Story Lives of Great Scientists - F. J. Rowbotham

Sir Charles Lyell



At Old Sarum Camp a group of "new" boys from Dr. Radcliffe's School, Salisbury, stood at the mouth of a long deep subterranean tunnel. It was enclosed by mounds and trenches; long ago, the garrison had used it when it was necessary to fetch water from a river in the plain below, but whilst the newcomers shivered, listening to "all sorts of tales . . . how it grew steeper far down, and ended in a pool of water. . . ." some of the older boys behind them, knocked off their hats, which immediately rolled out of sight. In the end, after crawling on hands and knees through a very dark cave, they found the hats, "greatly improved, of course, by knocking about upon dripping chalk and hard flints in their descent"; one of those boys was Charles Lyell, afterwards the great geologist, but he seems to have been much more concerned about the prospect of walking hatless through the streets of Salisbury, than about the calcedony and sparkling quartz which he might have seen in the piled-up flints!



Charles Lyell was born in 1797 at Kinnordy, Forfarshire, and the only remarkable thing about his infancy was that "it was more than twelve months before I cut a single tooth, and some old women . . . finding that my gums were very hard, and that I could eat well, very considerately tried to persuade my mother that her first-born would never have any teeth!" When Charles was three or four years old, his parents removed to Bartley Lodge, in the New Forest, and he was sent to school, at the age of seven and three-quarters, to Ringwood, where, before his first holidays, bonfires were lit, and bands played "Rule Britannia" to celebrate the victory of Trafalgar. Three years later, he went to Dr. Radcliffe's school, and the headmaster, "full of the chances of invasion," caused his boys to be drilled twice a week, armed with guns with tin barrels and locks. Charles, however, soon fell ill, and "as I did not like Sarum, I did not try to make light of it, and was taken home for three months ". He had "an excessive aversion to work unless forced to it", but was miserable when unemployed, and just as he began to long for school again, he found, in his father's library, some books about entomology. From that day, Charles Lyell wandered happily through the New Forest, confining his attention at first to butterflies and moths, but later, "became fond of watching the singular habits of the aquatic insects, and used to sit whole mornings by a pond, feeding them with flies, and catching them if I could."

When he returned to school, Lyell could seldom resist the temptation to spend his leisure hours in the same manner; his moths, when captured, were put between the leaves of his dictionary, so that when he looked out a word, two pages would be firmly glued together, and the worst of it was, other boys laughed at his "butterfly-hunting—a contemptuous appellation which . . . always nettled me."

It was now decided that Lyell should leave Salisbury, and go to a new and last school. There was an interregnum of half a year during which Charles and his brother, Tom, read Virgil with their father, and Charles, no doubt, did a good deal of "butterfly-hunting"; not that those sunshiny hours in the New Forest were wasted, for already he was beginning to learn some of the fundamental laws on which the study of all science depends.. Long afterwards he insisted on "making everything subordinate to his one ruling idea, that of establishing the principles of geology upon a thoroughly logical basis". It seemed hard, of course, that his hobby should bring him ridicule, and "hints that the pursuits of other boys were more manly" . . . "yet I knew most accurately to distinguish several hundred species, some very minute and still retained a very perfect recollection of nearly all, and could select the English butterflies and moths out of a foreign collection, and without the aid of books gave names to certain tribes, such as the 'fold-up moths', 'the yellow under-wings', etc., etc., which I afterwards found were natural genera or families, and my rule of thumb classification had thrown them into natural groups. . . . I could not see a rare moth without catching it, especially if not exposed to be laughed at by any witnesses of such a queer fancy. . . . The disrepute in which my hobby was held had a considerable effect on my character, for I was very sensitive of the good opinion of others, and therefore followed it up almost by stealth; so that although I never confessed to myself that I was wrong, but always reasoned myself into the belief that the generality of people were too stupid to comprehend the interest of such pursuits, yet I got too much into the habit of avoiding being seen, as if I was ashamed of what I did." Probably this bitter experience helped to teach Lyell toleration; in later life it was characteristic of him to advocate freedom of scientific thought, and whilst he "fearlessly pushed his principles to their legitimate conclusions", he never cared whether they were in agreement with accepted doctrines, or "cut directly across the grain of popular prejudice".

