Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/March 1882/Sir Charles Lyell
SIX years after Sir Charles Lyell's death, his sister-in-law, Mrs. Lyell, has given the world his letters and journals in two bulky but vastly interesting as well as really valuable volumes. The book is not exactly a biography in the ordinary sense, for the editor's part has been confined to a few stray connecting paragraphs of the baldest explanation; nor is it a deliberate autobiography, for Lyell was far too unobtrusive of his own personality to sit down and write at full length about himself; but it is unconsciously autobiographical for all that, consisting of letters extending over more than half a century, and enabling us to trace in minute detail the gradual unfolding of their writer's ideas. As a study in psychological evolution these volumes are invaluable; they set before us vividly the prior causes which produced Lyell, the environment which affected him, and the influences which molded or developed his inherent faculties. Their interest is thus rather social and personal than merely geological; it is Lyell the man, not simply Lyell the writer, that they paint for us with such graphic fidelity.
Whence did he come? What conditions went to beget him? From what stocks were his qualities derived, and why? These are the questions that must henceforth always be first asked when we have to deal with the life of any great man. For we have now learned that a great man is no unaccountable accident, no chance result of a toss-up on the part of Nature, but simply the highest outcome and final efflorescence of many long ancestral lines, converging at last toward a single happy combination. Whatever he possesses he has derived in the main from his ancestors, though he may possibly add some few elements himself by functional use; and it is not, perhaps, too much to say that the most richly endowed natures must necessarily derive many of their separate endowments from very different preceding strains. In Lyell's case the ancestral facts are clear and simple. His father was a Lowland Scotch laird, a man of cultivation and refinement, with tastes wide enough to embrace both literature and science. He was a botanist of some distinction, of whose researches into the cryptogams Humboldt himself spoke with favor; and later in life he became an enthusiastic Dante scholar, collecting every known edition, and publishing numerous translations from the Florentine poet. Thus the father already foreshadowed the special combination of tastes to be found in the son. His mother came from a good Yorkshire family—the Smiths of Maker Hall, in Swaledale—and we can well believe Mrs. Lyell's statement that she was a woman of sound sense, for all her children seem to have inherited more than their father's share of intellect and vigor. Charles was the eldest of ten, having two brothers and seven sisters. All were able, but he was the ablest. The firstborn of a wealthy and cultivated family, with ample means and ample leisure, endowed by nature with literary and scientific potentialities, brought up in the stimulating atmosphere of his own home, of Oxford, and of the London literary world, surrounded from his childhood upward by men of science and men of letters, it would have been strange if Charles Lyell had not turned out exactly such a man as we all know him to have been. He was predestined for his work by the inevitable forces of his own constitution and the environing society, and he was admirably fitted beforehand for the work he had to do.
