John Playfair

Visions of Science: Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

James Secord opens his fifth chapter, which focuses on Charles Lyell’s (1797-1875) Principles of Geology (1830-33), by stating that geology had become the most contentious of the new sciences. But this requires some qualification. In Britain, where knowledge of the natural world was used to prove the existence, power, and wisdom of God, many leading geologists were clergymen. The situation was rather different in France, however, where leading intellectuals were anti-clerical.

The history of geology is complex and full of interesting characters. Hexamera, or commentaries on the creation account in the book of Genesis, have been part of the Christian tradition since the second century. “Sacred chronology,” as it was called, attempted to calculate the age of the earth based on the genealogies of the patriarchs recorded in Genesis, Jewish lunar calenders, and pagan histories. There was no consensus among chronologists, however. The most famous (or infamous) of course was the date offered by James Ussher (1581-1656) in his Annals of the Old and New Testament (1650).

With the advent of mechanical philosophy, many thinkers attempted to give a new and more refined account of the earth. René Descartes (1596-1650), John Ray (1627-1705), Thomas Burnet (1635-1715), William Whiston (1667-1752), and John Woodward (1667-1728) had used prevailing mechanical theories to explain the formation and changes of the earth, now called geomorphology. Yet these thinkers proposed mechanical theories that accorded with the biblical account.

The presence of organic fossils, however, had always presented a challenge to the traditional biblical narrative. At the dawn of the eighteenth century, the discoveries and theories of Carolus Linnaeus (1707-78), George Louis Leclarc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827) and others had made it increasingly difficult to reconcile a literal reading of “days” in Genesis with observations from nature. Despite these difficulties, biblically focused geology continued throughout the eighteenth century, in the work of, for instance, Jean-André Deluc (1727-1817), John Townsend (1739-1816), John Macculloch (1773-1835) and others.

What has been called “naturalistic” or “secular” theories of the earth arose from seventeenth century deism. Perhaps the most successful was Scottish gentlemen farmer James Hutton (1726-97). In his Theory of the Earth (1795), Hutton proposed an immensely old earth to explain its changes, completely circumventing the “biblical” time scale. Independent of Hutton, French deist Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), a protégé of Buffon, likewise proposed an immense age to the earth. And George Cuvier (1769-1832), a devout Protestant, viewed the flood as one of a series of dramatic natural events, but like Hutton and Lamarck, he understood the earth to be extremely old. In 1813, Cuvier explained that there had been a series of great geological “catastrophes” in earth history. These, he supposed, wiped out species in restricted regions. John Playfair (1748-1819) popularized Hutton’s work in his Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) the following century, and in 1822, English geologist William Daniel Conybeare (1787-1857) accepted the Huttonian theory to explain the elevation of mountains and continents. Indeed, Hutton’s ideas—as conveyed by Playfair—would serve as the foundation of Lyell’s Principle of Geology. As Secord writes, “Playfair’s Illustrations presented geology as a science which dealt with stable systems operating under unvarying laws. Lyell never seems to have read Hutton’s original publications, but he used Playfair’s works extensively.”

Secord claims that the Principles of Geology was used “to come to terms with the consequences of scientific findings in relation to the biblical accounts of the Creation and the Flood.” He nicely sums up the central argument of these book thus: “Those studying the history of the earth should carry out their investigations under the assumption that causes now visible (volcanoes, rivers, tidal currents, earthquakes, storms) are of the same kind that have acted in the past, and have done so with the same degree of intensity as in the present.” In a well-known aphorism, Lyell held that “the present is the key to the past.”

Lyell was born and raised in a moderate Tory environment. By the time he began writing his Principles, however, his sympathies were becoming ever more Whiggish. At Oxford he encountered a geology of a particularly devout kind. For example, he attended the lectures of Rev. William Buckland (1784-1844), his first teacher in geology, and who also spoke of the earth as “millions of millions of years” in age in his Reliquiae diluvianae (1823). His interpretation was sanctioned by many leading Anglican theologians, including John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) and E.B. Pusey (1800-82). In Buckland’s scheme, the Bible covered only the history of mankind, not the rest of creation. According to Secord, Buckland offered his students a “romantic vision of the progress of life through countless ages, populated by strange animals perfectly adapted to even stranger physical conditions, and culminating in the creation of the human race.”

By the mid-1820s, Lyell was an ardent liberal Protestant. Although trained as a barrister, he saw in science a “refuge from political and religious strife.” Lyell abandoned the attempt to harmonize Genesis and geology in detail, finding in Genesis religious truths, such as God’s creation of all things, but no science. Like many others, Lyell argued for a greatly expanded time frame for Creation.

