Charles Lyell developed a system of geology aimed “to free the science from Moses”.
Charles Lyell (1797–1875) is best known as the author of Principles of Geology.1 Darwin read the first two volumes of this on his famous vogage on HMS Beagle. These converted Darwin to belief in long geological ages, which gave him the deep time he needed for his theory of evolution to work.
Charles was born in Scotland, the eldest of ten children. He attended private schools and then Oxford University, graduating B.A. in 1819 and M.A. in 1821. Here he took in William Buckland’s lectures on geology, and then did a geological tour of Scotland with him; he later went on several geological and fossil-hunting tours of Europe.2
He had studied law, and was appointed a barrister3 in 1825, but he suffered from poor eyesight and abandoned the legal profession in 1827, thereafter devoting himself to geology. From 1831 to 1833 he was Professor of Geology at King’s College, London.
At the beginning of the 19th century there were two main schools of geology.
Most leading geologists were catastrophists, i.e. they believed that the earth’s geology was best explained as the result of cataclysms. Many of these believed in long ages and multiple catastrophes; however, there were also many ‘scriptural geologists’ who believed that Noah’s Flood, as recorded in Genesis, being worldwide, was the principal such catastrophic event.
Charles Darwin read Lyell’s Principles of Geology on his Beagle voyage, and found therein the deep time he needed for his theory of evolution to work.
The other view was that everything in geology was solely the result of processes now operating in the earth.4 This belief rejected the Bible, and hence the accounts of Creation and the Flood as recorded by Moses in Genesis. Advocates were either secret atheists or deists, who conceded that the earth must have had a cause, but were not prepared to attribute that cause to the God of the Bible. Charles Lyell was one such deist. In his Principles of Geology, he alluded to “a Creative Intelligence” having “foresight, wisdom and power”, but he did not allow that this “Infinite and Eternal Being”5 had actually communicated with mankind.
Lyell argued against catastrophic events in the history of the earth—not by citing contrary evidence, but by holding that any such events were not accessible to inquiry.6 But the same inaccessibility to inquiry also applied to his own view of a tranquil past. What is needed to establish past events is eye-witness testimony. However, Lyell refused to accept the Flood testimony of Noah, recorded in Genesis by Moses.
Lyell’s aim in this 3-volume work (1830–33), was to “free the science from Moses”,7 i.e. to free geology from the time-frame of Genesis, and hence delete the Bible’s early history. This is what he confided in a letter to his friend, geologist and fellow naturalist George Poulett Scrope, who was about to write a review of Vol. I of Lyell’s Principles of Geology for the Quarterly Review:
And he also said: “I request that people will … not form an opinion from what history has recorded.”8 I.e., from the historical accounts of Creation and the Flood recorded in Genesis, which are evidence of God’s supernatural power and His judgment on sin.
Lyell’s subtitle for his Principles was “Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation”. This was rephrased as ‘uniformitarianism’ by William Whewell in 1832, and the term has stuck ever since.
Lyell showed his contempt for those who might be expected to oppose his attack on the authority of the Bible and Christian faith, when he wrote in his letter to Scrope:8 “If you don’t triumph over them, but compliment the liberality and candour of the present age, the bishops and enlightened saints will join us in despising both the ancient and modern physico-theologians.”9
The late Harvard Professor of Geology, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote: “Lyell’s great treatise is not, as so often stated, a textbook summarizing all prevailing knowledge in a systematic way, but a passionate brief for a single, well-formed argument [for uniformitarianism—Ed.], hammered home relentlessly. … Truth is supposed to prevail by force of logical argument and wealth of documentation, not by strength of rhetoric.”10
Gould: “Charles Lyell was a lawyer by profession … [and he] relied upon two bits of cunning to establish his uniformitarian views as the only true geology. First, he set up a straw man to demolish. … In fact, the catastrophists were much more empirically minded than Lyell. The geologic record does seem to require catastrophes: rocks are fractured and contorted; whole faunas are wiped out. To circumvent this literal appearance, Lyell imposed his imagination upon the evidence.”11
Gould’s summary: “Lyell was not the white knight of truth and fieldwork, but a purveyor of a fascinating and particular theory rooted in the steady state of time’s cycle. He tried by rhetoric to equate this substantive theory with rationality and rectitude … .”12 And: “ … the irony of history is that Lyell won. His version became a semi-official hagiography of geology, preached in textbooks to the present day. Professional historians know better, of course, but their message has rarely reached working geologists, who seem to crave these simple and heroic stories.”13
Darwin read the first two volumes of Lyell’s Principles aboard the Beagle. As a result, he based his theory of evolution on Lyell’s erroneous theory of a long age for the earth.14 When Darwin returned to England in October 1836, he was quickly introduced to prominent scientists of his day, mainly by Charles Lyell.
In 1858, following the receipt by Darwin of a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace15 setting out a theory of survival of the fittest similar to Darwin’s, it was Lyell who proposed that this letter be read together with an abstract of an unpublished 1844 essay by Darwin plus an abstract of an 1857 letter from Darwin to the American botanist Asa Gray, at a meeting of the Linnean Society16 on 1 July 1858. Lyell read the material by Darwin first, and Hooker then read the paper by Wallace.
This achieved a flimsy chronological and alphabetical priority for Darwin.
Lyell died in 1875 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Seven years later he was followed there by his friend and fellow Bible-rejector, Charles Darwin.
Part of the 7-mile-long Niagara Gorge eroded over the last 3,800 years by water from the American Falls (left) and the Horseshoe Falls (right).
In 1841, Lyell visited Niagara Falls. The first settler there had observed that the Falls retreated by about one yard a year during the 40 years he had lived there. At this rate, the erosion of the whole gorge would have taken less than 10,000 years.1 This ‘age’ was much too short for Lyell’s anti-Genesis worldview. So in the 9th edition of his Principles (published in America), Lyell wrote (concerning the rate of recession) that “the average of one foot a year would be a much more probable conjecture. In that case, it would have required 35,000 years for the retreat of the Falls, from the escarpment of Queenstown to their present site.”2
This was gross hypocrisy on Lyell’s part, because it was a denial of his own uniformitarianism that required him to apply the then operating observed rate of one yard a year to the past, not to reject it.
With no evidence to refute the 40-year, eye-witness testimony of the first resident at the Falls, Lyell defiantly declared: “it will always be necessary to suppose the former existence of a barrier of rock, not of loose and destructible materials such as those composing the drift in this district, somewhere immediately below the whirlpool. By that barrier the waters were held back for ages”.2 (Emphasis, i.e. rock, in the original).
Why would it always be necessary to suppose a barrier, somewhere? Solely to undermine the Bible’s chronology and hence its history.
In fact, Lyell’s fraudulent 35,000-year-age has long been abandoned in the geological literature, but sadly not before it seduced many Christians to doubt the reliability of the Genesis chronology. If the effects of Noah’s Flood, with huge water flow and sediment load, and the post-Flood Ice Age, with erosion by ice and meltwater, are taken into consideration, the age of the Falls reduces to the time when the ice cover retreated some 3,800 years ago.3