"Unencumbered research," as Mr. Sorby calls it, is, in fact, the key-note of Lyell's history. Like most other of our greatest scientific generalizers, he was brought up in an easy position, which enabled him to devote his life to science alone, without troubling his brain about the often absorbing question of the bread-supply, that wastes the best years of so many lives fit for better things. He came to us from the eighteenth century. Charles Lyell was born at Kinnordy, in Forfarshire, his father's estate, on November 14, 1797. But the real home of his childhood was Bartley Lodge, in the New Forest, which his father leased for twenty-eight years shortly after Charles's birth, though the family often returned for a time to Kinnordy as their summer quarters. The fragment of early autobiography which Lyell wrote years after for his future wife gives us some pleasant glimpses of the boy's life among the big trees and shady avenues of the Hampshire woodland. He felt the charm of nature and the open air from his childhood upward. He knew every clump and every single tree in the park, and to each one he gave a separate name. At Old Sarum, whither he used to go on half-holidays from his school at Salisbury, he loved already to break the flints from the chalk to see which had crystals of chalcedony in the middle, and which had white cores of sparkling quartz. Even then, before he was eleven years old, he had taken to collecting beetles and butterflies, finding out their names from the entomological books in his father's library. This free life in the New Forest must have formed such a preparation for his future work as could have fallen to the lot of very few boys in England; nowhere else, perhaps, in this over-tilled kingdom could he have formed so just an idea of what Nature left to herself is like— though even the New Forest looks but an artificial thing, after all, beside genuine native primeval woodlands. Moreover, he luckily escaped the conventionalizing and stereotyping drill of our public schools; he was never put through one of those dismal mills for crushing out individuality, into which we turn most of our best material, so as to grind it down to the Procrustean measure of Ovidian elegiacs and Æschylean trimeters. He went to three small private schools, first at Ringwood (close to home), then at Salisbury (where "we bad the very best boys in Wilts, Dorset, and Hants"—a touch of a sort that dies out of his letters or journals with the course of time), and finally at Midhurst, in the very heart of the Weald of Sussex. He was thus spared the brutal influence of "compulsory football," which would have been substituted for the pursuit of nature in a modern public school. His tutors, indeed, shook their heads at his solitary ways, but they only gently hinted that they were unmanly. Our enlightened modern head masters would have severely reprimanded him for "loafing."
On the other hand, the boy's school-training laid the foundation for that wide and general culture which was afterward so markedly to distinguish him, even among the cultivated scientific men of his own time. The danger of becoming a narrow specialist, with no eye for anything on earth except the last rare thing in ammonites, was obviated in great part by the direction given to his natural tastes at Midhurst. He "had a livelier sense than most of the boys of the beauty of English poetry," he tells his wife, long after. "Milton, Thomson, and Gray were my favorites, and even Virgil and Ovid gave me some real pleasure, and I knew the most poetic passages in them." Scott dazzled his boyish fancy as he dazzled all the world while the present century was in its teens; and when a school competition was proposed for the best English verse in the ordinary heroic decasyllabic couplets, Lyell Senior boldly sent in his copy in the metre of the "Lady of the Lake," and won the prize, too, in spite of innovation attempted and rules openly infringed. Some burlesque Latin hexameters which he wrote about the same time lingered in his memory till past middle life—an epic suggested by the Batrachomyomachia, and devoted to the draining of the play-ground pond, much infested by predaceous water-rats. Such things are small in themselves, no doubt; every promising lad of literary tendencies at every big school has done the very same in his time, without setting the Thames on fire, after all; but they are valuable as marking the specific admixture which made Lyell something other in after-life than the mere bone-hunter or snailcatcher of scientific societies. Heaven forbid that our future geologists should all be cast in the uniform mold of the classical tripos!—but there was a certain tinge of the humane letters about these savants of the last generation which relieved them from the chilliness, the austerity, and the want of human interest that many people notice as a defect among the average scientific men of the present day.
At seventeen—young even for those days, I fancy—Lyell went up to Oxford. His college, Exeter, was still almost exclusively a westcountry one, and west-countrymen were not popular nor remarkable in the university for polished manners. He tells his father a mythical story how some Devonshire man at Exeter was asked by the examiners, "Who was Moses?" "Moses," says the examinee, "I knows nothing about Moses; but ax me about St. Paul, and there I has 'ee." Good evidence how long provincial prejudices lingered in Oxford, as they still linger about the Jesus Welshmen and the Balliol Scots. The letters from college (anno 1817) are amusingly old-fashioned in their eighteenth-century echoes. They are written stiffly in the literary style of the past generation, with Horace deliberately dragged in, thus:
"Hunc varum distortis cruribus."—Sat.
But we are gainers hereby in the end; for Lyell's epistolary style, thus developed, was very different from the hasty manner of the present day, based upon the post-card and the telegraph-form.
