Earth Notes - Darwin at the Grand Canyon

F – Earth Notes: Darwin at the Grand Canyon

In a place as overpoweringly remarkable as the Grand Canyon, it's no surprise that the canyon's features bear impressive names. Its buttes and monuments are named for everyone from Hindu and Egyptian deities to characters from King Arthur's court. Even Charles Darwin makes an appearance. Yet the renowned naturalist never actually saw the great chasm.

In the late 1800s, British journalist George Wharton James christened an obscure set of landmarks near Bass Canyon to honor scientists and philosophers who developed and championed evolutionary theory.

James was a colorful character a former Methodist minister, publisher, vegetarian, and nudist. He spent a brief tenure as a guide for William Wallace Bass and named Darwin Plateau, Huxley Terrace and Spencer, Wallace and Fiske buttes during that time.

The self-educated explorer was fascinated by the newly emerging science of evolutionary theory. He saw it both as an intellectual pursuit and as a reflection of social Darwinism, a popular and controversial ideology at the time.

In the early 1900s, while mapping the canyon for the United States Geological Survey, Dutch geologist Francois Matthes (Ma-TIE-es) named Evolution Amphitheater, thus completing the reference to the noted biologists and philosophers honored nearby.

2009 is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. It seems fitting that one of history's most influential scientists is honored in one of the world's grandest landscapes, despite his never having been there. One can't help but wonder what new ideas he would have come up with if he had.

-Christa Sadler