Category Archives: Ice Age

A N Wilson’s bogus study of Darwin

The Times of London has gone down in my estimation with an appalling weekend essay on Darwin by the novelist and semi-intellectual A N Wilson, who after an atheist phase has returned to some kind of faith. Sadly his faith has not improved his intellectual discernment.


A wag visited Darwin’s statue in Shrewsbury!!

Wilson has a “radical” biography on Darwin due out in September 2017 and has given two tasters; one in the London Evening Standard,

and one in the Times

As one , who for several decades has studied the letters and works of Darwin and also researched his Welsh geology of 1831 and 1837-41 through fieldwork 


Outcrop at Llanymynech


Darwin’s boulders at Cwm Idwal

I am familiar with much of his thought and development. (As a Christian – and vicar – I have also considered his religious views). Despite having been led to be negative towards him by American fundamentalists I slowly but surely developed a great respect for Darwin as a scientist and a caring man of integrity. I have transcribed many of his geological notes – pausing over words like “vomitory” or “mammified rocks”, reading innumerable letters , scientific papers  and most of his books. Sadly, I don’t think Wilson has done any proper historical research and according to John Van Whye has used decades old studies, which have been superceded.

It is difficult not be angry over articles (and probably the biography ) of Wilson as they make so many unsubstantiated claims and seem only wishing to belittle a great scientist. His writing do not share the critical, yet sympathetic, approach of scholars like Janet Brown, Sandra Herbert, Rob Wesson , Jim Costa and many others. These do not go in for blind adulation but look at all the evidence carefully as I hope I do. Yes, Darwin made mistakes, as he did over Glen Roy in 1838 and many of his ideas are incomplete – often due to lack of knowledge as with genetics.

It does seem that Wilson is simply sceptical of Darwin’s science and I suspect he has been unduly influenced by the american Intelligent Design movement, whose loathing of Darwin is only exceeded by their inaccuracy, whether on Darwin’s alleged problem on the Cambrian Explosion or whether his ideas inspired Hitler.

Below is his Times essay interspersed with some comments.

Darwin’s greatness is founded on a myth

The great Victorian naturalist was slow to understand natural selection and reluctant to credit earlier evolutionists

During his visit to the Galapagos Islands Charles Darwin failed to understand the significance of the birds that he observed there
During his visit to the Galapagos Islands Charles Darwin failed to understand the significance of the birds that he observed thereGETTY IMAGES



Charles Darwin’s version of the evolutionary idea was presented to the world in 1859 with his book On the Origin of Species. It is often spoken of as a work of science. Some have even called it the greatest scientific work ever written. Whatever you make of it, it is a strange book. Most of its central contentions, such as the idea that everything in nature always evolves gradually, are now disbelieved by scientists, and the science of genetics has made much of it seem merely quaint.

It depends what is seen to be gradual. The history of our planet goes back 4.6 billion years and looked at from that time perspective is “gradual” though at times changes are more rapid, but still very gradual in human terms.

Yet it was so much more than a work of science. It was the great consolation myth for the Victorian middle classes. Darwin effectively told the Victorians: “Rather than trouble yourself by the gross selfishness of living with vast accumulated unearned wealth, carriage drives, servants and villas, tell yourself that the differences between rich and poor are just the way nature organised things.”

Middle-class Victorians found in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a consoling myth that, thanks to evolution, they deserved to be better off than their servants
Middle-class Victorians found in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species a consoling myth that, thanks to evolution, they deserved to be better off than their servantsTHE PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

This explains its instant bestseller appeal. It also explains why there was a Darwinian revival in the 1980s, with the me-generation all trying to believe in “the selfish gene” as an explanation for why City slickers could earn hundreds of times more than the feckless “workers”, and why the market could make the first world so much richer than the third.

In Darwin’s scheme of things, the Victorian rich were the perfect expression of evolution. In perfecting itself, nature started with amoebas, and moved on through dinosaurs and flying lizards, fish, fowl and mammals until it came to the apes, so obviously like the poor savages of Tierra del Fuego or Papua New Guinea. Above the savages were the southern Europeans, above them the British and, at the top of the evolutionary pecking order, sat the great families of England, the Darwins, the Arnolds, the Huxleys and the Wedgwoods, who all intermarried and were obviously cleverer than anyone else.

some comments of remarkable silliness. Darwin also took concern on helping the poor

If the Origin of Species is only a scientific work, then it is unique in the history of science. Darwinism is the only scientific theory which was inspired, not by scientific experiment, not by observation in the field or the laboratory, but by reading a now-discredited work of economics — Thomas Malthus’s theory of population.

