Did Lyell Lie a Little?
Science is supposed to be a collective process involving presentation of arguments by many people making reference to observational data. Ideally, no one person’s world view should dominate what other scientists think. Yet in the history of geology, the figure of Charles Lyell has loomed large as a guiding influence. With rare exceptions, his principle that geological phenomena should be explained with reference to current processes at current rates (uniformitarianism) dominated geological practice for over 150 years. Did Lyell “discover” this principle in the data, or impose it on the data? Indications are coming to light that he not only pre-selected uniformitarian thinking as his own guiding principle, but through force of his writings and personal prestige succeeded in marginalizing opposing views. His influence channeled generations of geologists to look at evidence through the lens of “slow and gradual” processes.
Geologist Victor R. Baker had little good to say about Lyell in a book review in Nature.1 “Geological history turned upside down” is how he titled his review of a second book on the history of geology by Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Baker began by stating that “geology also has its own set of attitudes that have accrued during the discipline’s long history.” Attitudes can be taken as synonymous with presuppositions – those ways of looking at the world that precede actual investigation of the facts.
Lyell was, of course, preceded by notable figures like Cuvier (a catastrophist who invoked multiple earth-changing events), and gradualists like Comte du Buffon, Werner, Hutton and others who had laid the groundwork for viewing earth history in terms of vast ages of gradual change. Rudwick had discussed these in his prior work, Bursting the Limits of Time (U of Chicago Press, 2005).2
Worlds Before Adam looks at how the ideas generated by Cuvier and others came together with more theoretical concepts between 1820 and 1845.
Rudwick’s books are myth-busters, of which writers of introductory geology texts and popularizations should take note. In both volumes he counters the Anglocentric view that James Hutton, William Smith and Charles Lyell were the founders of modern geology who shone their British intellectual light onto the darkness of continental musings. To a large degree, he argues, the reverse was the case.
Controversially, Rudwick challenges the view that geology’s development is a story of secular progress.
Lyell was a “man of faith” – but one who rejected the Mosaic chronology of Genesis. He believed strongly that geological science should be free to investigate the history of the world apart from the framework of a recent creation and world-wide Flood that a straightforward reading of Genesis indicated. Though a dozen or so “Scriptural geologists” in the late 18th and early 19th centuries defended that view, some of them with equal academic credentials and more field experience, Lyell and his band of academics had little time or interest in hearing them. They were on a program: to advocate a uniformitarian approach to interpretation.
If contemporary lists of the greatest scientists feature a geologist at all, it is usually Lyell, a central figure in Worlds Before Adam. Lyell intended the title of his great multi-volume opus Principles of Geology (first published in 1830�1833) to recall Isaac Newton’s Principia. He sought to recast geology on firm foundations, just as Newton had done for physics. Following his geologist contemporaries and predecessors, Lyell used the understanding of present-day causes to interpret the deep past – a principle termed actualism. Rudwick explains that Lyell’s excellent descriptions of current geological processes, embellished with observations from his own geological excursions, derived from an original listing by the eighteenth-century German scholar Karl Ernst Adolf von Hoff. Lyell greatly extended the actualistic method by making pronouncements about how the complex geological processes of the past occurred through the progressive action of small-scale procedures that were still in operation, and by prescribing how geologists should reason about these past processes.
So even though Lyell appealed to evidence, the force of his influence was in prescribing how geologists should reason about and interpret what they were seeing. Surprisingly, his view faced strong opposition at the time and only gradually became dominant. It was comparable, Baker said, to the influence of Darwin on biology. Darwin had not proved gradual evolution or common descent, either, but had prescribed how biologists should reason and interpret the evidence through a lens of slow and gradual change. In this, of course, he had been strongly influenced as a young man by Lyell’s own vision. Principles of Geology was among his favorite readings aboard the Beagle.
It’s interesting why Lyell initially faced opposition. Notice the contrast between facts and reasoning about the facts:
Rudwick shows that Lyell’s ideas met with almost universal criticism. This was not caused by his advocacy of actualism, which was widely used, nor was any serious denunciation forthcoming from the biblical literalists, who were considered anti-scientific by Lyell and by his critics. Instead, the geological facts themselves seemed contrary to Lyell’s vision of uniform action by small-scale processes operating over a long time. Examples include evidence for sudden mass extinctions from records in various ‘bone caves’, the existence of huge blocks sitting erratically out of geological place in the Alps and northern Europe, and deep U-shaped valleys containing streams too small to account for their excavation. Lyell’s critics held that one should inquire into nature through evidence, rather than through privileged reasoning.
This excerpt from Baker’s book review underscores two notable points about the history of geology. First, the “biblical literalists” (a term of derision still in use today by Darwinists) were dismissed not on the basis of the strength of their arguments or evidence, but because they were “considered anti-scientific” – i.e., they were marginalized by categorizing them out of science (a strategy still in use today by Darwinists). Second, Lyell’s own contemporaries fought against the principle of applying “privileged reasoning” and argued for inquiry into nature based on evidence. Apparently many of them felt at the time that Lyell failed to respect the evidence when it militated against his world view.
The term “actualism” gave way to “uniformitarianism” through the nomenclature of William Whewell, a distinguished philosopher of science (see June 2007 Scientist of the Month), who sought to clarify the debate in a way that would discredit Lyell’s scientific method.
It is an irony of subsequent developments in geology, and a testimony to the success of Lyell’s advocacy, that catastrophism came to be regarded as unconventional. This perverted Whewell’s original intention, which was to show that the uniformitarians and Lyell were extreme in thinking that geologists should say in advance how nature works, through slow and uniform processes, before interpreting the evidence.