It was at Oxford, too, that Lyell discovered geology, hitherto to him a terra incognita, or, rather, inopinata. He attended Buckland's lectures, and seems at once to have been converted to the new love, the insects being henceforth almost entirely deserted, or, at least, relegated to the second place. One of his long vacations was spent at Yarmouth with the Dawson Turners; and already we see the theory of "causes now in action" fermenting in his eager brain. He visits the alluvial delta of the Yare, finds evidence of ancient channels blocked up by the shingle which so diverted the course of the river, learns that Norwich was a great port in mediaeval history, and, putting two and two together, comes to the natural conclusion that the changes in that part of the coast were very recent, and were due, not to one of the then fashionable cataclysms, but to river-silt still in course of deposition. "Cromer, Bakefield, Dunwich, and Aldborough," he says, "have necessarily been losing in the same proportion as Yarmouth gains." The bent was there even at this early date; and it is the bent that makes the man. The old drastic cosmogony was trembling to its fall; the germs of evolutionism were already in the air. Catastrophes, special creations, deluges, and the rest, though backed by the great name of Cuvier, had had their day. Lyell was to be one of the first to discover the cumulative value of the infinitesimal. From the first, his thoughts pointed in that direction; and though he did not know to what grand results the system was to lead us in the hands of Darwin—though, indeed, he was slow to accept the results when flashed upon him too dazzlingly at last—yet it is interesting to observe how throughout he keeps a keen eye upon all the crude theories that make in the same way, such as that of Lamarck, who from the beginning exercised an obvious fascination upon his kindred mind.
Toward these final results Lyell's own work led slowly up. Perhaps it is not too much to say that in future ages, when the origin of the great uniformitarian system of interpreting nature is looked back upon with impartial eyes, four prominent names will stand out as representative of the evolutionary movement in the judgment of posterity. The first is that of Laplace, who applied it to the origin and development of sidereal systems; the second is that of Lyell, who applied it to the origin and development of the surface of our own planet; the third is that of Darwin, who applied it to the origin and development of the phenomena of life; the fourth is that of Herbert Spencer, who applied it to the origin and development of the phenomena of mind, besides working up all the scattered elements of the system into one complete and harmonious whole. To pretend that Lyell stood up to the level of the other three would be passing the love of biographers: his work neither required nor engaged such high synthetic powers as theirs. But, without the first two, the revolution accomplished by the last two could never, perhaps, have been successfully carried out.
While at Oxford, too, general culture is not neglected. We find Lyell criticising Mr. Coleridge's new poem of "Christabel," writing some mild verses of his own on Staffa, which he had just visited with his father (better mild than none), and not quite successfully trying to take an interest in his tutor's lectures on the Ethics, where every Oxford man can surely afford him the most heart-felt sympathy. In 1818 he made a vacation tour through France, Switzerland, and Italy, observing and learning much, and interesting himself in art and society. He sees the Dranse in flood, and pores over the pictures of the Pitti Palace and the domes of Venice. Coming home, he went in for classical honors, and took a second in 1819. In after-life he evidently regretted the sort of teaching he had got at Oxford as much as most other men do; yet it left some good effects, apparent enough in all his subsequent work.
Law was to be his profession: so he went to Lincoln's Inn and made a beginning of reading. But luckily his eyes were weak, and he was sent abroad again for a trip to Rome. Here he devoted himself to the Forum Romanum and the Vatican, and left no time for geology—good education for his future work. Next, he is back in England, and down at Romney, with a friend. What luck for one of his bent: Yarmouth and Romney, the two great modern districts of England, the exact places to see geology now at work under one's very eyes! Here comes one of the jarring passages again: "The back door, opening into the farm-yard, betrays [his friend's father] to have been the farmer turned gentleman, not the gentleman turned farmer. How short and direct is the road through Eton and Oxford from the grazier on Romney Marsh to the fine gentleman!" But even here the better nature comes out on second thoughts—"or, to speak plainly, to the real gentleman in ideas, manners, and information." In the earlier letters there is a good deal of this sort of thing—talk of "good company," "my father's head livery-servant," and so forth; but we are still in the year 1822, and great allowances must be made for the son of a Scotch laird, living in the midst of the Tory society of the Regency, and hardly daring to trust his own native Liberal promptings. In politics he was Liberal from the first, though never a sound Radical; and in social matters the tone of his letters widens out steadily with time, till after his first American trip he comes back, say his friends, "ipsis Americanis Americanior."