Eventually it was settled that Charles should enter Winchester College; he was now "past the age of twelve, and no longer reckoned one of the little boys". Here, during his second half-year, he fought with a boy named Tilt—and the fight lasted two days, five or six hours each day, "for we were pretty equal!" In the end Lyell got the better of his opponent, who was obliged to go to bed, and Lyell himself was very much hurt, and when he walked uphill found it necessary to lean on the arm of a friend.

Altogether he seems to have been often unhappy, with the "picks and cuffs I received," but comforted himself by trying to get a high mark in his class, and by this means gradually conquered his disinclination to work and his absence of mind. He won a prize, when he was sixteen years old, for English verses written in the metre of Scott's Lady of the Lake, and from that moment took it into his head that he should one day "do great things in a literary way".

At the age of seventeen Lyell matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford; Bakewell's Geology, found in his father's library, had already stimulated his imagination, but it was Dr. Buckland's lectures which finally attracted him to this science. "A new meaning had just been given to fossils by the publication, in 1816, of William Smith's Strata identified by Organized Fossils, in which the succession of faunas and their utility in determining the relative ages of deposits had been conclusively and for the first time pointed out. A great change was in consequence coming over the methods of observation in geology, and the study of rocks and minerals became only a small portion of the subject. The discovery of the differences between successive faunas opened up the quest of their origin and extinction, and thus a correct appreciation of the principles of geology became essential to the zoologist who would understand the relations between existing genera and species . . . the insistence that the processes of the past must be judged by those now in progress forms the keynote of the whole of Lyell's scientific work."

In the meantime Lyell attended Dr Buckland's lectures, taking careful notes of them, and in 1817, when he was staying with friends at Yarmouth, "had time to examine and consider the geological wonders" of the county. It was here that he learnt from Dr. Joseph Arnold, a naturalist who had discovered in Sumatra a new genus of plants, afterwards named Rafflesia Arnoldi, many curious and interesting facts about some recent changes in the coastline near Norwich. This Dr. Arnold struck him at first as being impenetrable—"the only subject on which he launches out is on Fossil Remains, and then only if you get him quite alone"; when he found, however, that Lyell's conclusions were exactly like his own, which nobody ever knew he had made, he . . . became in consequence very communicative, and quite another person. "The Doctor told me," Lyell added, in a letter to his father, "that he has always thought that it was the meeting of the great north current with that of the English Channel that burst open the Straits of Dover. With this I was delighted, for he did not know that to the very same cause both Werner, Humboldt, Buckland, and others, as well as myself, have been attributing the existence of Great Britain as to its insular and probably political situation. . . . Between Dr. Arnold's long catalogue of Norfolk fossils, and a map which I think I shall be able to make of this country, I flatter myself I shall be able to compile some interesting information for Buckland . . . I want to find chalk cliffs at Norwich, which must exist, I am confident. . ."

In 1818 Lyell made a tour with his father, mother, and two eldest sisters, in France, Switzerland, and Italy. In Paris he regretted that Cuvier, the famous naturalist, was at that time in England, but though it was impossible to hear him speak Lyell looked into his lecture-room, "filled with fossil remains, among which are three glorious relics of a former world, which have added several new genera to the Mammalia." Already he was convinced that "the first, second, and third requisite for a modern geologist" was—travelling, but he did not at this period formulate any startling geological theories; he was content to see, and wonder; and in 1819 took the degree of B.A., obtaining a second class in classical honours. In 1821 he became M.A., and two years later was appointed secretary of the Geological Society. After leaving Oxford, he had been entered at Lincoln's Inn, but suffered already from a weakness of the eyes which lasted still the end of his life; and one is irresistibly reminded of the childish illness which had compelled his removal from school—not to his regret l At all events, he gave up work, again travelling both in England and abroad; in 1825, his first published paper, "On Serpentine Dyke in Forfarshire," was printed in the Edinburgh Journal of Science, and perhaps it would be more accurate to regard his exertion, not so much as a holiday, but as a "feeling about" for the work he really wanted to do—just as, in childhood, he had learnt his school lessons only when forced to it, but spent whole days watching the habits of aquatic insects.

