|Sir Charles Lyell |
"I really think my books come half out of Lyell's brain,"
said Charles Darwin, "I see through his eyes." But Sir Charles Lyell, the great
naturalist's friend and mentor, had a hard time returning the compliment.
Although he privately encouraged Darwin's evolutionary work for years, Lyell
could not bring himself to endorse his friend's theories in his own popular
geology books. Much to Darwin's disgust, Lyell was a past master of the art of
coming down squarely on both sides of an issue.
Lyell's father, Charles Lyell of Kinnordy, was a Scots laird
who was torn between scientific and liteary interests. He was a keen amateur
botanist, but also managed to produce a well-known English translation of
The younger Charles is also divided between two
professions; he started out as a lawyer, but his strong interest in geology
finally won out. He had admired the works of James Hutton and was instructed by
the geologist William Buckland, with whom he examined volcanic layers on field
trips to Italy.
Just before Darwin was to leave on his five-year voyage
aboard H.M.S. Beagle, his Cambridge professor Reverend John Henslow
recommended he take along the first volume of Lyell's Principles of
Geology (1830), which had recently been published. "By all means read
it for the facts," Henslow instructed, "but on no account believe the wild
On this founding document of modern geology, Lyell had
argued: (1) that the geologic past can best be understood in terms of natural
processes we can actually observe today, such as rivers depositing layers of
silt, wind and water eroding landscapes, glacers advancing or retreating
(actualism); (2) that change is slow and steady (gradualism), rather than
quick and sudden; (3) that natural laws are constant and eternal, operating
at about the same intensity in the past as they do today. (Sometimes slower or
faster, but averaging about the same overall rate of change.)
Darwin devoured the book, which was brilliantly
thoroughly grounded in fieldwork and seemed to place the study of geology on a
new and sensible footing. Although Lyell believed living species were fixed
and not related by common descent, he gave Darwin the means of seeing what
wonders could be wrought in geology by slow, small forces operating over
immense spans of time. "I am tempted to extend Lyell's methods even farther
than he does" Darwin wrote.
Although he inspired Darwin and became his life-long friend
and mentor, Lyell had great difficulty accepting "the descent of man from the
brutes," because, he confessed, "it takes away much of the charm from my
speculations on the past relating to such matters." Nevertheless, later in
life he had to grudgingly acknowledge the growing evidence. Darwin was
frustrated and angry with Lyell's refusal to support him wholeheartedly in
print, though he did so in private conversations. He simply could not, as he
put it, "go the whole Orang."
What was really peculiar to Lyell are two ideas rarely
associated with his Principles of Geology: the older ideas that earth
and water trade substances and shape each other, maintaining some kind of
long-range balance (the steady-state Earth), and that time and life proceed
in cycles. It was conceivable to Lyell that man and our familiar animals could
all become extinct, only to be replaced by dinosaurs again in a subsequent
creation, followed, in some distant age, by a "new creation" of man. Aside
from historians of science, Lyell's belief in cyclic time has been all but
Lyell wrote that only a few extinctions occurred at a time,
which "gradually" added up, rather than wholesale extinctions. New species were
"called into being" to replace them. Somewhat cynically, he refused to specify
how or what he meant, leaving the interpretation open, so as not to ruffle the
feathers of the theologians.
Caution about antagonizing anyone and an extreme desire for
social acceptance curbed Lyell's adventurousness in the realm of ideas. Darwin
thought it ridiculous how Charles and Lady Lyell would spend hours poring over
dinner invitations, making it a matter of great importance which to accept and
which to decline. It was no accident that Lyell's determination to offend no
one of importance resulted in his receiving a knighthood, and later, being
named baronet. Darwin received no national honors during his lifetime.
Lyell saw his Principles of Geology, which first
appeared during 1830-1833, through 13 revised editions. It had started out as
a long, connected argument, but later became a jumble of bits and pieces added
to include newer research. Finally, the book itself became a career and
produced substantial revenues for its author.
Charles Darwin had Lyell in mind when he wryly remarked
that scientific men should be put to death at the age of 60, so their
inflexible habits of mind could not interfere with the progress of the newer
generations. After discussing Darwin's theories at length in his
"Geological Evidences As to the Antiquity of Man" (1863), Lyell asked
Darwin if "now he might be allowed to live." However, he always hedged his
presentations of his friend's evolutionary ideas and never explicitly
embraced them in his public writings.
[ Richard Milner,
Encyclopedia of Evolution, New York: Facts on File, 1990, p. 286. ]
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