Lyell's was a life of smooth success. It is wholly wanting in anything like plot-interest, because all honors came so easily to him. In the year in which he took his degree he was made a fellow of the Linnæan and Geological Societies. In 1823 he became secretary of the latter. Already he is a fast friend with Buckland and Mantell; and his sisters are his helpers in keeping his museum and the confidantes of his scientific theories or discoveries. About this time he makes many journeys to Paris, becoming familiar not only with French as a language, but with such men as Cuvier, Humboldt, Brongniart, and Constant Prevost. He mixes in all the best salons of that shameful period. Some of his letters are guarded, lest he should be "treated like Bowring, with the Bastile"; but, when he gets a chance of sending a sheet or two otherwise than by post, his pictures of the faithless, cynical, bigoted, irreligious Paris of the Restoration are vivid and graphic in every line. Humboldt confides to him his notions about Cuvier, who has dabbled in "the dirty pool of politics":
The young English visitor saw all that was worth seeing in this profoundly rotten society. Making every allowance for good introductions and a less crowded stage of European life than ours, the ease with which he got to know everybody seems nowadays almost incredible. At the door of the observatory he meets Laplace, "a very fine-looking old gentleman"; and he is shown over the building by Arago in person. Madame Pichon, a famous beauty, who sat for Gerard's "Psyche," admits him to her salon. Férussac shows him all his snail-shells, and tells him some things about geology that he did not know before, together with many baseless theories, which his good sense cavalierly rejects. He sees something of the intriguing great world, too; some of the chameleon-colored politicians, the scheming abbés, the fashionable Ultras, and the still more fashionable Ne Plus Ultras, as he once calls them. "Every other man one meets is either minister or ex-minister. They are scattered as thick as the leaves in autumn, stratum above stratum." He is full of interest, too, in social and political questions; writes with acuteness anent the system of subdividing the land, discusses the centralizing tendency introduced by Napoleon, and is keen about the pensions bestowed on Pairs de France by the Bourbons durante bene placito—a gift which, he says, neither blesses him who gives nor him who takes it. As yet he has done nothing serious in the way of book-making; but who would exchange such preliminary training as this for the very best and carefullest field drudgery of the mere cut-and-dried technical geologist?
However, he was not idle all this time. On the contrary, he was running up and down and to and fro upon the face of the earth, inspecting its crust everywhere, with an eye to future results; and to run to and fro was of course a far more difficult thing in the twenties than it is in these later days of easy locomotion. His letters are full of his observations taken in on the spot. Now he is down in the Isle of Wight, examining the cliffs from Compton Chine to Brook, and surprised at the careless way Buckland "galloped over the ground"—"he would have entirely overlooked the Weald clay if I had not taken him back to see it" (clearly what satisfies the Bridgwater treatises and the dean in the way of research will not satisfy this very heterodox young man); now he is investigating the tertiaries of the Paris basin at Bas Meudon; and now again he is down at Lyme Regis, classic land of geologists, watching Mary Anning, the self taught fossil-finder, unearthing the skeleton of a "superb ichthyosaurus." Every letter almost teems with new facts or discoveries; and Lyell's ears are open for everything new in the geological line from the ends, of the earth inward.