As an example, Baker (reviewing Rudwick) points out that Lyell stuck to his guns even when the evidence was against him. When Louis Agassiz (“perhaps the greatest of the catastrophists”) presented evidence in favor of glacial theory, “Lyell resisted, remaining true to his epistemological project.” Strictly speaking, an “epistemological project” is an agenda. It says, “I am going to advocate for a different definition of knowledge” before going and looking at the evidence. That might be what Baker was referring to in his title, “Geological history turned upside down.”
The influence of Lyell pervaded the field of geology from about 1830 till the 1980s, when individual “neo-catastrophists” sought a place at the table. One of the most colorful case studies is that of J Harlan Bretz who argued for the catastrophic creation of the Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington by means of a giant flood. His story is told by a new NOVA program airing this week called Mystery of the Megaflood. Information on the PBS website about this program reveals that this is a story as much about the nature of science as about a geological event. It recalls how Bretz had trouble getting his fellow geologists to “see” data that contradicted their uniformitarian paradigm. Since Bretz’s interpretation required phenomena for which there was no present example, such as powerful underwater vortices (kolks) capable of ripping racetrack-size potholes out of solid rock, they ridiculed his ideas for decades (see PBS article interviewing Vic Baker). Bretz defied the uniformitarian consensus and was eventually vindicated (03/05/2008 commentary). It is now more in vogue to offer catastrophist explanations for things (see 05/22/2003).3 Lyell’s ghost, however, has not been exorcised; it continues making frequent apparitions in the geological literature and popular media.
1. Victor R. Baker, “Geological history turned upside down,” Nature 454, 406-407 (24 July 2008) | doi:10.1038/454406b.
2. Lyell portrayed his predecessor James Hutton (1726-1797) as the father of uniformitarian geology. This was largely a historical myth propounded by John Playfair, Hutton’s protègè, and by Lyell, who had propaganda needs for an English giant on whose shoulders to build his ideas. Relying heavily on Rudwick’s 2005 book Bursting the Limits of Time, John Reed, writing in the latest Journal of Creation (22:2, 2008), explodes five myths about Hutton: (1) that he was the father of uniformitarian geology (those ideas were common in the 18th century), (2) that Hutton was an empiricist, (3) that Hutton was an objective thinker (he was in fact building a deistic system), (4) that Hutton was a secular martyr (neither religious people nor his fellow savants opposed him), and (5) that Playfair merely clarified Hutton’s hard-to-understand writing style (he actually cut-and-pasted sections to sanitize Hutton’s true beliefs).
3. Uniformitarianism does not work for Venus, planetologists confess: see 11/26/2003 and 08/16/2004.
As Terry Mortenson documents in his detailed treatise on the Scriptural geologists, The Great Turning Point, the uniformitarian view was an agenda-driven worldview choice, not a requirement of the evidence. Many of the Scriptural geologists were at least as qualified (if not more so) than the long-age advocates who wanted to compromise Christianity with the ancient-earth ideas of Hutton. Lyell himself stated clearly in his letters that his agenda was to divorce geological inquiry from any and all consideration of the Mosaic record in Genesis. He succeeded uniformly with catastrophic results for free inquiry. A perusal of the abstracts from Geology any given month reveals Lyell’s paradigm nearly unchallenged. Article after article is consumed with fitting this or that formation into its presumed place in the billions-of-years geological timescale. The categories, names and dates are never questioned. Out-of-the-box thinking plays second fiddle to keeping the story going.
The Scriptural geologists argued that this approach was as doomed as trying to understand the Roman Empire by choosing to study only the monuments of Rome without reading any contemporaneous eyewitness testimony. They had strong scientific justifications for evaluating the evidence within a creation and Flood framework. They argued with scholarship and finesse, showing how the data fit with a global catastrophe as described in the Genesis Flood but did not fit with long ages and gradualism. Flood geology died out around 1840 for reasons Mortenson gives in the conclusion of his book. Among them was the fact that the Scriptural geologists acted alone and did not raise up a school of thought or society that could carry on their work. The uniformitarians won by default and continued through sheer dominance of academia, till Flood geology emerged again (essentially independently from its 1830 predecessor) with the publication of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris in 1961. The secular geological societies continue to pay them no attention. True to the Lyell playbook, they label them “anti-science” only to dismiss them.
It is apparent from Rudwick’s book that the marginalization of the “biblical literalist” view was an example of a category error in science. Lyell, Sedgwick, Buckland, Phillips and the other uniformitarians who captured 19th-century academic geology departments did not have to listen to the Scriptural geologists, review their books, answer their arguments or evaluate their evidences. Why? Because they had decided, in advance, that the Scriptural geology position was “anti-science.” Sound familiar? That is exactly what the Darwinians do to the creationists today. How convenient it is to rule your opponent out of a debate by definition. “I don’t have to listen to you; you are a fool.” The real fool is often the one calling the other one a fool.
Today’s entry fits well with the yesterday’s on philosophy of science. What can science know? Surely it is hard enough interpreting the causal thicket for things that we can observe and repeat in a lab. Geology is a science necessarily historical in nature. Is there any good reason for rejecting historical accounts a priori that speak of processes germane to one’s subject matter? Much less so when the written records show a good fit to the evidence. What the Bible described as a real event fits what we see: billions of dead things buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth, to borrow Ken Ham’s pithy phrase.
So did Lyell lie a little? In view of his negative influence on geology for 150 years, he lied a lot. He pretended to be promoting objective science but really was imposing his own theological views on geological practice. The Charlie & Charlie Company (Darwin and Lyell) are partners in crime – defining science so as to downplay the priority of evidence. Now that we have seen that Lyell had an agenda, and that his “epistemological project” outran his respect for the evidence, it’s time we toss his ideas overboard and let them experience a little catastrophism up close.