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Charles Lyell and the Principles of the History of Geology

  • Roy Porter (a1)

History is the science which investigates the successive changes that have taken place in the material and intellectual conditions of man; it inquires into the causes of those changes, and the influence which they have exerted in modifying the life and mind of mankind.

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1 Cf. Lyell, Charles, Principles of geology, or the modern changes of the earth and its inhabitants considered as illustrative of geology, vol. i (London, 1830), p. 1. (Henceforth cited as Principles.)
2 Cf. Ramsay, Andrew, Passages in the history of geology (London, 1848);
SirGeikie, Archibald, Founders of geology (London, 1897),
chapter XII; Bonney, T. G., Charles Lyell and modern geology (London, 1895);
SirBailey, E. B., Charles Lyell (London, 1962).
3 [] MrsLyell, K. M. (ed.), Life, letters and journals of Sir Charles Lyell, Bart. (2 vols., London, 1881), i. 268. (Henceforth cited as LLJ.)
4 Thus, writing of an episode in the history of geology, Bonney writes, it ‘cannot be better summed up than in Lyell's own words’; see Bonney, , op. cit. (2), p. 80. Bonney's account of the history of geology is indeed nothing other than a précis of Lyell's first four chapters.
5Whewell, W., History of the inductive sciences from the earliest to the present times (3rd edn., 3 vols., London, 1857), iii. 398520.
6Gillispie, C. C., Genesis and geology (Cambridge, Mass., 1951),
chapter V; Kuhn, T. S., The structure of scientific revolutions (Chicago, 1962), p. 10;
Wilson, Leonard G., Charles Lyell. The years to 1841: the revolution in geology (New Haven, 1972), where Wilson talks of Lyell's ‘revolutionary influence on the history of science’ (p. xi).
7 For Lyell's equivalent injunction for how to do geology, see Principles, i. 3.
8 For a historiographical stress on ‘meaning’, see Rudwick, M. J. S., The meaning of fossils (New York and London, 1972).
9 Cf. Lyell, Principles, vol. i, heading to chapter I. There has been almost no historiographical debate over the principles and practice of the history of geology. In this respect, Schneer, C. J. (ed.), Toward a history of geology (Cambridge, Mass., 1969),
is disappointing. But see Rappaport, Rhoda, ‘Problems and sources in the history of geology’, History of science, iii (1964), 6078,
and Eyles, V. A., ‘The history of geology; suggestions for further research’, History of science, v (1966), 7786.
10LLJ, i. 271.
11Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘The strategy of Lyell's Principles of geology’, Isis, lxi (1970), 433 (9).
12 Cf. [Playfair, J.], Review of Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Edinburgh review, xix (1811), 207–28;
[Fitton, W. H.], Review of Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Edinburgh review, xxviii (1817), 7094;
[Fitton, W. H.], Review of A delineation of the strata of England and Wales, Edinburgh review, xxx (1818), 312–37;
Buckland, William, Vindiciae geologicae (Oxford, 1820);
Conybeare, W. D., ‘Report on the progress, actual state and ulterior prospects of geological science’, in Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1831–2 (London, 1833), pp. 365414;
Encyclopaedia Britannica (4th edn., Edinburgh, 1810),
sub GEOLOGY; Rees's cyclopaedia (London, 1819), vol. xvi,
sub GEOLOGY. Almost nothing has been written evaluating early-nineteenth-century accounts of the history of geology. For a largely bibliographical start, see White, George W., ‘The history of geology and mineralogy as seen by American writers, 1803–1835: a bibliographical essay’, Isis, lxiv (1974), 197214.
13Desmarest, N., ‘Géographie physique’, in Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières: Par une société de gens de lettres, de savans et d'artistes (5 vols., Paris, 17941828);
Brocchi, G. B., Conchologia fossile subapennina (2 vols., Milan, 1814);
Keferstein, C., Geschichte und Litteratur der Geognosie (Halle, 1840). The one other contemporary British account of the history of geology of some intellectual breadth is that of Humphry Davy, of which an edition is being prepared from a manuscript in possession of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall by Professor A.M. Ospovat. In many ways, Davy parallels Lyell, but as the philosopher of the progressionists.
14 As is well emphasized in [Scrope, G. P.], Review of Charles Lyell, Principles of geology, Quarterly review, xliii (1830), 411–69.
15 For Lyell's strategical dissimulation, cf. LLJ, i. 173 and 271.
16 For Lyell's preoccupation with popular interference in geology, see Principles, i. 28.
17Lyell, , Principles, i. 21 f., where he is indirectly assailing Christian priesteraft through an attack on Islam. His discussion of Buffon mainly centres on his persecution by the Sorbonne (p. 48).
