Geology's Greatest Benefactor

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell (1797–1875). Scientific Papers.
Vol. 38, pp. 385-391 of The Harvard Classics

Lyell has been called the founder of modern geology. Darwin, the master scientist, called him "Geology's Greatest Benefactor." Lyell's research revolutionized ideas on that subject.

I. The Progress Of Geology

 1 Prepossessions in regard to the Duration of Past Time—Prejudices Arising from our Peculiar Position as Inhabitants of the Land—Others Occasioned by our not seeing Subterranean Changes now in Progress—All these Causes Combine to make the Former Course of Nature appear Different from the Present—Objections to the Doctrine that Causes Similar in Kind and Energy to those now Acting, have Produced the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface Considered

IF WE reflect on the history of the progress of geology *** we perceive that there have been great fluctuations of opinion respecting the nature of the causes to which all former changes of the earth’s surface are referable. The first observers conceived the monuments which the geologist endeavours to decipher to relate to an original state of the earth, or to a period when there were causes in activity, distinct, in a kind and degree, from those now constituting the economy of nature. These views were gradually modified, and some of them entirely abandoned, in proportion as observations were multiplied, and the signs of former mutations were skilfully interpreted. Many appearances, which had for a long time been regarded as indicating mysterious and extraordinary agency, were finally recognised as the necessary result of the laws now governing the material world; and the discovery of this unlooked-for conformity has at length induced some philosophers to infer, that, during the ages contemplated in geology, there has never been any interruption to the agency of the same uniform laws of change. The same assemblage of general causes, they conceive, may have been sufficient to produce, by their various combinations, the endless diversity of effects, of which the shell of the earth has preserved the memorials; and, consistently with these principles, the recurrence of analogous changes is expected by them in time to come.

  Whether we coincide or not in this doctrine we must admit that the gradual progress of opinion concerning the succession of phenomena in very remote eras, resembles, in a singular manner, that which has accompanied the growing intelligence of every people, in regard to the economy of nature in their own times. In an early state of advancement, when a greater number of natural appearances are unintelligible, an eclipse, an earthquake, a flood, or the approach of a comet, with many other occurrences afterwards found to belong to the regular course of events, are regarded as prodigies. The same delusion prevails as to moral phenomena, and many of these are ascribed to the intervention of demons, ghosts, witches, and other immaterial and supernatural agents. By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes; and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former occurrences, and often rejects the fabulous tales of former times, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages.

  Prepossessions in regard to the duration of past time.—As a belief in the want of conformity in the cause by which the earth’s crust has been modified in ancient and modern periods was, for a long time, universally prevalent, and that, too, amongst men who were convinced that the order of nature had been uniform for the last several thousand years, every circumstance which could have influenced their minds and given an undue bias to their opinions deserves particular attention. Now the reader may easily satisfy himself, that, however undeviating the course of nature may have been from the earliest epochs, it was impossible for the first cultivators of geology to come to such a conclusion, so long as they were under a delusion as to the age of the world, and the date of the first creation of animate beings. However fantastical some theories of the sixteenth century may now appear to us,—however unworthy of men of great talent and sound judgment,—we may rest assured that, if the same misconception now prevailed in regard to the memorials of human transactions, it would give rise to a similar train of absurdities. Let us imagine, for example, that Champollion, and the French and Tuscan literati when engaged in exploring the antiquities of Egypt, had visited that country with a firm belief that the banks of the Nile were never peopled by the human race before the beginning of the nineteenth century, and that their faith in this dogma was as difficult to shake as the opinion of our ancestors, that the earth was never the abode of living beings until the creation of the present continents, and of the species now existing,—it is easy to perceive what extravagant systems they would frame, while under the influence of this delusion, to account for the monuments discovered in Egypt. The sight of the pyramids, obelisks, colossal statues, and ruined temples, would fill them with such astonishment, that for a time they would be as men spell-bound—wholly incapable of reasoning with sobriety. They might incline at first to refer the construction of such stupendous works to some superhuman powers of the primeval world. A system might be invented resembling that so gravely advanced by Manetho, who relates that a dynasty of gods originally ruled in Egypt, of whom Vulcan, the first monarch, reigned nine thousand years; after whom came Hercules and other demigods, who were at last succeeded by human kings.

