Charles Darwin witnessed the devastation caused by a major earthquake in Chile. That was back in 1835. Anchor Marco Werman finds out more about Darwin’s observations of quake-hit Chile from Edward O. Wilson, the editor of a recent edition of four of Darwin’s greatest books.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Chile is scrambling to provide aid to tens of thousands of survivors of Saturday’s earthquake. The quake killed more than 700 people and that number is expected to rise. But Chilean Senator Evelyn Mathei says it would have been worse if Chileans didn’t have such a strong construction code.
EVELYN MATHEI: We really built very strictly with rules concerning that buildings can withstand earthquakes. But still it was so violent that many things did break down and so it’s very difficult to get to the people, to get them water, to get them food and to get them medication. Many hospitals are on the ground. So it’s ghastly.
WERMAN: Chilean Senator Evelyn Mathei. The damage earthquakes cause can be horrendous as we’ve just been reminded once again. But in some ways and earthquake can also be a beautiful thing. Another massive quake hit Chile almost exactly 175 years ago and among the eyewitnesses was none other than Charles Darwin. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson is the editor of a recent edition of four of Darwin’s greatest books. Professor Wilson, how was first of all, what Charles Darwin was doing in Chile in 1835?
EDWARD WILSON: He was on a five year voyage. It was the definitive voyage of his life in which he learned a huge amount about nature, including things like earthquakes and their effects. He was there as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle and the Beagle was doing a coast and geodetic survey around the entire, almost the entirety of South America, but particularly on the Atlantic Coast. He happened to be within a short distance of Concepcion when the great earthquake hit there in 1835.
WERMAN: Right, and regarding that earthquake he wrote to his sister Caroline “it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld”, but he also wrote “it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England. It is, indeed, most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.” Professor Wilson, tell us some of what he might have witnessed in 1835 and what we know for sure, and why it moved him so.
WILSON: There’s an illustration in the book on his classic The Voyage of the Beagle showing the ruins of Concepcion and in particular the cathedral, which was just about leveled. He was impressed, of course, by the awesomeness of the destruction itself, but then he had in the back of his mind, by the time he got there he was already well into his voyage and he already had in his mind the significance of earthquakes and other seismic and major geological events. In terms of what was called uniformitarianism, that theory was created by Charles Lyell and Darwin had been reading about it on the outset of his voyage. And what Lyell said was that the earth is a lot older than just several thousand years – - from literal reading of the Bible. And Lyell said these changes, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions created the surface of the world as we see it today. This had a major impact on his thinking about evolution. He said – - that with all these marvelous species, probably were not all created in one stroke, but over a long period of geologic time. So that was one impact almost certainly that the Concepcion disaster had on him.
WERMAN: I see how he could see evolution through geology, but it’s a little difficult to see how he made the jump from geologic evolution to earthquakes actually having some bearing on his formulation of the ideas of natural selection of species.
WILSON: Well it was actually the time scale and the fact that evolution in geologic structure and geography were occurring. So he knew that there was geological evolution and that certainly had an impact in thinking and it – - on us. If you give a long enough time and some mutations and natural selection, a very long period of time will give you a new species.
WERMAN: Edward O. Wilson, the Pellegrino University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and the editor of “From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books”, thanks very much for speaking with us about this.
WILSON: It’s my pleasure.
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