18 For important insight into Lyell's religious commitments, see 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;
Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘Charles Lyell, F.R.S. (1797–1875) and his London lectures on geology (1832–3)’, Notes and records of the Royal Society of London, xxix (1975), 231–63.
19 Cf., in particular, Lyell's published correspondence with Ticknor, George (LLJ, vol. ii), and Rudwick, op. cit. (18), for Lyell's relations with the Anglican hierarchy during his tenure of the chair at King's College, London.
20Lyell, , Principles, i. 20.
Lyell saw Voltaire as a philosopher whose bad faith subverted geology to his own philosophical polemics; see Principles, i. 65–6.
21Lyell, , Principles, i. 81 f. For Lyell, nosce teipsum is the first rule for the geologist, to purge him of anthropocentrism and anthropomorphism.
22 Cf. Bartholomew, op. cit. (18), and Bynum, W. F., ‘Time's noblest offspring: the problem of man in the British natural historical sciences, 1800–63’ (Cambridge University Ph.D. thesis, 1974), especially chapter V.
23Wilson, L. G. (ed.), Sir Charles Lyell's scientific notebooks on the species question (New Haven, 1970).
Charles Raven noted that Lyell's scathing treatment of the seventeenth-century physicotheologians revealed his own unconscious ambiguities on the subject; see his John Ray, naturalist (Cambridge, 1950), p. 441.
24Lyell, , Principles, i. 8, 76, and passim—for Lyell's conceptions are inseparable from his whole style of thought and vocabulary. Such notions are, of course, the bread-and-butter of Enlightenment speculative anthropology and Scottish conjectural history.
25Lyell, , Principles, i. 10.
26Lyell, , Principles, i. 76.
27 As well as being the episteme of savagery, catastrophism is also symptomatic of moral decay and failure of nerve amongst the more civilized. Cf. Principles i. 10. Lyell uses Prichard's work on Egyptian mythology to suggest that this kind of thinking, in whichever epoch, is no more advanced than die idea of a ‘mundane egg’. I owe this point to Michael Neve. Compare the comments of E. H. Carr on the functions of cyclical catastrophist thinking in his What is history? (Harmondsworth, 1967), pp. 43–6.
28LLJ, i. 27.
29Rudwick, , op. cit. (11), p. 9.
30 The manuscript materials quoted in the first volume of Leonard Wilson's biography do not illuminate these issues much further than the LLJ.
31LLJ, i. 271.
32 [Fitton, W. H.], ‘Review of Charles Lyell, Elements of geology’, Edinburgh review, lxix (1839), 406–66;
cf. Bailey, , op. cit. (2), p. 130.
33LLJ, i. 271.
34Lyell, , Principles, i. 54 f. Of de Saussure, Lyell wrote ungenerously: ‘The few theoretical observations which escaped from him are, like those of Pallas, mere modifications of the old cosmological theories’ (p. 54).
35Lyell, , Principles, i. 35.
36 He writes: Lazzoro Moro. This mistake is corrected in subsequent editions, unlike many of the errors of fact.
37Lyell, , Principles, i. 42 f.
38Lyell, , Principles, i. 4.
39Lyell, , Principles, i. 63 f.
Lyell's unfavourable contrasting of Hutton to Generelli on this point is therefore misplaced. Lyell candidly admitted, ‘I doubt whether I ever fairly read more than half his writings and skimmed the rest’; LLJ, ii. 48. Cf.
Bailey, , op. cit. (2), p. 81.
40Lyell, , Principles, i. 61.
41 Though he does discuss recent advances in geology in Principles, i. 71 f., i.e. at the end of chapter IV.
42 As is evident from Principles, i. chapter V, the purpose of which is to show how false consciousness on the subject of time and man continue to retard geology.
43 Raspe revived and popularized Hooke (using Hooke as a mouthpiece for his own views). Generelli did the same for Moro and Playfair for Hutton.
44 Lyell, Principles, i. 74.
45 Lyell, of course (like Hutton), saw himself as applying the infinity and uniformity of Newtonian space to the dimension of time, and transforming geology into a science of causes.
46Lyell, , Principles, i. 39.
47Lyell, , Principles, i. 63
(my italics). He similarly miscited Hutton, in LLJ, i. 270.
It is conceivable that Lyell took his error from Conybeare, W. D. and Phillips, W., Outlines of the geology of England and Wales, Part I (London, 1822), p. xlix., where ‘traces’ is used in a summary of Hutton's views.
48 For this historiography in England, cf. Peardon, T., The transition in English historical writing, 1760–1830 (2 vols., New York, 1933). Cf.
Lyell, , Principles, i. 23 f.
49Buckle, T. H., A history of civilization in England (2 vols., London, 18571861);
Draper, J. W., A history of the conflict between science and religion (2nd edn., London, 1875);
White, Andrew D., A history of the warfare of science with theology in Christendom (2 vols., London, 1896).
