Part 11 - ... and Mr Lyell

The Final Question

Reading The Origin of Species clearly demonstrates that Darwin's chief skill lay in the collecting of information, or perhaps more accurately, in getting other people to collect information for him.  Seen from an objective point of view the book amounts to little more than a series of lists of facts.  The argumentation linking and analysing the significance of those facts is negligable, and Mayr, Simpson et al were right to criticise the contents as they did.
(That they still regarded it as a major work says much, I think, about the dual standards many evolutionists have about Darwin and his work.  Simpson's comment:

"These are extrordinary statements.  they cannot literally be true, yet Darwin cannot be consciously lying..."1

being a prime example of this ability to hold contradictory views, if examples be needed.)

We have seen much basic evidence that Darwin was well aware of Blyth's papers of the 1830s, and that there is a significant co-relation between the timing of Blyth's articles and the formation of Darwin's views.

We have seen equally substantial evidence that Darwin was indeed, a self-taught, half-decent geologist but a poor naturalist.

We have seen the evidence of Darwin's duplicity and cunning.

We have seen the evidence that much of the work credited to Darwin was in fact carried out by his associates - Hooker, Jenyns, Gould, etc., etc.

And we have seen the evidence of how Darwin allegedly formed his ideas on evolution, or at least on 'the species question' by the late 1830s-early 1840s yet still managed to be caught without having published even one overt item on the subject nearly twenty years later.

In response to this paper, Jeffrey Kaye, who has researched Darwin's life and work in considerable detail2, has suggested that:

"Darwin was surely planning to publish years before Origin was conceived to forestall Wallace... the publication of the MS [manuscript] Natural Selection3, being the second part of Darwin's big book, written during the mid-1850s, belies your argument."4
(Ellipsis as in original message)

Mr Kaye is both right, and wrong.  Certainly Natural Selection was started several years before The Origin - it would have to be, since The Origin begain life as an extract of Natural Selection.
What Mr Kaye fails to mention is that Wallace's first paper on the subject - On the Law that has Regulated the introduction of New Species - was published in the Annals of Natural History in 1855, the year before Darwin began work on Natural Selection.

Far from undermining the arguments presented in this paper, the previously unpublished MS simply confirms Darwin's reluctance to go public with "his" ideas (apart from the covert editing of the 1845 edition of the Journal of Researches - see Part 2).  And this despite the amount of writing he had completed on the subject.

We should also remember that Darwin did not begin writing Natural Selection until the year after the publication of Essays, a book of three essays by the Rev. Baden Powell, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford University, the third of which - The Philosophy of Creation - included this terse but crucial comment on the mutability of species:

"... the general fact would be simply that species (within certain limits of deviation) are permanent during very long periods, but beyond these periods a change in some sense, occurs; and thus bears some relation to changes of external conditions..."5
(Italics as in Brent)

As Brent remarks, Baden Powell came "uncomfortably close to the bull's eye at which Darwin had for so long been aiming".  Yet Darwin himself managed to forget Baden Powell's work so totally that, after the publication of The Origin he wrote to Baden Powell saying:

"If I have taken anything from you, I assure you it has been unconsciously"6

A mite amazing, one might think, given that Darwin had actually acknowledged Baden Powell in the preface to Natural Selection, which passage he subsequently included in the 'historical sketch' which appeared in later editions of The Origin.

Why, then, did Darwin still defer the writing and publication of his ideas until 1859?  And why, given his obvious reluctance, did he finally commit himself to print?

The Second Mr. X

Another reason for Darwin's hesitation which we have not mentioned so far is the alleged power of the clergy.  To have put forward his ideas on evolution, we are told, could have destroyed him socially, and might even have engendered an action for blasphemy against him.
But what justification is there for this claim?

In the first place Darwin lived in seclusion for most of the time after he moved to Down House.  As we have already seen, he travelled little, except for 'health cures', and most of his social contacts were conducted at his home.

Secondly, many of Darwin's friends and acquaintances in the scientific world were themselves anti-religious, or at least anti-clerical.  In what way, then, would he have rendered himself a social outcast?

Thirdly, and probably most tellingly, if a clergyman of the established church could openly write of the mutability of species in 1856, why did Darwin need to wait for a further three years before writing a book that did little except cross a few "t's" and dot a few "i's"?

On the strength of the evidence, those biographers who suggest that Darwin actually hoped that The Origin would not be published in his own lifetime seem to have a good point.  Yet he did not, in fact, wait that long.  After several false starts he finally wrote and published his ideas, an event which, as we shall now see, was most probably due to the efforts and, in the end, the trickery of the one person who had been a major influence in Darwin's life from the time of the voyage of the Beagle - the geologist, Charles Lyell.

