Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 32.djvu/260

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

The voyage of the Beagle ended in the autumn of 1836, and Darwin landed in England on the 2d of October. He proceeded to put into shape his views on the coral islands of the Pacific, and in May, 1837, they were communicated to the public in a paper read before the Geological Society of London. His theory took the scientific world by storm. It was well calculated so to do. There was an attractive grandeur in the conception of some great continent sinking slowly, slowly, into the vast bed of the Southern Ocean, having all its hills and pinnacles gradually covered by coral reefs as in succession they sank down to the proper depth, until at last only its pinnacles remained as the basis of atolls, and these remained, like buoys upon a wreck, only to mark where some mountain-peak had been finally submerged. Besides the grandeur and simplicity of this conception, it fitted well into the Lyellian doctrine of the "bit-by-bit" operation of all geological causes—a doctrine which had then already begun to establish its later wide popularity. Lyell had published the first edition of his famous "Principles" in January, 1830—that is to say, almost two years before the Beagle sailed. He had adopted the volcanic theory of the origin of the coral islands; and it is remarkable that he had nevertheless suggested the idea, although in a wholly different connection, that the Pacific presented in all probability an area of subsidence. Darwin most probably had this suggestion in his mind when he used it and adopted it for an argument which its author had never entertained.[1] However this may be, it must have prepared the greatest living teacher of geology to adopt the new explanation which turned his own hint to such wonderful account. And adopt it he did, accordingly. The theory of the young naturalist was hailed with acclamation. It was a magnificent generalization. It was soon almost universally accepted with admiration and delight. It passed into all popular treatises, and ever since for the space of nearly half a century it has maintained its unquestioned place as one of the great triumphs of reasoning and research. Although its illustrious author has since eclipsed this earliest performance by theories and generalizations still more attractive and much further reaching, I have heard eminent men declare that, if he had done nothing else, his solution of the great problem of the coral islands of the Pacific would have sufficed to place him on the unsubmergeable peaks of science, crowned with an immortal name.

And now comes the great lesson. After an interval of more than five-and-thirty years the voyage of the Beagle has been followed by the voyage of the Challenger, furnished with all the newest appliances of science, and manned by a scientific staff more than competent to turn them to the best account. And what is one of the many results that have been added to our knowledge of Nature—to our estimate of the true character and history of the globe we live

  1. Lyell's "Principles," eleventh edition, p. 595.