For Scott's rationalism, cf. Forbes, Duncan, ‘The rationalism of Sir Walter Scott’, Cambridge journal, vii (1953). 2035.
50 Lyell's autobiographical fragment has frequent references to his early ambition; see LLJ, i. 17, 25 f.
51 For Lyell's anonymous reviews, see ‘Review of various scientific institutions in England’, Quarterly review, xxxiv (1826), 153–79;
‘Review of Transactions of the Geological Society of London’, Quarterly review, xxxiv (1826), 507–40;
‘Review of G. P. Scrope's Memoir on the geology of Central France’, Quarterly review, xxxvi (1827) 437–83.
52 I.e., Niebuhr, B. G., The history of Rome, trans, by Hare, J. C. and Thirlwall, C. (3 vols., Cambridge, 18281842).
53 For Niebuhr's historiographical revolution, cf. Fritz Stern, Varieties of history (New York, 1956), pp. 4653;
Gooch, G. P., History and historians in the nineteenth century (London, 1961), pp. 1423;
Forbes, Duncan, The liberal Anglican idea of history (Cambridge, 1952), pp. 1219.
54Wilson, , op. cit. (6), p. 180. Cf.
Lyell, , Principles, i. 79 f.
55Wilson, , op. cit. (8), p. 215.
For a more conventional use of the analogy, cf., for example, [Copleston, E.], ‘Review of W. Buckland, Reliquiae diluvianae’, Quarterly review, xxix (1823), 129–65 (139).
56Forbes, , op. cit. (53), p. 198:
‘There is, in fact, a distinct chain of ideas from Hume to Hutton, Lyell and Darwin’. Lyell's position is complex. His history of geology is catastrophic. But when he appeals to history as offering a model for geology, his picture of history is gradualist; see Principles, i. 3 f.
57 For example, his rejection of vulgar Baconianism and his championing of the necessary role of theory; Principles, i. 71–2. Fitton's reviews in particular (op. cit [12]) had associated the progress of geology with Baconianism. Lyell's own reviews (see note 51) seek to redress the balance.
58Lyell, , Principles, i. 30: ‘A sketch of 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’.
59Cannon, W. F., ‘The problem of miracles in the 1830s’, Victorian studies, iv (1960), 432;
Cannon, W. F., ‘The Uniformitarian-Catastrophist debate’, Isis, li (1960), 3855;
Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘Uniformity and progression: reflections on the structure of geological theory in the age of Lyell’, in Roller, D. H. D. (ed.), Perspectives in the history of science and technology (Norman, Oklahoma, 1971), 209–27;
Hooykaas, R. J., Natural law arid divine miracle: a historical critical study of the principle of uniformity in geology, biology and theology (Leyden, 1959);
Page, Leroy E., ‘Diluvialism and its critics in Great Britain in the early nineteenth century’, in Schneer, C. J. (ed.), Toward a history of geology (Cambridge, Mass., 1969), pp. 257–71.
60 For Scrope, see Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘Poulett Scrope on the volcanoes of Auvergne: Lyellian time and political economy’, The British journal for the history of science, vii (1974), 205–42. For Sedgwick, cf. Cannon, op. cit. (59), and Rudwick, op. cit. (59).
61 Thus Lyell's judgement on Werner's theory: ‘One of the most unphilosophical ever advanced in any science’; see Principles, i. 59.
62 T. S. Kuhn, op. cit. (6): Toulmin, S. E., Human understanding, vol. i (Oxford, 1972).
For a brief discussion of the comparative merits of revolutionary and evolutionary approaches to the history of geology, see Porter, Roy, ‘The history of palaeontology’, History of science, xi (1973), 130–8.
63Lyell, , Principles, i. 45.
64Lyell, , Principles, i. 67.
65Lyell, , Principles, i. 4. Such a view was, of course, characteristic of Scottish Enlightenment conjectural history.
66Barnes, Barry, Scientific knowledge and sociological theory (London, 1974), passim.
67 For an important discussion of the ‘myth’ of ‘pure science’, see Ravetz, J. R., Scientific knowledge and its social problems (London, 1971),
and Young, R. M., ‘The historiographic and ideological contexts of the nineteenth-century debate on man's place in nature’, in Teich, M. and Young, R. M. (eds.), Changing perspectives in the history of science (London, 1973), pp. 344438.
68Lyell, , Principles, i. 4.
69 Cf. Foucault, M., The order of things (London, 1970),
and The archaeology of knowledge (London, 1972):
Pantin, C. F. A., The relations between the sciences (Cambridge, 1968).
70 For this interpretation of the growth of geology, cf. Porter, Roy, ‘The making of the science of geology in Britain, 1660–1815’ (Cambridge University Ph.D. thesis, 1974).
71Lyell, , Principles, i. 74.
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