Eiseley himself undoubtedly recognised the degree of influence that Lyell exerted over Darwin.  Why else would he start the chapter on Lyell with the telling quotation:

"I feel as if my books," Charles Darwin once confessed, "came half out of Sir Charles Lyell's brain."7

To be fair, Darwin was actually referring to his geological work in this comment, and it is quite certain that Darwin was, as a geologist, never more than a rank amateur when compared with Lyell.  But we need not merely depend on Darwin's assessment of the situation.

When Lyell's work on geology was first published it was in the teeth of the prevailing ideas on the Earth's history and development.  In the 1830's it was still entirely respectable, if not actually obligatory, for scientists to regard their work as simply an investigation into the details of how God created the world and its contents, as described in the first book of The Bible - Genesis.  From a geological perspective this meant studying how the physical form of the world had been arrived at by way of a series of cataclysmic upheavals such as The Flood.  This view of geology we now know as catastrophism.

By way of total contrast, Lyell proposed that such upheavals, if they had happened at all, were far less significant in the shaping of the planet's surface than had been suggested.  In his gradualist, or uniformitarian, view, the processes we see at work today, erosion by wind, rain, rivers, etc., and the slow but steady upthrust and depression of the land through unseen but totally unmysterious natural forces, was all that was needed to explain all of the geological features on display.

Like many 'scientists' of the day, Charles Lyell - later Sir Charles Lyell - was actually a wealthy amateur; a lawyer by training and, briefly, by profession; but a geologist by inclination.  The first part of his great work, the three-volume Principles of Geology (of which much of the second and third volumes are actually concerned with matters biological) was published in 1830.  It was, in truth, an attack on the doctrine of catastrophism and all that that implied about the historical validity of the account of The Flood and other biblical events.
It was also, in many respects, poor science.  According to Ospovat, for example:

"One of the great advantages of his one-cycle theory of climate and life was that it could not be tested against any sort of evidence. ... Lyell's preoccupations led him to construct a theory of the earth out of distinctly fanciful speculations which were, of necessity, based upon no evidence at all."8

The late Stephen Jay Gould, sometime Head of the Department of Geology at Harvard University, was even more critical of Lyell's approach:

"Lyell relied heavily upon two bits of cunning to establish his uniformitarian views as the only true geology.  First, he set up a straw man to demolish. ... The geologic record does seem to require catastrophes; rocks are fractured and contorted; whole faunas are wiped out.  To circumvent this literal appearance, Lyell imposed his imagination upon the evidence.  The geologic record, he argued, is extremely imperfect and we must interpolate into it what we can reasonably infer but cannot see.  The catastrophists were the hard-nosed empiricists of their day, not the blinded theological apologists.
Lyell's 'uniformity' is a hodgepodge of claims.  One is a methodological statement [see previous paragraph] that must be accepted by any scientist, catastrophist and uniformitarian alike.  Other claims are substantive notions that have since been tested and abandoned.  Lyell gave them a common name and pulled a consummate fast one: he tried to slip the substantive claim by with an argument that the methodological proposition had to be accepted..."9

It might be objected, of course, that Lyell was conspicuous amongst Darwin's acquaintences by his apparently steadfast refusal to accept the contents of Darwin's evolutionary hypothesis.  Certainly he put on a very good act in this regard, but act is was.  Eiseley quotes one of Darwin;'s contemporaries thus:

"How could Sir Charles Lyell for thirty years read, write and think on the subject of species and their succession, and yet constantly look down the wrong road?"10

Perhaps a second quote, from Sir Charles himself, will throw a little light on his motivation.  This passage comes from a letter written to a fellow geologist (and personal friend), Poulette Scrope, as he prepared a review of the newly published first volume of The Principles of Geology for the Quarterly Review:

"If you don't triumph over them, but compliment the liberality and candour of the present age, the bishops and enlightened saints will join us in despising both the ancient and modern physico-theologians.  It is just the time to strike, so rejoice that, sinner as you are, the Q.R. is open to you.  If I have said more than some will like, yet I give you my word that full half of my history and comments was cut out, and even as many facts; because I, or Stokes, or Broderip, felt that it was anticipating twenty or thirty years of the march of honest feeling to declare it undisguisedly."11

It was, of course, just a month or two short of the thirty years when John Murray, at Lyell's instigation, published the first edition of On the Origin of Species!