Malthus wrote at the juncture in history when Britain was threatened with starvation by the Napoleonic blockades. His theory was a simple one. There is a limited amount of food in the world. When it has all been eaten, any “surplus population” will inevitably starve. Wars, revolutions and all human calamities are ultimately caused by hunger or the fear of hunger.

This is simply contradicted by considering how Darwin’s thoughts on evolution developed. He read Malthus in September 1838 but crucially had finished his Notebook B in January 1838. Here he made an argument for evolution from his knowledge of the the fossil succession. He could see the change of species but could not explain the HOW. On this he was like his predecessors. But Malthus, Blyth and Matthew gave the germ of the idea of Natural Selection giving a How of evolution. Wilson got it wrong. Darwin was working from field observations both of living and fossil creatures.

Once the Napoleonic wars were over, the population of Europe soared. So did the food supply. Instances of starvation occurred most notoriously in Ireland in the 1840s, where the selfish landlords, many of them absentee, insisted on exporting huge quantities of grain while the peasant population, dependent on the potato, died of hunger. The Westminster government was scandalously late in reacting, partly because it believed that the potato famine was a Malthusian “solution” to the “problem” of a large, anti-English, Roman Catholic population. In other words, Ireland was not a demonstration of the truth of Malthusianism, it was a victim of it. We find similar, and much more alarming examples, later in history, when Darwin’s ideas were used to justify genocide and mass murder.

Darwin was a war baby, born in 1809 during Napoleon’s attempt to starve the country. In the previous 50 years, British stock breeders, taking a leaf out of the book of racehorse breeders, had begun to vary and increase the amount of eatable livestock. This was the era when the Aberdeen Angus and the Gloucester Old Spot first appeared. It was the Royal Navy in 1805, and the British and German armies in 1815, that defeated Napoleon, but the farmers and fishermen did their bit. Nevertheless, the memory of Britain’s Malthusian years lingered. Dickens’s Scrooge, with his snarling contempt for the “surplus population”, was conceived in the 1840s when Darwin was writing his first version of his famous theory, and showed how powerfully the central idea of Malthus survived.

Four of the species of finch observed by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, showing variation of beak. It was not Darwin but John Gould, an ornithological illustrator, who recognised them as distinct species
Four of the species of finch observed by Darwin on the Galapagos Islands, showing variation of beak. It was not Darwin but John Gould, an ornithological illustrator, who recognised them as distinct speciesGETTY IMAGES

Darwin had several reasons for wishing to conceal where his evolutionary ideas came from. He was acutely conscious that the most famous evolutionary scientist in British history was his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin who, 70 years before the Origin of Species, had posited the idea that life had a single origin, from which all the different species evolved.

When Charles Darwin went as a medical student to Edinburgh University, he found a lively scientific scene and attended the lectures of those who were avid readers, not only of Erasmus Darwin, but also of the French evolutionists, such as Lamarck, Cuvier and Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Darwin’s tutors, Robert Grant and Robert Jameson, made sure that he was up to date with the huge progress that had been made in evolutionary science in their day.

Why, when he grew to be famous as the author of the Origin of Species, did he play down the importance of what he had learnt at Edinburgh? Why did he imply, in his autobiography, that his grandfather’s work had no influence upon him? Why did he make so little reference to Grant, for example, who had set him thinking about the problems of evolutionary science, and to their solutions?

Erasmus Darwin wrote his ideas on evolution in verse and did not give much on a scientific basis of evolution. That is what was lacking in all his evolutionary predecessors.

One of the reasons is that Darwin, as well as being a supremely observant and talented naturalist and collector of specimens, was also boundlessly ambitious. His hero was Alexander von Humboldt, of whom Napoleon quipped (with some accuracy) that he was the most famous man in Europe. He was a universal genius who had travelled the world as a scientist-explorer-discoverer and returned to explain the mystery of life itself to Europeans agog for the answer.