In the following year he accepted the foreign secretaryship of the Geological Society, and by this time he had met in Paris Cuvier, and by him was introduced to several geologists—and to Humboldt. Humboldt wrote Lyell, in 1823, "was not a little interested in hearing me detail the critiques which our geologists have made on his last geological work, a work which would give him a rank in science if he had never published aught besides. He made me a present of his work, and I was surprised to find how much he has investigated the details of our English strata." Humboldt was then hard at work at astronomy, and lived in a garret for the sake of study. In this year, also, Lyell had attended lectures in Paris on mining, geology, and zoology, but at his father's request he presently returned to the Temple. In 1827 he was actually on circuit—though his letters contain a great deal more information about insects, wayside flowers, and geological excursions, than about barristers and sessions. Next year he was again travelling, through Paris, Auvergne, and Padua to Naples. "The times were rough with Tripoli pirates still scouring the Mediterranean," but "Pompeii afforded me some good geological hints", and eventually he writes, in a letter from Catania, in Sicily: "I saw that same day [i.e.  day of the Giant's Causeway] was on the mainland at the foot of Etna, and some peasants assured me that it contained 'roba di diluvio', so I hastened thither, and found 700 feet and more up Etna, in beds alternately with old lavas, sea-shells, fossils, but many I know of modern Mediterranean species. This is just what everyone in England, and at Naples and Catania, told me I should not find, but which I came to Sicily to look for—the same which I discovered in Ischia, and what, if my geological views be just, will be found near all recent volcanoes, and wherever earthquakes have prevailed for some thousand years past. I have set a man and a boy to work, at so much per day, and if they do their duty I shall find, when I return from Etna, something that will fix the zoological date of the oldest part of Etna." Later, he says, "I have made such progress in the geology of the isle, and have such a near prospect of completely mastering the difficult points, which no one ever did before, that I mean after the late fine weather to penetrate to Castrogiovanni. . . ." By mule-riding and walking, he saw enough in Sicily to convince himself that the "relative value of later deposits could be determined by the proportion of living to extinct molluscan species which they contained, and to this we owe his division of the Tertiary strata into eocene, miocene, and pliocene, which has met with worldwide acceptance".

In 1830 was published the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which had been long in preparation; it was "an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by references to causes now in action". This book passed through eleven editions during its author's lifetime, and it set forth the great doctrine of uniformitarianism, which "he nobly supported to the day of his death, although modified of course by the progress of scientific inquiry."

"The only explanation which seemed possible to him of the perpetual change of life revealed by successive strata was, that when the material conditions of any district became so changed that the old inhabitants died out, a new creative fiat went forth, by virtue of which the district was again peopled with fresh inhabitants especially adapted to its new conditions."

Believing the system of terrestrial change to be uniform and "that the modifications produced by man had been exaggerated", he laid stress on "a uniform order of physical events", and did "great service in substituting his views of the gradual extinction of species and the continuous creation of new ones for the catastrophes which even entered into the theories of Hutton, and were supposed to sweep off whole faunas at a time."

To some critics this appeal to existing causes has made Lyell's doctrine seem opposed to the theory of evolution. Later, when Darwin showed, however, in his Origin of Species, that causes were at work gradually modifying the characters of plants and animals, till they became adapted to the changing circumstances, Lyell would not shut his mind against this fresh evidence; he accepted Darwin's doctrine, though it meant the overthrow of much of his own work.