The truth of the matter seems to be that Lyell had been an evolutionist, la Lamarck, from as far back as the mid-1820's.  His uniformitarian hypothesis and it's lack of a solid evidential basis reflected his eagerness to overthrow the concept of catastrophism and it's inherent support for a creationist view of history.  The three volumes of the Principles of Geology are, in reality, prototypical evolutionary texts.  Indeed, as Irvine comments in Apes, Angels and Victorians:

"The second volume of Lyell's Principles was really the Origin of Species without Darwinism, or at least explicit Darwinism.  In almost the same sequence, Lyell took up the problems of the Origin ... and did everything but solve them."12

What an interesting co-incidence.  For wasn't it Darwin himself who would write, nearly 30 years later:

"If Wallace had my MS sketch written out in 1842, he could not have made a better short abstract!  Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters."13

It's as though Lyell described the problems, Blyth solved them, Darwin wrote it all up, and Wallace copied Darwin.

No problem there as far as the Lyell-Darwin link is concerned.  We know that Darwin had all three of Lyell's books in his possession for two years or more during his time aboard the Beagle.
So how could Wallace have come by the headings from a 16 year old manuscript?  Simply saying that both men were inspired by Malthus, even if it were true, cannot explain this degree of co-incidence.

But what if there were a more tangible link - a human link?
Remember that Wallace had had ideas on the possible transmutation of species as far back as the mid-1840s.  He'd had a paper on the matter published in 1855.  Yet it was only when he used Darwin's own 'headings' in his 1858 paper that Darwin finally sat up and took notice.
However circumstantial the evidence may be, it isn't hard to see that the person best placed to supply Wallace with this crucial information - thereby bringing to fruition his own key ambition - was none other than the same Charles Lyell.

Charles Lyell, whose own book Principles of Geology, volume 2 has been cited as a thinly disguised book on evolution.
Charles Lyell, who had forecast with such confidence that it would take "twenty or thirty years" to overthrow 'Mosaic geology' (that is, the biblical accounts of major, "catastrophic" events such the creation, The Flood, and so on).14
Charles Lyell, who befriended Darwin almost from the time he stepped ashore from the Beagle in 1836, and who subsequently did so much to help further Darwin's standing.
Charles Lyell, who maintained a 'friendship' with Darwin of such a nature that he must certainly have seen the 1842 manuscript during its preparation.
Charles Lyell, who - despite his apparent opposition to the notion of evolution - constantly urged Darwin to publish his ideas on that subject.
Charles Lyell, who co-sponsored the joint reading of the papers by Wallace and Darwin at the meeting of the Linnean Society.
And Charles Lyell, who persuaded John Murray to publish The Origin.

  1. Cited in Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley.  op cit.  p.90.
  2. Charles Darwin's Scientific Development: A Levinsonian Study of Early and Middle Adulthood, Jeffrey Kaye.  University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  4. Personal communication, 13th May, 1998.
  5. Quoted in Charles Darwin, Peter Brent.  op cit.  p.404.
  6. Ibid.  p.405.
  7. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley.  op cit.  p.31.
  8. Lyell's Theory of Climate, D. Ospovat.  Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 10, No. 2:1977.  pp.317-339.
  9. Catastrophes & Steady State Earth, Stephen Jay Gould.  Natural History, Vol. LXXX, No. 2:1975.
  10. Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X, Loren Eiseley.  op cit.  p.34.
  11. The Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell, (Mrs.) K.M. Lyell (ed.).  John Murray, London:1881.  Vol. 1.  p.271.
  12. Apes, Angels and Victorians, W. Irvine.  Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London:1956.  p.58.
  13. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Francis Darwin (ed.). op. cit.  Vol. 2. p.116.
  14. It is interesting to note that this key plank of Lyell's views has itself been pretty much eroded by modern discoveries.  In the case of the Grand Canyon, for example, what was thought to be evidence of gradual reshaping of the landscape over huge periods of time is now believed to be prima facie evidence of catatrophism. That is to say, the canyon is now believed to have been gouged out by a series of (13?) events in which lava from local volcanoes created dams across the Colorado River which were then washed away by the huge amounts of water that collected behind them.  Each breakthrough took with it a substantial part of the existing riverbed.

Go to other sections

Part 0 - Introduction
Part 1 - Metaphors and Myths
Part 2 - The Mystery Begins
Part 3 - All At Sea
Part 4 - He Who Hesitates ...
Part 5 - Last Days
Part 6 - Without Reference ...
Part 7 - The Missing Link
Part 8 - Going Public, Maybe
Part 9 - ... Father to the Man
Part 10 - Mr Wallace, Mr Blyth ...
Part 12 - The Final Frontier

Appendices - The full text of Blyth's papers from 1835-37
Appendix A - The Varieties of Animals - Part 1
Appendix B - The Varieties of Animals - Part 2
Appendix C - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 1
Appendix D - Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 2
Appendix E -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 3
Appendix F -  Seasonal and Other Changes in Birds - Part 4
Appendix G -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 1b>
Appendix H -  
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 2b>
Appendix  I -  
Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 3
Appendix  J -  Psychological Distinctions Between Man and Other Animals - Part 4

This paper was written and produced by Andrew J. Bradbury