Alien versus Amphibian, or War of the World-Views? — Extinct

Others sound a note of caution. Yes, Lyell was interested in resisting “some of the best-supported generalizations of contemporary geology,” James Secord writes.* But for all Lyell’s provocations, “the substantive claims in the Principles were models of philosophical caution” (Secord 2014, 149). The point needs to be stressed, because Lyell’s imaginative statements “about the pattern of earth history are often taken out of context, interpreted in terms of private letters and journals so that their function as thought-experiments about the past is obscured” (150). Interpretations like Rudwick’s threaten to “make the Principles into a cosmological book, which points towards the construction of a connected narrative history of the world.”

However, in his public statements during the 1830s Lyell no more advocated a steady-state, cyclical, or non-progressionist cosmology than he did progression itself. Indeed, the Principles claimed that any kind of global narrative would prove impossible to reconstruct, because too much of the record had been lost. Lyell was not [as Gould (1987) claimed] the ‘historian of time’s cycle.’ (Secord 2014, 151)

[* Secord is just the most recent critic of the Rudwickian interpretation. For an older and more detailed criticism, see Wilson (1980).]

So, was Principles an argument for a particular world-view, or was it a predominantly epistemological exercise whose aim was to show that one should be open to the possibility that the Earth has always looked and behaved about the same way? My sympathies lie with the first reading, not least because some parts of the text seem to function as explicit arguments for steady-stateism. The “amphibious being,” for example, amounts to a claim that restorative and destructive forces are finely-balanced. (Certainly the remarks about are not meant to suggest that balance is a mere conceptual possibility!) Likewise, the “dusky sprite” is there to suggest that geologists only infer a directional geohistory because they are fixated on a subset of the total evidence The correct view, Lyell implies, is not agnosticism, but skepticism about directionality. Hence, it is hard to interpret this part of the book as anything but an argument for non-directionality.

The matter deserves further consideration, and it would be unwise to interpret the entire book by synecdoche with Chapter 5. Still, this important part of the text supports the reading that Principles— whatever else it might be (and the book has many aims)— is a partisan statement on behalf of steady-state geotheory. As a final point, consider that Lyell’s most astute and qualified readers nearly all regarded Principles as the work of a system-builder. Whewell did (Whewell 1831), as did Adam Sedgwick, who stated in a presidential address to the Geological Society that Lyell had revealed himself to be a theory man, and “champion of a great leading doctrine of the Huttonian hypothesis” (Sedgwick 1832, 301). So while Secord is probably right that Lyell mistrusted all attempts to frame global narrative histories on the basis of fragmentary evidence, this does not mean that Principles “[denied] any shape to the records of the earth’s deep past” (Secord 2014, 149, emphasis added).

Donovan, A. and Prentiss, J. 1980. James Hutton’s medical dissertation. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 70:3–57.

Greene, M. 1982. Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gould, S.J. 1987. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Deep Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hutton, J. 1788. Theory of the earth; or an investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the globe. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1:209–304.

Hutton, J. 1795. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Edinburgh: William Creech.

Lyell, C. 1830. Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation, Vol. 1. London: John Murray.

Porter, T. 1979. Charles Lyell and the principles of the history of geology. The British Journal for the History of Science 9:91–103.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 1970. The strategy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Isis 61:4–33.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 2005. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 2008. Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rudwick, M.J.S. 2014. Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Secord, J. 2014. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sedgwick, A. 1832. An address delivered at the anniversary meeting of the Geological Society of London, on the 17th February 1832.

Sengor, C. 2014. Eduard Suess and global tectonics: an illustrated short guide. Austrian Journal of Earth Sciences 107:6–82.

Wilson, L.G. 1980. Geology on the eve of Charles Lyell’s first visit to America, 1841. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 124:168–202.

Whewell, W. 1831. Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Volume 1. British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 9:180–206.

More resources

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Lyell or Lyellian geology. Here are three more posts if you’re interested in digging deeper (fine geological metaphor, that):

‘Truth also has its paleontology’, or when pragmatism met uniformitarianism” (Jan 19, 2023)

The first philosopher of palaeontology– er, ‘palaetiology’” (Nov 7, 2023)

The importance of background theory, or why James Hall left mountains out of his theory of mountain building” (Jan 31, 2024)

EVEN More Resources

Here is a beautiful digital scan of the first volume of Principles (1st ed.)

And here is a scan of Hutton’s “Theory of the earth”— the paper that set out the theory later expanded in Hutton (1795)

Finally, here is a paper by Alistair Sponsel (“An amphibious being: how maritime surveying reshaped Darwin’s approach to natural history”), which argues that Darwin’s Beagle experience with maritime surveying fashioned him into something resembling Lyell’s amphibious being

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