Our modern interpretation of deep-time and the endless aeons that filled it were, in part, popularized from the reflections and motivations of Charles Lyell. A lawyer and amateur geologist in the 1800s, Lyell was a deist, and possessing the radical Unitarian beliefs common of his day, supported the notions that, though God may have established the universe, his intervention ended there, with nature obeying various intrinsic laws as it persisted, behaving now as it had since the beginning. Through this view, Lyell advocated that all things observed within the geological record should be interpreted along the same lines. Relying on the evidence that natural erosion and deposition processes are slow and gradual, Lyell was convinced that the features of this planet are the result of vast aeons of the same actions, slowly and gradually altering the landscape. According to those who support the notion, “the present is the key to the past.”
Lyell’s thoughts saw broad distribution with the 1830 publication of his most famous work, “Principles of Geology.” With it, Lyell made clear his preference for unrelenting gradualism, utterly rejecting essentially all instances of catastrophic geological shaping, such as massive floods and widespread volcanism, and criticizing supporters of such notions as ‘catastrophists.’
Christians were a favored target of Lyell’s, and his hatred for the faith and the teachings of the church were no secret to those who knew him. He well understood that his beliefs stood in stark opposition to their dogma and doctrines, and as such it became his personal crusade to free believers of their spiritual bonds. In a correspondence to an associate in 1829, just a few short months before the publication of the first volume of his Principles of Geology, Lyell wrote:
“I trust I shall make my sketch of the progress of geology popular. Old [Rev. John] Fleming is frightened and thinks the age will not stand my anti-Mosaical conclusions and at least that the subject will for a time become unpopular and awkward for the clergy, but I am not afraid. I shall out with the whole but in as conciliatory a manner as possible.” 1
With his path before him, his sights set on the belief of the masses and their influence on society, Lyell began his crusade, all the while encouraging like-minded associates to do the same, to “free the science from Moses.” In fact, in a letter to such an associate, Lyell mused on how to show the Church the error of its ways and the faultiness of its beliefs in a publication known as the “Quarterly Review,” concluding the correspondence with, “It is just the time to strike, so rejoice that, sinner as you are, the Q.R. is open to you.”2
Lyell’s efforts were immediate and profound in their impact. Of all those influenced by Lyell’s beliefs, one fan of his work went on to change the world. Riding the seas aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin frequently read Lyell’s thoughts. Writing later, Darwin said:
“I had brought with me the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which I studied attentively; and this book was of the highest service to me in many ways. The very first place which I examined, namely St. Jago in the Cape Verde islands, showed me clearly the wonderful superiority of Lyell’s manner of treating geology, compared with that of any other author whose works I had with me or ever afterwards read.”3
Lyell’s work sufficiently demonstrated to Darwin the immensity of the Earth’s age, with successive eras laid down as strata spanning unknowable aeons, each layer, like pages in a book, providing fossils of plants and animals that stretched back to the beginning,4 all of which, Lyell asserted, were products of natural laws and processes.5 Taking that view to heart, Darwin later built his own intellectual empire, influencing the world just as much as Lyell had originally influenced him.
Later, after returning to England, he and Lyell became fast friends, and speaking of the matter, Darwin said, “I saw more of Lyell than of any other man both before and after my marriage. His mind was characterized, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment and a good deal of originality.”6 Furthermore, Darwin said of him, “The science of Geology is enormously indebted to Lyell—more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived.”7
Whatever credit was given to Lyell because of his work, in truth it must be acknowledged that he was a lawyer first and foremost, not a geologist. As a lawyer, Lyell understood the nature of argument, knowing how to frame a debate in such a way as to strategically ensure that the audience saw his side. Being fully acquainted with the nature of rhetoric, Lyell knew which information was critical to enforce, bolstering his claims, and that which should be ignored because of the implications therein…
The fact that Lyell was selecting specific pieces of evidence in order to support his assertions was not lost on some of his day. In fact, Adam Sedgwick, the Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, noted in the Proceedings of the Geological Society in 1834, that Lyell’s assertions were an example of “special pleading,” in which a presenter only provides material to support his case.8
Modern commentators have also noted as much. Even the staunch nonbeliever Stephen J. Gould commented on Lyell’s propensity for ignoring contradictions to his claims, saying, “Charles Lyell was a lawyer by profession, and his book is one of the most brilliant briefs ever published by an advocate … [but he] relied upon two bits of cunning to establish his uniformitarian views as the only true geology.”9
As Gould put it, one of those two bits of cunning included the use of “straw man” arguments, whereby Lyell, in claiming that overzealous creationists rejected his assertions based solely on their opposing religious beliefs. The reality however of the situation was far different. In fact, arguments made against an old planet were based on actual geological evidence originating not only from believers in creation, but also those who originally expected an old world. On the matter Gould commented saying, “The catastrophists were the hard-nosed empiricists of their day, not the blinded theological apologists.”10
Adding to this image was Lyell’s personification of those who stood in opposition of his uniformitarian claims as likewise being opposed to the progression of science as a whole. He branded his work as fact that, despite being based on solid evidence, was rejected by those who would rather clutch their bibles than embrace the truth of nature.11
Sadly, such a personification of creationism exists still today, with believers often being characterized as ignorant, backwater luddites.
In the end, Lyell’s work, though biased from the beginning and composed of as much fiction as fact, succeeded in largely shifting the views of the authorities towards a more secular interpretation of geology, and in time, their adoption of the idea led to an acceptance by the masses. By and large, Lyell’s work indelibly influenced Darwin, who, through his own work in naturalism, laid the foundation for the modern views of evolution. As one observer commented, “Lyell’s writings… became the hub of all his later biological thinking,”12 and that “… without Lyell there would have been no Darwin.”13 Together, the two established the pillars of the modern secular worldview and its religion of naturalism.
– This was an excerpt from “Remnants of Eden: Evolution, Deep-Time, & the Antediluvian World.” Get your copy here today. God bless! –
- Mortenson, T., “The Great Turning Point: The Church’s Catastrophic Mistake on Geology—Before Darwin,” Master Books, Inc., Green Forest, AR, pp 225–226, citing Brooke, J., “The Natural Theology of the Geologists: Some Theological Strata”, in Jordanova, L. and Porter, R., Images of the Earth, British Society for the History of Science, Monograph 1, 1979, pg 45
- Ibid, pp 226–227, citing Lyell, Katherine, “Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell,” Bart. London: Murray, 1881, I:p. 268–271
- Barlow, Nora (ed.), “The autobiography of Charles Darwin,” Collins, St James’s Place, London, 1958,pg 77
- Darwin, Charles, “On the Origin of Species,” first edition, John Murray, London, 1859, pp 282-287, http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F373&viewtype=side&pageseq=1.
- Ruse, Michael, Charles Darwin, in Matthen, Mohan and Stephens, Christopher, (eds), “Philosophy of Biology,” North Holland, London, 2007, pg 6
- Barlow, Nora (ed.), “The autobiography of Charles Darwin,” Collins, St James’s Place, London, 1958, pg 100
- Ibid, pg 101
- Rupke, Nicolaas A., “The Great Chain of History,” Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, pg 88
- Gould, Stephen J., “Catastrophes and Steady State Earth,” Natural History Feb 1975, pp 15–16
- Ibid, pp 16–17
- Rupke, Nicolaas A., “The Great Chain of History,” Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1983, pg 188
- Browne, Janet, “Charles Darwin: Voyaging,” Pimlio, London, 2003, pg 294
- 13. Ibid, pg 186
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