Darwin was not content just to be a Victorian beetle-collector on a pennyfarthing bicycle. He had set his sights much higher and he ruthlessly refused to acknowledge his sources. When the Origin of Species was first published, Darwin received many letters of complaint from fellow scientists such as Baden Powell, father of the founder of the Scout movement, pointing out that he had not acknowledged their work.

BP’s letter no longer exists and from  remarks about it was not a letter of complaint. There may have been a few letters, but not the “many” of Wilson. This is shoddy scholarship.

Darwin was a weird mixture of being intensely shy and stridently in need of cutting a dashDarwin was also scared of upsetting the apple cart. Erasmus Darwin had been accused, together with Darwin’s other grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, the great potter-entrepreneur-industrialist, of sympathy with the French revolution. They were watched by the secret service. One of the chief reasons, after the Napoleonic wars, why British scientists fought shy of French evolutionary ideas was that they associated them with revolutionary ideas. The two things went hand in hand, and, of course, simple-minded creationism — the idea that God had simply plonked species down on earth in an immutable form — was indeed at variance with scientific truth.

Darwin was a weird mixture of being intensely shy and stridently in need of cutting a dash. He wanted to be famous, but he did not want the limelight. He was a liberal in politics, but in every aspect of life he was a small-c conservative. It horrified him that anyone would associate him with the revolutionary ideas that had animated Erasmus and Josiah. Before he died, he wrote a short autobiography for his children and in it any reference to 19th-century evolutionary biology before Charles had lived is blithely airbrushed from the story.

Why put so negatively/ It was not mentioned rather than air-brushed. It was a private autobiography more than anything else

A generation later, and the Darwinian faith had evolved the story of the master’s Damascene conversion to the theory of natural selection while he was a young man on HMS Beagle, sailing to the Galapagos Islands. We all know the story. Darwin noticed the different finches, from island to island, and how they had different-shaped beaks. It was here that he saw the phenomenon of descent by gradual modification happening before his very eyes.

What actually happened was this. Darwin sent back a vast number of specimens collected during the voyage of the Beagle. The notion is propounded that a revolution was taking place in his views on the immutability of species. As a matter of fact, Darwin failed to identify most of the finch specimens that he collected on the Galapagos as finches at all. Some he labelled blackbirds, others “gross beaks” and one a wren. He gave them to the Ornithological Society of London, who gave them to John Gould, an ornithological illustrator, to be identified. It was Gould, not Darwin, who recognised that they were all distinct species of finch.

So what, Darwin was more interested in the geology of the Galpagos

It was Captain FitzRoy, not Darwin, who made collections of finches and labelled them correctly, and, as Harvard University’s Frank Sulloway demonstrated in 1982, it was FitzRoy’s identification of the differences between the finches which enabled Gould to make his remarkable observations.

Darwin’s Descent of Man is an absurd, embarrassing book. I wonder sometimes how many Darwinians have actually read it to the endDarwin never mentioned the differences between the finches in the Origin of Species, even though, during the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of publication, Gould’s drawings of the Galapagos finches were reproduced again and again as if they were Darwin’s “discovery”. Moreover, Peter and Rosemary Grant, evolutionary biologists from Princeton University, spent over 25 summers studying these birds, mainly on the island of Daphne Major. They revealed that the beak changes were reversible. This is hardly “evolution”.

Beaks adapted from season to season depending upon whether droughts left large, tough seeds, or heavy rainfall resulted in smaller, softer seeds. Even had Darwin noticed the supposed evolution of finches’ beaks on the Galapagos Islands and thereby become an instantaneous convert to his famous theory, the epiphany would have been wrong.

We see here a classic evolution of mythology. And this is not surprising. Because Darwinism, as opposed to some of his groundbreaking work of natural history, such as in his studies of barnacles and earthworms, and his wonderful book on the expression of emotions in animals, was a religion from the start.

The Gloucester Old Spot and the Aberdeen Angus were not the only new hybrids which evolved through stockbreeding in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. An entirely new class came into being then, the class to which Darwin himself belonged. The rentier or upper-middle class provided Victorian England with almost all its intellectuals. They were in effect a new aristocracy and they fashioned the Victorian way of looking at the world.

It is not true that Victorian England was a pious place, nor that the majority of thinking women and men were simple Bible Christians who lost their faith when they read Darwin. Most 19th-century intellectuals were agnostics or atheists and Christians such as Gladstone or Newman were the exceptions. Most of these people longed for what a neo-Darwinian of the 20th century, Richard Dawkins, said was something that “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist”.

