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Evolution Part 7: Charles Lyell and The Key To The Past

Cuvier and Catastrophism

George Cuvier

In Part 6, I looked at catastrophism. The Frenchman George Cuvier, the theory’s vocal and ardent supporter, described earth’s history in terms of ‘historical revolutions’. These were periods of geologic calm punctuated by short periods of intense and sometimes almost immediate changes. Rushing floods, climbing mountains, or shearing glaciers, he thought, could reset earth’s ecosystems in hours or days. The virtually immediate changes would displace plants and animals and alter the environment in such a way that new species would arise to take advantage of the new ecosystem. I have yet to figure out how Cuvier explained speciation.

Cuvier argued loudly and publicly against gradualism and uniformitarianism. I want to be careful not to mix the two terms. Gradualism is simply the observation that ecological and geologic change generally occurs slowly and predictably over time. It does not discount episode of rapid change such as the Mount St. Helen’s eruption in Washington State in 1980. But these are unusual events. Uniformitarianism, which recognizes elements of both gradualism and catastrophism, is a basic and underlying theory of all sciences that says all natural phenomena occur at the same rates, everywhere, through all time. It’s wrapped up in the materials of nature’s making. Science as a philosophy fails without uniformitarianism (see Part 1).

Proponents of uniformitarianism and catastrophism clashed in the early eighteen hundreds. With the Christian Bible as their guide, most Western philosophers and scientists viewed the world as recently created. (Irish Archbishop James Usher famously used Genesis to determine that the earth was created on October 22, 4004, BCE.) But observed changes in ecosystems and topography were increasingly difficult to explain with such a short time frame. And there were fossils, too. They were sometimes clearly related to extant species but sometimes they were odd and mysterious. Biblical literalists had a difficult time juxtaposing the putative young age of the earth with processes that appeared to require more time than just a few thousand years. Catastrophism attempted to explain this by arguing that geologic tumults could almost instantaneously change entire landscapes. More Biblically minded thinkers developed the Appearance of Age Theory. They argued that, if God created the world, wouldn’t it appear to be old? Wouldn’t a newly created tree have growth rings you could count? It was not convincing.

Other ideas challenged the Bible time-line. Any interested observer could see how sedimentary beds were lain a grain of sand at a time. How many ages would it take to build a layer of just a few inches? This wasn’t lost on James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist who toured Great Britain looking at rocks and geologic formations. He found scant evidence for catastrophism and argued that slow and gradual sedimentation and erosion formed the ‘great geologic cycle’. In 1788 he presented evidence to the Royal Society of Edinburgh that the earth was formed by a continual cycle of erosion, compression, volcanic forces, and sedimentation. He – rather bravely for the time – noted that this cycle had ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. He is recognized as the first to scientifically outline the idea of uniformitarianism.

Charles Lyell

Hutton’s work was advanced in the early 1800’s by Charles Lyell. This Father of Geology endeavored to strip religion and tradition from the new science of geology and make it into a true science based on evidence, measurement, and observation (see Part 4). Lyell, like Hutton, traveled widely and was increasingly convinced that geologic changes were created slowly and gradually by observable forces. In vocal opposition to Cuvier, Lyell argued that Hutton had it right. By the time Lyell published his seminal Principles Of Geology in 1830, catastrophism was a religious relic. Interestingly, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin, a friend of Lyell’s, was able to use the Principles to outline the geologic history of the Canary Islands while working aboard the ship named The Beagle. How much did this geologic evidence for the gradual and steady accumulation of change influence Darwin? We can’;t say for sure. Early on, Lyell was tepid regarding the organic evolution of humankind. He rejected Lamarck’s view of the mutability of species and argued with Darwin about human evolution. Though retaining his reluctance to embrace human evolution, he became a supporter of Darwin and urged him to publish his work.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of uniformitarianism. It is arguably the most important tenet of natural history. Physicist Richard Feynman, when asked what he felt was the single most important and basic bit of knowledge about science, said that all things are made of the same tiny invisible things that group differently to form different things. I won’t argue with Feynman about many things but I argue that Lyell’s uniformitarianism is even more basic: in everything we see in nature, the same forces that we see today have been happening at the same rate and in the same way since the dawn of time.

Alternately, could the Appearance of Age theory accurately describe creation and discount evolution?

Yes, but it falls under the same philosophical heading as the brain in a vat question. There is no way to determine whether or not it is true. It cannot be falsified and no repeatable evidence can be raised for either a yes or no position. It is an argument after the fact. Adherents believe the story of Genesis but run headlong into the scientific edifice of evolution and then start shuffling cards to figure out how to make both true. The Day-Age Theory is a similar defense mechanism. See my Part 1 for a more full explanation for the philosophical basis of science.

And while we’re talking about the Appearance of Age Theory…did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?


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