  When some fanciful speculations of this kind had amused their imaginations for a time, some vast repository of mummies would be discovered, and would immediately undeceive those antiquaries who enjoyed an opportunity of personally examining them; but the prejudices of others at a distance, who were not eye-witnesses of the whole phenomena, would not be so easily overcome. The concurrent report of many travellers would, indeed, render it necessary for them to accommodate ancient theories to some of the new facts, and much wit and ingenuity would be required to modify and defend their old positions. Each new invention would violate a greater number of known analogies; for if a theory be required to embrace some false principle, it becomes more visionary in proportion as facts are multiplied, as would be the case if geometers were now required to form an astronomical system on the assumption of the immobility of the earth.

  Amongst other fanciful conjectures concerning the history of Egypt, we may suppose some of the following to be started. ‘As the banks of the Nile have been so recently colonized for the first time, the curious substances called mummies could never in reality have belonged to men. They may have been generated by some plastic virtue residing in the interior of the earth, or they may be abortions of Nature produced by her incipient efforts in the work of creation. For if deformed beings are sometimes born even now, when the scheme of the universe is fully developed, many more may have been “sent before their time scarce half made up,” when the planet itself was in the embryo state. But if these notions appear to derogate from the perfection of the Divine attributes, and if these mummies be in all their parts true representations of the human form, may we not refer them to the future rather than the past? May we not be looking into the womb of Nature, and not her grave? May not these images be like the shades of the unborn in Virgil’s Elysium—the archetypes of men not yet called into existence?’

  These speculations, if advocated by eloquent writers, would not fail to attract many zealous votaries, for they would relieve men from the painful necessity of renouncing preconceived opinions. Incredible as such scepticism may appear, it has been rivalled by many systems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and among others by that of the learned Falloppio, who, as we have seen (p. 33), regarded the tusks of fossil elephants as earthly concretions, and the pottery of fragments of vases in the Monte Testaceo, near Rome, as works of nature, and not of art. But when one generation had passed away, and another, not compromised to the support of antiquated dogmas, had succeeded, they would review the evidence afforded by mummies more impartially, and would no longer controvert the preliminary question, that human beings had lived in Egypt before the nineteenth century: so that when a hundred years perhaps had been lost, the industry and talents of the philosopher would be at last directed to the elucidation of points of real historical importance.

  But the above arguments are aimed against one only of many prejudices with which the earlier geologists had to contend. Even when they conceded that the earth had been peopled with animate beings at an earlier period than was at first supposed, they had no conception that the quantity of time bore so great a proportion to the historical era as is now generally conceded. How fatal every error as to the quantity of time must prove to the introduction of rational views concerning the state of things in former ages, may be conceived by supposing the annals of the civil and military transactions of a great nation to be perused under the impression that they occurred in a period of one hundred instead of two thousand years. Such a portion of history would immediately assume the air of a romance; the events would seem devoid of credibility, and inconsistent with the present course of human affairs. A crowd of incidents would follow each other in thick succession. Armies and fleets would appear to be assembled only to be destroyed, and cities built merely to fall in ruins. There would be the most violent transitions from foreign or intestine war to periods of profound peace, and the works effected during the years of disorder or tranquillity would appear alike superhuman in magnitude.