In 1825 his eyes had so far recovered that he was called to the bar, and went the Western Circuit for two years. He was but a dabbler at the law, however, and fortunately never gave up to the Queen's Bench what was meant for mankind. In 1826 he was elected to the Royal Society, ætatis twenty-nine. A year later, his review of Scrope's book on Auvergne, in the "Quarterly," clearly showed the line that he meant henceforth to adopt. He came forward as the champion of the views set forward by Hutton and Playfair—views which he was to modify profoundly, to make his own, and to stamp with the seal of universal scientific recognition. About this time he conceived the plan of the "Principles of Geology," his first epoch-making book. Shortly after, he went abroad with Murchison to France and Italy, collecting material for the great work. His letters home bristle with amusing sketches of his Sicilian experiences, for Sicily was then even more impassable off the grand route than it is now; and he often had to rough it in strange quarters. He has a keen eye for the ludicrous side of things, and tells many odd stories of men and manners. "This, signor," says his cicerone once, "is the wife of Pompey the Great, named after Pompeii; she is weeping her husband's death, who was killed at the siege of Troy." At Girgenti he sees "a droll sight. Fifteen orphan boys were paraded before the statue stark naked on a windy day, and then clothed by the bishop in the name of the king." He has time, too, besides climbing Etna, and noticing such things as the signs of the rise and fall on the famous temple at Pæstum, to look at Giotto's frescoes, and to observe much about men and politics. At the end of his tour he writes from Naples to Murchison (who had not accompanied him so far):
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 endeavor to establish the principle of reasoning in the science;. . . that no causes whatever have, from the earliest time to which we can look back, 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 into 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. We can without fear measure our strength against most of those in our own land, and the question is whether Germany is stronger. They are a people who generally "drink deep or taste not." Their language must be learned; the places to which their memoirs relate, visited; and then you may see, as I may, to what extent we may indulge dreams of eminence at least as original observers.
It is a great thing that Lyell was able thus to devote himself entirely to his work, and to spare no expense or trouble that would render him more competent rightly to perform it. "I shall never hope to make money by geology," he said; and again, "I will waste no time in book-making for lucre's sake." To travel everywhere and see everything with his own eyes was his great idea: "We must preach up traveling, as Demosthenes did delivery, as the first, second, and third requisites for a modern geologist." In 1830 the first volume of the "Principles" came out, and immediately achieved a marked success. No sooner was his hook published, than he was off to the Pyrenees, and dashing down in his impetuous way into Catalonia. Here he mixes up in his letters the volcanoes of Olot and the salt mines of Cardona with much amusing chat about the peninsularity of the Spaniards and the odd people he met en route. On his way back through France, he comes across the tail-end of the Revolution of 1830. At Perpignan he sees the cross removed from the cathedral, and hears a bystander indulge in the exquisitely French reflection: "Chacun a son tour; le bon Dieu a eu le sien." Next year he is off to Germany, inspecting the volcanic region of the Eifel. About the same time he accepts the professorship of Geology in King's College, offered him by three bishops, who knew not what they did; for Conybeare vouched for his orthodoxy. Even then Conybeare must have been satisfied with very little. Lyell did not keep the chair, however, as it interfered with his schemes of traveling and original research. So he returned immediately to his tours, much to the ultimate advantage of science, and no doubt to the great satisfaction of the hesitating episcopal triumvirate.
During all these bachelor years Lyell was daily mixing with the most cultivated society of the time. In every letter half a dozen well known names catch the eye at once. On one page, he is dining at Craig Crook Castle with Francis Jeffrey, "a great treat," and meeting "Mr. Maculloch, who gave the celebrated lectures on political economy in town last summer, which I attended"; on another, he is breakfasting at Lockhart's with Sir Walter Scott, "a far more genteel-looking man than Phillips has represented him in his portrait"; and on a third, he is at Cambridge, playing whist with Copley, Master of the Rolls, afterward Lord Lyndhurst, and chronicling only "a stiff bow" from highly-aristocratic young Lord Palmerston, who must then have been strangely different from his later easy-going self. Mrs. Somerville was always a close friend, and he even chaperones her to a Sunday evening "At Home" at Sir George Phillips's, where they meet Yankee novelist Cooper, politico-economical Mrs. Marcet, ethical Mackintosh, poet Rogers, Benthamite Dumont, Conversation Sharp, Sir Walter himself, and a dozen other assorted notabilities. Sir John Herschel, too, was an equally early ally, to whom many of the letters are addressed. Lyell is very catholic. He goes to hear Paganini, not enthusiastically; and then he goes to kirk to hear Chalmers, and retains enough of the Scotchman about him to characterize the sermon as "a very long discourse, but admirable." This catholicity comes out in far stronger relief in his letters than even in his published works, which stick comparatively close to the matter in hand. One sees it over and over again in such little touches as his first notion that he might write the "Principles" as conversations on geology, in the form of "a dialogue like Berkeley's 'Alciphron,' between equals." How many geologists of the new school have ever heard of the 'Alciphron,' or even know Berkeley in any other way than through one eternal quotation from "Don Juan"?