This is a naive and historically poor summary of Victorian thought and like his awful book on the Victorians. Here he airbrushes out Christians who did so much in science; Faraday, Joule, Kelvin, Sedgwick . He seems to be revivig the descredited warfare of science and religion

They believed they had found it in the extreme simplicity of Darwin’s theory that an impersonal force of nature, discarding the weak and promoting the strong, inexorably explains absolutely everything.

This is very simplisitic on the likes of Huxley and Hooker

In the Origin of Species, he had not mentioned the human race at all. In his Descent of Man, he finally admitted how he thought humanity had evolved. It is an absurd, indeed embarrassing, book. I wonder sometimes how many Darwinians have actually read it to the end. It tells us that savages such as he met in Tierra del Fuego spoke largely in grunts and had almost no vocabulary. Yet missionaries visited the place not long after Darwin and compiled a dictionary of their language, finding they possessed a vocabulary of over 30,000 words.

If Darwin had been right, the fittest, that is white, middle-class people, would predominate over the Irish and savages. The opposite appeared to be happeningBoth sinisterly, and ludicrously, the Descent of Man suggests that the survival of the fittest was not, in fact, occurring in Victorian Britain. If Darwin had been right, the fittest, that is white, middle-class people, would predominate over the Irish and savages. The opposite appeared to be happening. Darwin made it clear that he thought something would have to be done to correct this troubling state of affairs. His cousin Francis Galton took up the suggestion and pioneered the “science” of eugenics, in which he openly advocated making it illegal for savages and the working classes to breed. We all know where that led in the time of the national socialists, but we sometimes blind ourselves to the source of Hitler’s ideas.

Here we go – Darwin leads to social Darwinism (not) and that led to Hitler’s genocide. A spurious argument

It was not long before Darwin’s Descent had awoken Britain to a fear of “race suicide”. Sidney Webb, one of the leading left-wing social engineers of his generation and who helped draft the constitution of the Labour Party, feared Britain was “gradually falling to the Irish and the Jews” owing to their high rate of reproduction.

Webb, in common with HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill, shared the view that middle-class women would be “shirking in their duty” if they did not have families to outnumber those of the feckless poor. Less than 30 years would elapse between boring little Sidney Webb expressing the fear that his country would fall to the Irish and the Jews, and another European country, Germany, enacting the Reich Citizenship Law, the Marital Health Law and the Nuremberg Laws for racial segregation.

All were based on bogus Victorian science, much of which had started life in the gentle setting of Darwin’s study at Down House, near Bromley in Kent.

This is simply risible as anyone who has even dipped into Darwin’s incredible scientific output. He began as a geologist writing 3 works on the geology of the Beagle voyage recently described so well by Rob Wesson , an American seismologist who is an expert on South america and of course the geology he did in the UK

or a recent work by Jim Costa, an american biologist on all Darwin’s scientific work carried out while living at Downe House, from earthworms, climbing plants, orchids etc 

Now if these are bogus science then so is the work of Einstein and Hawking. This is a remarkably silly comment, but sums up the quality and perception of Wilson’s study of Darwin


Charles Darwin exposes A N Wilson as a fraud

What a rubbish article!!

Frankly this article by A N Wilson in the Evening Standard couldn’t have been much worse if it had been written by a Young earth Creationist like Ken Ham or Kent Hovind.

I lifted the whole article and made a few comments on the worst errors. I expect the book to be worse.

In the 90s I read Wilson’s two books; God’s Funeral – written in his athiest phase, and The Victorians, which on science and religion just repeated the well-worn, and, by then well-refuted, myth of the conflict of science and religion. I was not impressed then and am less so today.

Since then he has come back to faith , having originally been an Anglican ordinand. However he is still better at creative writing, rather than well-researched writing, which cares about intellectual honesty and accuracy.

It is so different from great biographies like that of Janet Browne, or rob Wesson’s recent study of Darwin’s South American geology – Darwin’s First Theory.

If you think I am annoyed about this, you may just be right.

For those who don’t know me, I am a semi-retired Anglican priest, who still runs a parish. I took a degree in geology and was an exploration geologist before ordination. I have written a fair amount on science and religion and also on Darwin’s geology and his beliefs.