  He who should study the monuments of the natural world under the influence of a similar infatuation, must draw a no less exaggerated picture of the energy and violence of causes, and must experience the same insurmountable difficulty in reconciling the former and present state of nature. If we could behold in one view all the volcanic cones thrown up in Iceland, Italy, Sicily, and other parts of Europe, during the last five thousand years, and could see the lavas which have flowed during the same period; the dislocations, subsidences, and elevations caused during earthquakes; the lands added to various deltas, or devoured by the sea, together with the effects of devastation by floods, and imagine that all these events had happened in one year, we must form most exalted ideas of the activity of the agents, and the suddenness of the revolutions. If geologists, therefore, have misinterpreted the signs of a succession of events, so as to conclude that centuries were implied where the characters indicated thousands of years, and thousands of years where the language of Nature signified millions, they could not, if they reasoned logically from such false premises, come to any other conclusion than that the system of the natural world had undergone a complete revolution.

  We should be warranted in ascribing the erection of the great pyramid to superhuman power, if we were convinced that it was raised in one day; and if we imagine, in the same manner, a continent or mountain-chain to have been elevated during an equally small fraction of the time which was really occupied in upheaving it, we might then be justified in inferring, that the subterranean movements were once far more energetic than in our own times. We know that during one earthquake the coast of Chili may be raised for a hundred miles to the average height of about three feet. A repetition of two thousand shocks, of equal violence, might produce a mountain-chain one hundred miles long, and six thousand feet high. Now, should one or two only of these convulsions happen in a century, it would be consistent with the order of events experienced by the Chilians from the earliest times: but if the whole of them were to occur in the next hundred years, the entire district must be depopulated, scarcely any animals or plants could survive, and the surface would be one confused heap of ruin and desolation.

  One consequence of undervaluing greatly the quantity of past time, is the apparent coincidence which it occasions of events necessarily disconnected, or which are so unusual, that it would be inconsistent with all calculation of chances to suppose them to happen at one and the same time. When the unlooked-for association of such rare phenomena is witnessed in the present course of nature, it scarcely ever fails to excite a suspicion of the preternatural in those minds which are not firmly convinced of the uniform agency of secondary causes;—as if the death of some individual in whose fate they are interested happens to be accompanied by the appearance of a luminous meteor, or a comet, or the shock of an earthquake. It would be only necessary to multiply such coincidences indefinitely, and the mind of every philosopher would be disturbed. Now it would be difficult to exaggerate the number of physical events, many of them most rare and unconnected in their nature, which were imagined by the Woodwardian hypothesis to have happened in the course of a few months: and numerous other examples might be found of popular geological theories, which require us to imagine that a long succession of events happened in a brief and almost momentary period.

  Another liability to error, very nearly allied to the former, arises from the frequent contact of geological monuments referring to very distant periods of time. We often behold, at one glance, the effects of causes which have acted at times incalculably remote, and yet there may be no striking circumstances to mark the occurrence of a great chasm in the chronological series of Nature’s archives. In the vast interval of time which may really have elapsed between the results of operations thus compared, the physical condition of the earth may, by slow and insensible modifications, have become entirely altered; one or more races of organic beings may have passed away, and yet have left behind, in the particular region under contemplation, no trace of their existence.

  To a mind unconscious of these intermediate events, the passage from one state of things to another must appear so violent, that the idea of revolutions in the system inevitably suggests itself. The imagination is as much perplexed by the deception, as it might be if two distant points in space were suddenly brought into immediate proximity. Let us suppose, for a moment, that a philosopher should lie down to sleep in some arctic wilderness, and then be transferred by a power, such as we read of in tales of enchantment, to a valley in a tropical country, where, on awaking, he might find himself surrounded by birds of brilliant plumage, and all the luxuriance of animal and vegetable forms of which Nature is so prodigal in those regions. The most reasonable supposition, perhaps, which he could make, if by the necromancer’s art he were placed in such a situation, would be, that he was dreaming; and if a geologist form theories under a similar delusion, we cannot expect him to preserve more consistency in his speculations, than in the train of ideas in an ordinary dream.

Note 1. The text of the two following papers is taken from the 11th edition of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, the last edition revised by the author.


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