Thursday, November 15, 2007

Charles Lyell--Belated Happy Birthday

Charles Lyell portrait

Michael J. Ryan's wonderful Paleoblog points out that yesterday, November 14, was the birthday of Charles Lyell, prominent geologist and popularizer of the concept called "Uniformitarianism"--that the forces at work in the natural world today are the same forces at work in the past. While it strikes me as a reasonable working hypothesis, and one that has been widely used for a long time, many people, ranging from school boards to Ann Coulter, find it impossible to swallow. Dr. Ryan provides links to a brief Lyell biography and some of his books still in print, including the 1830-1833 page-turner, Principles of Geology in three volumes.

To this, I'd add Charles Lyell's online books courtesy of U Penn's Online Books Page. You can read his most seminal works for free.

I admire Lyell's writing. He always acknowledged that his ideas were developed and shared by other researchers, and he seemed to me to be clear and plain-spoken, in contrast to many writers of his time. Here's an excerpt from his essay "The Progress of Geology:"

If we reflect on the history of the progress of geology we perceive that there have been great fluctuations of opinion respecting the nature of the causes to which all former changes of the earth's surface are referable. The first observers conceived the monuments which the geologist endeavours to decipher to relate to an original state of the earth, or to a period when there were causes in activity, distinct, in a kind and degree, from those now constituting the economy of nature....Many appearances, which had for a long time been regarded as indicating mysterious and extraordinary agency, were finally recognised as the necessary result of the laws now governing the material world; and the discovery of this unlooked-for conformity has at length induced some philosophers to infer, that, during the ages contemplated in geology, there has never been any interruption to the agency of the same uniform laws of change. The same assemblage of general causes, they conceive, may have been sufficient to produce, by their various combinations, the endless diversity of effects, of which the shell of the earth has preserved the memorials; and, consistently with these principles, the recurrence of analogous changes is expected by them in time to come.

....By degrees, many of the enigmas of the moral and physical world are explained, and, instead of being due to extrinsic and irregular causes, they are found to depend on fixed and invariable laws. The philosopher at last becomes convinced of the undeviating uniformity of secondary causes; and, guided by his faith in this principle, he determines the probability of accounts transmitted to him of former occurrences, and often rejects the fabulous tales of former times, on the ground of their being irreconcilable with the experience of more enlightened ages.

1 comment:

Larry said...

Thanks for the link to online Lyell! I've wanted to read some of his works, but lacked the motivation and/or funds to buy them.