The three volumes of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology are widely hailed by geologists, and widely criticized by young-Earth creationists, as a crucial influence in the developing consensus that the Earth’s fossil layers were laid down over a long time period via uniformitarianism. After seeing the work referenced so many times in later writings I decided it was time to go back and read it myself.
The three volumes were revised in numerous editions over Lyell’s life. I found the public domain of the first edition (1830) in Google’s book app on my tablet. My iPhone’s iBook app found the ninth edition (1853). I primarily read through the first edition, though I also read a few chapters of the later edition and noted some interesting differences which I will get to below.
The contents of the first volume were not what I expected as it hardly touched on the geological column. Instead it largely described 1) the forces that presently alter the surface of the globe: rivers, floods, tides, currents, springs, volcanoes, and earthquakes, with 2) examples of how those forces have altered the surface of the globe in the last two thousand or so years of recorded history. This largely serves as a foundation for Lyell’s overall premise that the entire surface of the globe can be best explained by extrapolating those forces far beyond recorded history.
1-4: An overview of beliefs about geology across time and cultures, from primitive legends, to Greek observations, to the 1600’s when fossils were argued to be “sports of nature,” to the 1700’s when they were attributed to the “Noachian” flood, to the “rapid progress” of the 1800’s in developing the idea of long ages
5: Remarks on the “regular order of superposition” of distinct beds of shells and corals, and how the “calendar” expanded as strata of one country filled in gaps of another
6: Claims Europe used to be warmer with fossil evidence of shell species that currently live in warmer climates and mammals that cannot currently survive there
7: Discusses present distribution of land and sea and its effects on climate in different hemispheres. Speculates about different distributions in different time periods having different effects
8: General remarks about strata deposits and mountains being raised up
9: Claims fossil evidence does not support the “successive development” of life from simple to complex
10-26: The real heart of the volume. A methodical discussion of the present effects of rivers and floods, tides and currents, springs, volcanoes and earthquakes in altering the surface of the earth. Presents evidence from written history of the last two millennia of new islands and hills forming from volcanoes and earthquakes, of ancient sea ports now miles inland from river deposits expanding deltas, of tides undermining cliffs into the sea, and many more.
On Fossil Layers
Before reading this book I didn’t grasp conceptually how the bulk of the continental fossil layers were supposed to have been slowly laid down over time – and years ago when I, as a perky young-earth creationist, asked questions in science forums about how “gradual” layers could distinctly “end” and “begin,” I got the impression that most other people didn’t grasp it, either. I think my problem was thinking of land and water surfaces as constants, and struggling to imagine processes that would slowly bury fossils on the land. I think this is partly because I had only ever seen “uniformitarianism” defined by its opponents, presented as a gradual process in contrast to the chaos of a global flood.
Lyell is an effective teacher, and he corrects such misunderstandings in the first pages:
“As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extremely remote, and others recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent; so the state, of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events”
Uniformitarianism doesn’t say everything can be explained by vague gradual processes; it says everything can be explained by all the processes currently in motion. Lyell says it’s true that, besides volcanic eruptions, strata generally doesn’t deposit on land, which is “almost exclusively the theatre of decay and not of reproduction.” The critical claim is that land and water surfaces are constantly changing! Lyell describes how rivers carry sediment and deposit them on the floors of lakes; the examples of ancient Greek sea ports that were now miles from water due to expanding delta sediments were particularly striking. Later he describes how earthquakes can raise lake beds into dry land and vice versa. There are complicating effects of floods and tides and other things, and I don’t know how much that concept has been corrected or refined over the years, but I feel like I finally “grok” the core of the idea: Geological layers around the globe were deposited by rivers into seas while the floors were under the water, and gaps in layers at any given point simply represent the times those parts of the earth were above water.
On Anti-Christian Bias
Young-earth creationist organizations frequently accuse Lyell of an anti-Christian bias, referring to private letters stating a desire to “free science” from the “dispensation of Moses.” A motive is not usually given.
