Charles Darwin and the Chilean earthquake

On NPR’s Science Friday, March 5 2010, host Ira Flatow had a remarkable interview with geophysicist Ross Stein on Darwin’s observations as he witnessed the 1835 earthquake that struck close to the same place in Chile as the quake that struck a week ago:

FLATOW: Wow, wow. Let’s talk about Charles Darwin, and I don’t think people realize that he was actually around for another Chilean earthquake, right?

Mr. STEIN: Not only another Chilean earthquake, but the earthquake that occurred right where this one was. So he was on the Beagle in 1835. They felt the earthquake and he rowed ashore. And he got to shore and the first thing he noticed is that it stunk. He wrote in his journal that it was putrefying.

And he couldn’t figure this out. Maybe it was gases. And then he began to see that all the marine inner-tidal life, all the little creatures there, were all dead, and that’s why it stunk. And then he realized they were dead because these are creatures that get bathed by sea water twice a day, and they were all above sea level.

So he said, okay, there’s only two possibilities here. Either the water level has dropped, or the land has risen. And he said: All the oceans are interconnected. There’s no real way to drop the ocean. So he said the land must have risen.

And that’s breathtaking all by itself because at that time nobody thought earthquakes involved permanent movement of the land. They thought they were just underground explosions, and so he saw that this earthquake jacked up the coast several feet during this event.

FLATOW: Wow, so he was like the father of modern geology…

Mr. STEIN: It gets better.

FLATOW: I’m listening. Go ahead.

Mr. STEIN: And then he did what only Darwin could do. He stood there on the beach and he looked up at the 18,000-foot peak of the Andes, and he said, okay, that’s how mountains are built. This mountain gets built by being jacked up several feet every several hundred years in earthquakes. And that’s why Lord Byron plucked fossils out of limestone at the top of the Andes.


Mr. STEIN: And it gets better still.

FLATOW: There’s more?

Mr. STEIN: And then he goes: Okay, at the rate this happens, the Earth must be extremely old. It must be millions of years old. It requires eons to build 20,000-foot mountains out of jacking them up two feet at a time every several hundred years.

If, from Ross Stein’s account, we think of Darwin as a pretty clever guy; then on the other hand there’s still Ben Stein to remind us that “Darwinism cannot explain gravity” — and Barbara Cargill to make sure that Texas students won’t be prevented from questioning Darwin’s theory of the beginning of the universe.


One Comment

  1. Posted June 22, 2013 at 5:44 am | Permalink

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