London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1842. First edition. Octavo measuring 222 x 142mm bound in the publisher's original blue cloth stamped in blind and gilt. A Near Fine copy with very slight wear at the spine ends. Collates complete, with half-title, 3 folding engraved maps (of which 2 are hand-colored in outline) and 6 woodblocks; includes 16 pages of ads dated May 1842 inserted at rear. Bookplates of the Earl of Enniskillen and Frederick du Cane Godman to front pastedown and front endpaper. Frontispiece map lightly creased along vertical folds and faint offsetting to plates, otherwise an exceptional copy.
"Coral Reefs was Darwin's first monograph and addressed an immensely ambitious subject. It is perhaps second only to the Origin of Species for its masterful deduction from observation, leading to the construction of a theory that, if proved, would exceed all previous attempts and virtually solve its subject...it was for this book that Darwin was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1864" (Chancellor). During the decade of Darwin's research, coral reefs were a popular and hotly contested area of scientific inquiry, with Lyell leading the pack with his theory on the growth of coral reefs at the crater rims of sunken volcanoes. Despite being devoted to Lyell's ideas, on this matter Darwin deeply disagreed with his senior. Before departing on the Beagle, Darwin composed a detailed proposition for the growth of reefs, their relation to calcareious skeletons of simply organisms, and their survival and evolution dependent on sea levels. Darwin's observations while on the Beagle made it possible for him to deduce the truth of his propositions, although it would not be until 1950 and 1970 respectively that studies on atolls and plate tectonics would provide hard evidence for it.
Darwin envisioned a three-volume series call the Geology of the Voyage of the Beagle. This work on coral reefs was the first book published, the second volume would follow in 1844 and the third in 1846, but the three volumes are rarely offered together.
"It could be argued that Coral Reefs is one of the finest scientific books ever published in which illustrations (in this case, numerous detailed charts and one enormous world may showing all known reefs) are used as an integral part of that argument...It was Darwin's genius to see that coral reefs, although plainly geological structures on a stupendous scale, were created by slow, gradual growth of countless billions of tiny creatures over vast periods of time...This was at the core of his life's work...One could argue that Coral Reefs was the first volume of Darwin's philosophy of nature, a treatise of truly Victorian proportions" (Chancellor). Near Fine (Item #2923)