Reading Lyell for myself, I certainly found no great affection for young-earth “prejudices,” as he called them, and his work is peppered with derisive statements towards those who rejected the possibility of an old earth.
I found some clues to his motives in the early chapters of the volume, when he recounts the progression of geological views. Lyell says that around the 1600’s some argued that fossils were not organic remains but mere “sports of nature,” and he bemoans that a century of scientific progress was “lost.” This view was discarded as fossils became better understood, only to be replaced by the view that they were the result of the Noachian flood. Lyell bemoans that another century and a half was “consumed” by this view. It was only in “recent times” that “rapid progress” was achieved by the “careful determination of the order of succession by means of different organic contents and regular superposition.”
I did not personally read Lyell as intentionally trying to attack or undermine Christianity. He generally only seemed interested in if insofar as it held back what he saw as the progress of science by ruling out possibilities before they were fairly considered. Lyell seemed to hold as much contempt for the Noachian flood as he did the views of the Neptunists and Vulcanists – two competing theories for the origins of the world that were equally non-biblical.
Someone who was simply biased against Christianity could have cast his lot with one of those groups, but Lyell insisted there was no evidence to support them, either. He seemed to simply believe it was evident “that successive strata, containing in regular order of superposition distinct beds of shells and corals, could only have been formed by slow and insensible degrees in a great lapse of ages.”
However, I don’t know from my reading of this volume why Lyell saw this as “freeing” science from Moses, compared to contemporary Christians like Hugh Miller and Edward Hitchcock who fully accepted Lyell’s geology while fully “harmonizing” it with Scripture. It seemed that the ninth edition was more antagonistic toward Christianity than the first (the later historical sketch seemed to exude more bitterness towards Noah’s flood, to the point of suggesting that other cultural legends were more accurate)
Overall, though, Lyell’s discussion of evidence did not necessarily feel biased to me. He seemed careful to note where “our generalizations are yet imperfect” regarding areas of limited observation. He admitted “so much contradiction and inconsistency” regarding calculations of the discharge volume of oceanic deltas,” declaring the need for “additional experiments before we can form any opinion.” Yet Lyell clearly saw a distinction between the uncertain elements of his theory and the more fundamental idea that “the order of succession of different groups” of stratified rocks “was never inverted,” which Lyell claims was independently deduced by multiple geologists, although he did not get to the details of that order in this volume.
Lyell’s relationship with evolution is complex and well-documented elsewhere (his wiki bio has a good introduction). The first edition of Lyell’s work pre-dates Darwin’s Origin of Species by three decades. It is said to have strongly influenced Darwin, who literally read it on the way to the Galápagos islands. Lyell’s work opposed the “successive development” theories of the day, but he was said to be more open to it in private letters, and revised editions became increasingly sympathetic towards it.
With all that in mind, I was surprised at just how strongly Lyell came down against evolutionary ideas in his first volume, not merely avoiding them but actually arguing that the evidence clearly refuted them. In chapter nine, Lyell claims that, while the fossil record has a clear order, that order does not progress from simple to complex: “remains of fish appear in one of the lowest members of the group, which entirely destroys the theory.” He says mammals are rare in all layers, which is to be expected of strata slowly formed in water, but “bones of two species of the opossum” were found in “ancient strata,” which “is as fatal to the theory of successive development as if several hundreds had been discovered.” (He sounds remarkably like a creationist answering Bill Nye’s one-wrong-fossil challenge.) Lyell adamantly concludes, “There is no foundation in geological facts for the popular theory of the successive development of the animal and vegetable world from the simplest to the most perfect forms.”
By the ninth edition, Lyell had indeed softened. Gone was the categorical language; instead he hoped to merely restrict the “theory of progressive development to within very narrow limits.” He still cautioned against assuming that “the creation of any family of animals or plants in past time coincides with the age of the oldest stratified rock in which the geologist has detected its remains.” But now, he said the aforementioned presence of opossums only “seems fatal” to the theory. According to Wikipedia, it was the next edition – the tenth – which came after Darwin’s Origin of Species and finally offered a “tepid endorsement” of the idea.