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Sir Charles Lyell

QUESTION: How did Sir Charles Lyell influence Charles Darwin?


Sir Charles Lyell was a renowned geologist of the mid-nineteenth century. He was a firm believer in uniformitarianism. This philosophy claims that geological and biological "causes," or forces, have always been working in the same way and with the same intensity. Lyell's work formed the foundation of belief in a universe billions of years old. Though Lyell had trouble accepting some evolutionary theories, his work heavily influenced Charles Darwin. In fact, Darwin's concept of gradual evolution lacked an acceptable time frame until he embraced Lyell's old-earth theories.

Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin shared a support for uniformitarianism. This conflicted with the then-prevailing theory of catastrophism. Catastrophism is the belief that the universe, and earth, experienced major changes only as a result of major, rapid, catastrophic events. Scientists at the time saw no hard evidence to suggest that the earth was old enough to experience large-scale changes in any other way.

Uniformitarian theory became more popular as Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection became popular. Like Darwin's theories, the work of Sir Charles Lyell provided logical, rational explanations that suited the beliefs of many scientists. Over time, those explanations were considered proofs, and nowadays the scientific community at large accepts Lyell's explanations for rock layers and other geological effects with little question.

The relationship between Lyell's work and Darwin's work foreshadowed an aspect of human science still active today. Darwin accepted Lyell's work, in large part, because it helped him to validate his own beliefs. There were other geological studies that undermined Darwin's ideas, but he chose not to accept them. Lyell himself, ironically, was reluctant to accept Darwin's model of evolution because he did not see evidence to support it. In much the same way, some scientific evidence is applauded by a community when it supports the beliefs they already have. Evidence, even when valid, that goes against this belief is either ignored or attacked as being "unscientific."

A perfect example to illustrate the fallacy of this self-imposed blindness is the battle between uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Since catastrophism was associated, to some degree, with religious beliefs, it fell quickly out of favor with scientists who preferred not to believe in Creation. Uniformitarianism presented a view that was more compatible with a naturalistic, very old world. There was evidence for both, yet scientists considered catastrophism "less scientific." In recent years, science has swung back towards catastrophism somewhat, due to the inability of a uniform-cause view to explain certain geological and biological realities.

It is critical to remember that an explanation may be logical, comprehensive, and have supporting data, yet still be wrong. The back-and-forth swing between these theories, as with other major discoveries throughout history, emphasizes that human beings have a tendency to believe first and find facts to fit their beliefs later. The enabling aspect of Sir Charles Lyell's work in relationship to Charles Darwin highlights the tendency for human beings, even scientists, to accept reasons and explanations based on preference, more than merit.

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