Much ado about Lyell

I had initially intended to write this post to coincide with my birthday last week but my research unexpectedly set me on the trail of Saartje Baartman. Below is the essay I had originally set out to write;

What to do about Charles Lyell? In September of 1859 he had announced to the scientists assembled at the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting that , contrary to previous belief, "it [was] probable that man was old enough to have coexisted, at least, with the Siberian mammoth." He also knew that the arrival of Charles Darwin's abstract on evolution by natural selection was imminent. In the closing remarks of his speech said;

Among the problems of high theoretical interest which the recent progress of Geology and Natural History has brought into notice, no one is more prominent, and at the same time more obscure, than that relating to the origin of species. On this difficult and mysterious subject a work will very shortly appear, by Mr. Charles Darwin, the result of twenty years of observation and experiments in Zoology, Botany, and Geology, by which, he has been led to the conclusion, that those powers of nature which give rise to races and permanent varieties in animals and plants, are the same as those which, in much longer periods, produce species, and, in a still longer series of ages, give rise to differences of generic rank.

Could these same "powers of nature" also explain the origin of humanity? Darwin certainly thought so but Lyell was evasive on the subject. This was especially puzzling in that Lyell's 1863 book The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man contained a chapter specifically on the "Bearing of the Doctrine of Transmutation on the Origin of Man, and His Place in Creation." Evolution by natural selection was certainly clear among other groups of organisms and Lyell recognized that making a special case for Homo sapiens would be a difficult one, indeed;

But will not transmutation, if adopted, require us to include the human race in the same continuous series of developments, so that we must hold that man himself has been derived by an unbroken line of descent from some one of the inferior animals ? We certainly cannot escape from such a conclusion without abandoning many of the weightiest arguments which have been urged in support of variation and natural selection, considered as the subordinate causes by which new types have been gradually introduced into the earth. Many of the gaps which separate the most nearly allied genera and orders of mammalia are, in a physical point of view, as wide as those which divide man from the mammalia most nearly akin to him, and the extent of his isolation, whether we regard his whole nature or simply his corporeal attributes, must be considered before we can discuss the bearing of transmutation upon his origin and place in the creation.

"Corporeal attributes" is the key phrase. Lyell spent most of the chapter narrowing the gap other naturalists had tried to widen between humans and apes on based on physical characteristics only to again widen it by an entirely other set of criteria. It was our minds and our souls that made us different;

We cannot imagine this world to be a place of trial and moral discipline for any of the inferior animals, nor can any of them derive comfort and happiness from faith in a hereafter. To man alone is given this belief, so consonant to his reason, and so congenial to the religious sentiments implanted by nature in his soul, a doctrine which tends to raise him morally and intellectually in the scale of being, and the fruits of which are, therefore, most opposite in character to those which grow out of error and delusion.

Could the difference between the brutish intelligence of the "lower" animals and the "improvable reason" of humanity have been affected by a large evolutionary jump? The chapter makes it clear that Lyell wrestled with this notion. Geniuses were occasionally born to dullard parents, for instance, so why couldn't the early progenitors of our kind have suddenly sprung from some lower form of primate? The emergence of the human mind would have to be reconciled with the rest of nature, and Lyell closed his book by stating;

It may be said that, so far from having a materialistic tendency, the supposed introduction into the earth at successive geological periods of life,--sensation,--instinct,--the intelligence of the higher mammalia bordering on reason,-- and, lastly, the improvable reason of Man himself, presents us with a picture of the ever-increasing dominion of mind over matter.

This was the sort of defense of humanity's vaunted position more characteristic of natural theologians and socially conservative naturalists like Richard Owen. Why couldn't Lyell accept that humans evolved from apes in the same manner in which other creatures evolved? The botanist Joseph Hooker was very frustrated by this. In a letter sent to Darwin on February 26, 1863 Hooker wrote;

I am disappointed beyond measure at what you tell me of his withholding his own opinions on the origin & man questions--& am justly? wroth; for I have been holding Lyell up as a very godlike philospher for changing his views (under full conviction) after the 5th. decade of his life--for hoisting his self with his own petard'' & laying the gunpowder of variability of species under the fortress of the old ``Principles'' on which his horn was so justly exalted-- to me what you tell me is a very great disappointment.

Darwin felt much the same way. In a letter written the same day to T.H. Huxley praising the younger scientist's own book on the evolution of humans, Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature, Darwin wrote;

I am fearfully disappointed at Lyells excessive caution in expressing any judgment on Species or origin of man.

Though Lyell was one of the three authorities whose opinion Darwin most valued as he prepared On the Origin of Species (Hooker and Huxley were the other two) the elder geologist was simply not prepared to follow where Darwin went. Adam Sedgwick had warned Darwin about the progressive ideas contained in Lyell's Principles of Geology when the young naturalist was preparing to leave on the Beagle but it was now Lyell who was cautious of what might offend religious sensibility. Huxley would have to lead the charge popularizing our ape ancestry, at least until Darwin was ready to lay out his own ideas in the Descent of Man.


More like this

Despite Lyell's "excessive caution," I am struck by the power of science to change the opinion of an honest, thinking person. It seems to me that Lyell could see where the facts were taking him, and was cautiously moving in that direction, even though from an emotional standpoint he didn't want to go there.