BTW you should never use the word “silly” when criticising someone’s writing, unless………

A.N. Wilson: It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was

Two of his theories about evolution are wrong — and one resulting ‘science’ inspired the Nazis

Comments deleted!!

Visionary or crank? Charles Darwin in 1881, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron
Visionary or crank? Charles Darwin in 1881, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Charles Darwin, whose bearded face looks out at us from the £10 note, is about to be replaced by Jane Austen. I’ve spent the past five years of my life writing his biography and mastering his ideas. Which do you throw out of the balloon? Pride and Prejudice or The Origin of Species?

Funnily enough, in the course of my researches, I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago.

Silly writing. Very few, especially among scientists, venerate Darwin. He is highly regarded as a great scientist and his limitations known.

We had our own version of a Soviet statue war in London some years ago when the statue of Darwin was moved in the Natural History Museum. It now looms over the stairs brooding over the visitors. It did originally sit there, but it was replaced by a statue of Richard Owen, who was, after all, the man who had started the Natural History Museum, and who was one of the great scientists of the 19th century. Then in 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, Owen was booted out, and Darwin was put back, in very much the way that statues of Lenin replaced religious or monarchist icons in old Russia.

By the time Owen died (1892), Darwin’s reputation was fading, and by the beginning of the 20th century it had all but been eclipsed.

Too simplistic. If you read Bowler’s works eg The Non-Darwinian Revolution, you will note that after 1880 natural selection went out of favour for half a century. However Darwin was still highly respected as events on his centenary show.

Then, in the early to mid 20th century, the science of genetics got going. Science rediscovered the findings of Gregor Mendel (Darwin’s contemporary) and the most stupendous changes in life sciences became possible. Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, and thereafter the complexity and wonder of genetics, all demonstrable by scientific means, were laid bare. Only this week we have learned of medicine’s stupendous ability to zap embryonic, genetically transmuted disorders.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.


That is a most face-palming comment. The use of the word Darwinism is unhelpful whether to describe the science of Darwin or his so-called followers. As for Darwin his science is as accomplished as it is wide ranging. He started as a geologist and showed great prowess. I have been lucky to study his geology in Shropshire and Wales in depth. This took place before and after his voyage on the Beagle. This can be studied in Sandra Herbert Charles Darwin;geologist and Rob Wesson.Darwin’s first theory. (or my lesser writings just-before-the-beagle  ) He had great plans for his geology in the 1840s and want to look at every limestone reef in Britain but illness put paid to that..

So on moving to Downe he did a highly detailed study on Barnacles, wrote the Origin and after that wrote some wonderful scientific monographs on so many aspects of biology. He was fascinated by the chemistry of drosera/ sundew which catches flies instead of photosynthesising. He was the first to use chemistry in biology. An American friend is writing a book on his experimental work.

I wonder if Wilson has read many of Darwin’s books, scientific papers or even notebooks

None of this denigrates Mendel or Wallace. Though Mendel is not highly significant.


It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged. But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel?

A silly comment. All good scientists make lots of mistakes. Darwin described his 1839 work on the Parallel roads of Glenroy  as a “long, gigantic blunder”. I found many in his 1831 geology BUT he produced so much good science.


There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion. Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist.

Perhaps so for Dawkins up to a point, but still grossly simplistic and silly.

You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work.

Silly. There had been tentative suggestions for 50 years, but none whether Erasmus Darwin Lamarck or Chambers in the Vestiges were acceptable scientific theories. Darwin produced the first scientifically TENABLE theory of evolution, even though there were gaps


His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations.

silly. See above. BTW Cuvier adamantly rejected evolution but was excellent on the succession of life worked out from fossils

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story.

Pure fantasy. You just need to read all his references in his books

He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him.

Probably true as Erasmus put his ideas into a poem 🙂

He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Many reckon that Gould and Eldredge overstated the jumps, but both they and Darwin were operating on a long timescale.  Hey what!! I wonder if Wilson wants to reject the geological timescale. He might even find Ken Ham a good buddy.

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples.

A typical Creationist argument. in fact “Darwinism” (I hate the term – just say evolutionary science) predicted Tiktaalik and Shubin went to find it in Greenland. In a sense all fossils are intermediates!! Wilson’s misunderstanding of evolution is immense.

Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things.

Silly. Despite, or in spite of his wealth., Darwin had a great concern for the poor and needy. This statement runs contrary to everything we read about him and his actions

He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Eugenics cannot be blamed on Darwin

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

A smear tactic with no historical foundation

Now that we have replaced Darwin on the tenner with the more benign figure of Miss Austen, is this not the moment to reconsider taking down his statue from the Natural History Museum, and replacing him with the man who was sitting on the staircase until 2009 — the museum’s founder, Richard Owen?

A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (John Murray, £25) is out next month

Darwin’s Boulders

In June 1842 Charles Darwin undertook his last geological field trip. He was at his father’s house, The Mount  in Shrewsbury, that month and after a winter of sickness, he felt somewhat better. Thus, he went in his gig to Snowdonia to assess whether Buckland was correct in identifying proof of a former Ice Age. In October 1841 William Buckland travelled to Wales with Thomas Sopwith (his grandson designed the Sopwith Camel, a WW1 fighter plane) to see whether Agassiz could be right about a former Ice Age. In a few days of horrendous Welsh weather Buckland identified all the main glacial troughs


Buckland dressed for Welsh Glaciers by Thomas Sopwith


View from top of Y Garn 3104ft showing the Llugwy trough leading to Capel Curig, Llyn Idwal, a morainic lake.

To the left is Nant Francon, viewed below – with embellishments.



In 1831 de la Beche painted this watercolour to show that little rivers could not produce big valleys. He was right, but ideas of glaciation were a few years ahead.

This map shows the routes of both Buckland and Darwin in 1841-2 with some further details


This map shows the locality of Cwm Idwal with the lake/llyn in the centre.


Darwin spent a few days in Capel Curig and then several around Cwm Idwal before moving on to Moel Tryfan and then Llanberis and Snowdon.


Most iconic are the boulders he found in Cwm Idwal dubbed the Darwin Boulders. Here is the partial transcription of his 1842 notes, which are often scarcely legible


60- 80 yards west of exit of river – a gigantic boulder

broken into 4 tabular surfaces thus rest on their narrow edges

upright. the two lower ones have fallen over + rest on

neighbouring grt boulder _ the two upright plates stand

transversely on gentle slope in which they rest _ the fragment and

so far a part this xxxxx xxxx must have been

thrown with force where it now stands, but not rolled

from neighbouring precipice otherwise plates have been thrown

over . _ action of ice. fallen though . _ example xxxx

stronger . =

First, the boulders lie to the EAST of the “exit of river” and not the WEST, which confuses all. It is alway great to confuse students!!

He sees the 4 (angular ) bits as the original boulder which fell through the glacier and landed on another which shows a few marks of being water-worn.

At that time Buckland and Darwin only noted AN Ice Age and not a succession of them as became apparent later. This in itself was a great breakthrough


The boulders with Twll Du/ Devils Kitchen behind which he described in 1831


Boulders with Pne yr Oleu Wen behind


Same, but closer too


Boulders from across Llyn Idwal with Pen yr Hegli Du behind


Boulders just visible to the left of the llyn. View of Idwal slabs and Cwm Cneifion above – an ancient hanging valley.


My dog and field assistant Topper in 1999 after he had waited for me to negotiate a cornice on the headwall of Cwm Cneifion.


Boulders with Carnedd Llewellyn behind


Boulders from the moraines of Cwm Cneifion

Most of these photos were taken in August 2017 while leading a field trip for Harvard Summer School

For further reading

Darwin, Buckland and the Welsh Ice Age, 1837 – 1842, Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 123 (2012) 649–662


And on his visit of 1831

Darwin at Llanymynech; British Journal for the History of Science, 1996, Vol 29, pp469-78

Darwin’s Dog-leg ; Archives of the History of Natural History, 1998, Vol 25, p59-73

I   coloured a map ; Archives of the History of Natural History, 2000, Vol 27,p69-79

Charles Darwin’s 1831 notes of Shropshire,Archives of the History of Natural History 2002,Vol 29 , p 27-9; co-authored  with Prof.S.Herbert (University of Maryland)

Darwin’s Welsh Geology, 1831,  Endeavour  Spring 2001, 25, p33-37

Available here just-before-the-beagle