The aim of Principles of Geology  is perhaps best summed up in a letter written to a friend early in the year before its publication: "I shall never hope to make money by geology, but not to lose, and tax others for my amusement; and unless I can secure this, it would in my circumstances be selfish in me to devote myself as much as I hope to do to it. . . . My work is in part written, and all planned. It will not pretend to give even an abstract of all that is known in geology, but it will endeavour to establish the principle of reasoning  in science; and all my geology will come in as illustration of my views of those principles and as evidence strengthening the system necessarily arising out of the admission of such principles, which, as you know, are neither more nor less than that no causes whatever have from the earliest time to which we can look hack, to the present, ever acted, but those now acting; and that they never acted with different degrees of energy from that which they now exert. I must go to Germany and learn German geology and the language, after this work is published, and before I launch out in my tables of equivalents. . . . This year we have by our joint tour fathomed the depth and ascertained the shallowness of the geologists of France and Italy as to their original observations. . . . If I can but earn the wherewith to carry on the war, or rather its extraordinary costs, depend upon it, I will waste no time in bookmaking for lucre's sake. . ."

In 1831 Lyell was appointed Professor of Geology at King's College, London. He had, however, little inclination for lecturing, and to his annoyance the authorities excluded women from his second course; still, he was able to write in his journal to Miss Mary Horner, to whom he was engaged to be married: "I begin to flatter myself that I am . . . doing good to science by these lectures, which at all events are talked of over London, but politics are of course the chief and absorbing subject. . . . Your father will tell you what an actor-like sort of celebrity my lectures obtain me, but I will look to something more solid." In the same letter he adds triumphantly: "The Duke of Wellington has been unable to make a ministry: so much the better, so Lord Grey and the rest are back again,"—and a month later the Reform Bill became law.

In July he was married, and now settled at No. 16 Hart Street, London—which Charles Darwin called his "morning house of call". Dean Milman, Rogers, Hallam, and in fact most of the leading men in science, politics, and literature, met constantly at Hart Street. In 1835 Lyell was President of the Geological Society; three years later he published Elements of Geology, a book which he had had in mind since he first studied under Dr. Buckland, and in 1839 he visited the United States, lecturing to enormous crowds, and returning to write Travels in North America, with Geological Observations. Four times Lyell visited America, and during the Civil War his sympathies were strongly with the Northern States. In consideration of the distinguished situation he occupied, and his scientific reputation, he received the honour of knighthood in 1848, and shortly afterwards, as he records with a good deal of satisfaction, "I had a most agreeable geological exploring on the banks of the Dee, into which Prince Albert entered with much spirit."

The winter of 1853–54 was spent in the Canary Islands, and by this time Lyell had travelled, "hammer in hand, over half the earth's surface. . . . He pointed out the absurdity of drawing conclusions from phenomena observable in only one country." New ascents of Mount Etna were included in the year's work of 1854, and practically his last published work was On the Structures of Lavas which have consolidated on steep slopes. He was never tired of wandering—but the sea-shore pleased him most, and he would tread the shingle "now speaking of the great problems of earth's history, now of the little weed the wave left at his feet. . . . His mind was like the lens that gathers the great sun into a speck, and also magnifies the little grain we could not see before. He loved all nature."

He was President of the British Association in 1864, and in his address at Bath spoke of the thermal springs, and the phenomena of glaciers, alluding afterwards to the antiquity of man, a subject which was beginning to attract general attention. This year he became a baronet, but though in the last few months he discussed "Paleozoic and recent volcanic rocks" as vigorously as, forty-seven years before, he had discussed "changes in the coast line near Norwich", he died, at his house in Harley Street, on February 22, 1875—two years after his wife's death; he was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey.

Lyell had been a good classical scholar, a lover of poetry, and keenly interested in politics; but he had given his life to Geology. It was necessary, owing to his short-sightedness, that much of his work should be dictated; Lyell would pace the room restlessly, or flinging himself on the sofa, as he spoke, absently trace patterns with his fore-finger on the carpet. He was methodical, however, in his hours for beginning and ending work—not that his work ever was ended, in one very important sense, for as Dean Stanley said of him: "from early youth to extreme old age it was to him a solemn religious duty to be incessantly learning, constantly growing, fearlessly correcting his own mistakes, always ready to receive and reproduce from others that which he had not himself. . . . It was the advancement of the philosophy of geology, not the advancement of self, that he was constantly seeking."