Lyell published his first edition of the Principles through John Murray. But this was intended for a limited audience. He “targeted a conservative and respectable readership,” writes Secord. He wanted to convince gentlemen and ladies that geology was not anti-Bible and anti-Christian, and that it had nothing to do with materialism. He wrote for “an enlightened clerisy of truth-seekers,” and “saw no need for ordinary readers to master all the research and reasoning that had gone into the making of knowledge.”

Lyell challenged Cuvier’s “catastrophist” perspective, arguing that all earth movements were slow and gradual on the same scale as modern volcanoes, rivers, tidal currents, earthquakes, and storms. According to Lyell, a scientific, vera causa geology did not admit the existence of catastrophes, especially the like of which had never been observed. Lyell claimed that the laws of nature have not changed over time, that the kind of causes operating now have not changed, and that the intensity of these causes have always remained the same. Catastrophist speculations were not science and therefore had no place in geology.

As a science, moreover, geology should have nothing to do with providential interventions. Lyell’s theory was similar to Hutton’s. William Whewell (1794-1866), Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, had coined the terms “uniformitarianism” and “catastrophism” in 1832 in his review of Lyell’s Principles, and firmly assigned Lyell to the uniformitarian camp. Lyell, it has been said, envisaged a “steady-state” earth, and as far as he was concerned, there was no overall change in any particular direction—that is, no “progress.”

But as Secord observes, Lyell did see progress in the history of mankind. Nature was static, to be sure; but humanity was progressive. While he “rejected the possibility of constructing any narrative ‘story of the earth,'” Lyell nevertheless saw the history of mankind as “militantly Whiggish, developmental, and progressive.” Interestingly, many of his contemporaries claimed that the stratigraphic record did show progress in nature. Clerical geologists, such as Buckland and Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) gladly connected their geological findings with biblical history and Christian eschatology.

Whewell’s label for Lyell was not entirely fair. In public statements, Lyell “no more advocated a steady-state, cyclical, or non-progressionist cosmology than he did progression itself.” Indeed, no narrative was possible, for “too much of the record had been lost.” Nevertheless, he saw uniformity as the guiding principle of geologists, and science in general.

Lyell’s Principles were well-received, even among religious reviewers. But this should come as no surprise. By the mid-nineteenth century, most clergy geologists acknowledged that the earth was a great deal older than the 6,000 years of Ussher’s “biblical” chronology. Nevertheless, Lyell’s attempt to completely free geology from Moses remained controversial. Indeed, in his polemical “historical sketch of the progress of geology,” Lyell considered the clergy as the chief obstacle of geology. He writes, “the progress of geology is the history of a constant and violent struggle between new opinions and ancient doctrines, sanctioned by the implicit faith of many generations, and supposed to rest on scriptural authority.”

Temple of Serapis

The Temple of Serapis, frontispiece to Lyell’s Principles of Geology (London: Murray, 1830)

At the same time, Lyell was not trying to undermine the clergy. In fact, he wanted to show that change did not mean complete destruction, as the frontispiece of the Principles demonstrates. All of this appealed to more liberal-minded clergy and readers. Lyell felt confident that his book “will be thought quite orthodox and would only offend the ultras.”

But as Secord points out, the new geology had unintended consequences. Both atheists and deists used geology to “give the stamp of authority to unbelief.” There were particularly dangers in questions of human species. In his Philosophie zoologique (1809), for instance, Lamarck had argued for the evolution of one species to another, that is, “transmutation.” When Lyell visited Paris, Secord tells us, he was “shocked to discover that transmutation has met with some degree of favor from many naturalists.” But in his Principles, Lyell argued transmutations as “untenable.” This rejection was part and parcel of his uniformity principle. Since there is no progressive history of life, no progress was possible, and therefore no evolutionary transmutation. Moreover, his readers “needed to be shown that geology was safe,” and thus French ideas of transmutation needed to be crushed. But more than this, Lyell himself was religiously appalled by the doctrine of transmutation. As Secord notes, his private notebooks revealed a deep-seated contempt for transmutation. Secord writes:

If transmutation was true, these notebook entries suggested, no divinely implanted reason, spirit, or soul would set human beings apart; they would be nothing but an improved form of apes that he watched, fascinated, at the newly opened London Zoo. Transmutation was a dirty, disgusting doctrine, which raised fears of miscegenation and sexual corruption. Not only did transmutation repel Lyell’s refined aesthetic sense, it undermined his lofty conception of science as the search for laws governing a perfectly adapted divine creation. With humans no more than better beasts and religion exposed as a fable, the foundations of civil society would crumble, just as they had done in revolutionary France.

It was his reading of Lamarck’s Philosophie zoologique in 1827 that motivated Lyell to deny all grand narratives of progress.