their dates for the rocks at face value, let them explain their own anomalies.
    The GSA would never have published this paper if it made Darwin look bad.  So the authors in effect said Darwin may have gotten his observations wrong, his facts wrong, his influences wrong and his conclusion wrong, but his intentions were pure inspiration.  That intent was: “to explain landscapes within the constraints of physical evidence.”  A very unfair insinuation is being made here.  Darwin is, of course, mostly known these days for his biological theory of evolution.  The GSA is dead-set against creationism and intelligent design.  It actively campaigns to keep critics of Darwin from being heard (10/17/2005).  The insinuation is that only followers of Darwin seek to explain landscapes within the constraints of physical evidence.  By implication, non-Darwinians must be invoking miracles left and right.  Anyone who believes that doesn’t know science history.  Nicholas Steno, the father of stratigraphy, was a creationist.  Many early geologists had a Biblical framework.  Even as Lyell was working surreptitiously to get geology divorced from Christianity (07/18/2009), most scientists in Darwin’s day maintained a profound reverence for the Bible (like Sedgwick) and were shocked by the agenda of the new secularists.  Sedgwick wrote a scathing review of the Origin, for instance, in which he castigated Darwin for abandoning the very thing these modern geologists praised him for – inductive reasoning (01/04/2009 commentary).
    In addition, anyone who thinks Darwin skeptics explain natural phenomena without regard to the constraints of physical evidence hasn’t kept up with the creationist technical journals.  The Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research have been publishing geological articles for decades.  Go ahead and count the miracles you find (cf. this ICR article).  Creation scientific papers, mostly by PhD geologists with extensive field experience, seek, as well, to explain landscapes within the constraints of physical evidence – just not filtered by the Lyellian uniformitarian world view – and they often do a superior job without the slow-and-gradual blinders on (cf. the GSA’s abysmal record on explaining the Grand Canyon, 11/30/2007).  Even the creation papers that describe a universal flood do so within the constraints of the geological processes involved.  CMI’s Journal of Creation has also printed geology papers for 25 years.  Answers in Genesis recently started up a technical journal, too.  If it weren’t for the Darwin Party’s totalitarian regime and thought police in control, these alternative publications would be enjoying hearty disputations among geologists.  Lyell was wrong; Darwin was wrong; nobody is free of the bias of their world view; so let’s let the modern Stenos have a chance back at the table.

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