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Charles Lyell and the Philosophers of Science

  • Michael Ruse (a1)


Two of the most influential evaluations of Charles Lyell's geological ideas were those of the philosophers of science, John F. W. Herschel and William Whewell. In this paper I shall argue that the great difference between these evaluations—whereas Herschel was fundamentally sympathetic to Lyell's geologizing, Whewell was fundamentally opposed—is a function of the fact that Herschel was an empiricist and Whewell a rationalist. For convenience, I shall structure the discussion around the three key elements in Lyell's approach to geology. First, he was an actualist: he wanted to explain past geological phenomena in terms of causes of the kind that are operating at present. Second, he was a uniformitarian: he wanted to explain only in terms of causes of the degree operating at present; that is, he wanted to avoid ‘catastrophes’. Third, as a geologist he saw the earth as being in a steady-state, in which all periods are essentially similar to one another. Because they will prove important, I draw attention also to two major features of Lyell's programme. First, there is his theory of climate, which suggests, ‘without help from a comet’, that earthly temperature fluctuations are primarily a function of the constantly changing distribution of land and sea. Clearly this theory is actualistic, for it is based on such present phenomena as the Gulf Stream; it is also uniformitarian and supports a steady-state world picture. Second, there is Lyell's denial that the fossil record is progressive, his criticism of Lamarckian evolutionism, ostensibly on the grounds that modern evidence is against it (i.e. it fails actualistically), and his rather veiled claim that the origins of species will nevertheless prove in some way natural, that is, subject to causes falling beneath lawlike regularities in principle discernible by us.



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1Lyell, C., Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface, by reference to causes now in operation (3 vols., London, 18301833).
2 I draw heavily here on Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘The strategy of Lyell's Principles of geology’, Isis, Ixi (1969), 533,
and The meaning of fossils (New York and London, 1972).
3 [Mrs] Lyell, K. M. (ed.), Life, letters and journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart. (2 vols., London, 1881), i. 262.
4 The important paper, Bartholomew, Michael, ‘Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell's response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man’, The British journal for the history of science, vi (19721973), 261303,
suggests that Lyell must have invoked miracles for organic origins. I have given my reasons for thinking otherwise in my paper, ‘The relationship between science and religion in Britain, 1830–70’, Church history, xliv (1975), 505–22.
5Herschel, J. F. W., A preliminary discourse on the study of natural philosophy (London, 1831).
6 Herschel, of course, had only the first volume of the Principles when he wrote his Discourse.
7Cannon, W. F., ‘The impact of uniformitarianism: two letters from John Herschel to Charles Lyell, 1836–1837’, Proceedings of the American philosophical society, cv (1961), 301–14, especially p. 305.
8Herschel, , Discourse, op. cit. (5), pp. 287–8.
9Herschel, , p. 144.
10Herschel, , p. 149.
See also Kavaloski, V., ‘The “vera causa” principle: an historico-philosophical study of a metatheoretical concept from Newton through Darwin’ (University of Chicago Ph.D. thesis, 1974);
Wilson, D., ‘Herschel and Whewell's version of Newtonianism’, Journal of the history of ideas, xxxv (1974), 7997.
11Lyell, , op. cit. (3), ii. 3.
12Herschel, , Discourse, op. cit. (5), p. 285.
13Cannon, , op. cit. (7), pp. 307–8.
14Herschel, , Discourse, op. cit. (5), p. 285.
15Herschel, , p. 285.
16Herschel, , pp. 146–7.
17Herschel, J. F. W., ‘On the astronomical causes which may influence geological phenomena’, Transactions of the Geological Society of London, iii (1832), 293–9.
18Herschel, , Discourse, op. cit. (5), p. 283.
19Herschel, , pp. 281–2.
20Herschel, , pp. 282–3.
21Cannon, , op. cit. (7), p. 307.
22Cannon, , p. 307.
23Whewell, W., History of the inductive sciences (3 vols., London, 1837), ii. 127.
24Whewell, W., iii. 481–9.
25Whewell, W., iii. 549.
26Whewell, W., iii. 548.
27Whewell, W., iii. 575–6.
28Whewell, W., Philosophy of the inductive sciences (2 vols., London, 1840), ii. 124.
29 At one point Whewell actually allowed that in the inorganic world ‘all the facts of geological observation are of the same kind as those which occur in the common history of the world’; see [Whewell, W.], ‘Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell, vol. 2’, Quarterly review, xlvii (1832), 108–32, especially p. 126 (his italics). But the context makes it clear that, at most, he was arguing that the causes in the inorganic world are all natural.
30Lyell, , op. cit. (3), ii. 5.
31Lyell, , ii., 6.
32Whewell, , History, op. cit. (23), iii. 617.
33Whewell, , iii. 618.
34Whewell, , Philosophy, op. cit. (28), ii. 441 (his italics).
35Whewell, , ii. 441–2.
36Whewell, , ii. 446.
37 Herschel was aware of, and lauded, consiliences in science, particularly in the context of the wave theory of light, but they were not for him the central constituent of verae causae.
38Whewell, , History, op. cit. (23), iii. 588–9.
39Whewell, , iii. 574.
41 See Ruse, op. cit. (4).
42Whewell, , Philosophy, op. cit. (28), ii. 126.
43Whewell, , History, op. cit. (23), iii. 616.
44Whewell, , Philosophy, op. cit. (28), ii. 127.
45Whewell, , ii. 118.
46Whewell, , ii. 130.
47Whewell, , History, op. cit. (23), iii. 618–19.
48 [Whewell, ], op. cit. (29), p. 117.
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