In 1831 the journal written for his future wife begins, so that we may conclude he was then or thereabout first engaged. In 1832 he married. His wife was a daughter of Leonard Horner, and a lady of tastes very similar to his own. Perhaps one may hint that all the ladies of Lyell's family were a trifle more learned than all the world would care for: it must have been rather a strain to live up to such a constant stimulation in the home circle; and most men would hardly wish to fill their letters to their wives with highly interesting details of dip, strike, and horizon. But this is a matter of personal taste. Lyell seems to have been one of the giants who can stand such incessant high pressure; and he was probably all the happier for his well assorted marriage. He himself seems strongly to have believed that bachelorhood was not good for the cause of science.
The summer of 1834 was spent in Scandinavia. Lyell was delighted with all that he saw in this new field. "There is much doing here which is unknown in England and France," he writes from Copenhagen. "I am more than ever struck with the extreme slowness with which science travels, what with multiplicity of languages, douanes, etc." If even Lyell felt this, though he spoke English, French, and Italian fluently, German well, and Spanish a little, how much must it stand in the way of lesser people, with smaller means and narrower accomplishments! After seeing Denmark from top to bottom, he crossed to Malmö and Lund, and did the Peninsula pretty thoroughly. At Stockholm, Berzelius took him in hand and gave him the cream of all he knew; at Upsala, it seems a strange link with the infancy of science to read that the daughters of the great Linnæus himself showed him over their father's garden. Conversation was limited to German, eked out, when needful, with Latin, which Lyell often found of service as a lingua franca in out-of-the-way places; but educated Scandinavians usually speak English so well that even the most helpless foreigner is seldom at a loss. He seems to have been as pleased with the peaceful and simple descendants of the wickings as most other people, and to have returned to Scandinavia with special pleasure on future visits. In 1837 he took his wife with him, and made further investigations on the geology of the Baltic basin, which stood him in good stead in his later works.
Naturally, as he grew older, after the "Principles" and the "Elements" had made their mark, he became an authority, and saw even more of the best intellects of the time than before. His correspondence with Mr. Darwin—not yet the apostle of evolution—seems to date from this period, and the allusions to London society crowd more and more thickly on every page. The tone, however, remains unchanged. Not a trace of narrow specialism anywhere. We get long accounts of such events as a party at Milman's, where Rogers and Whewell discuss Pope, and where Milman gives the fresh opinion of a contemporary on Macaulay's "Bacon." To follow him in all his wanderings after the age of railways would be impossible: a run across to Spain, Italy, or Scandinavia, seemed to him merely an ordinary bit of his week's work. In 1841, however, he took a more ambitious trip across the Atlantic to lecture at the Lowell Institute, and then traveled through much of the United States and Canada. Geologically, he was deeply impressed by the great scale of the phenomena he saw, the vast lakes, the enormous glacial deposits, the immense subterranean forests; socially and politically, the trip left lasting effects upon his tone of mind. Singularly unprejudiced to start with, he met American society frankly and cordially, and judged both its merits and defects with somewhat lenient impartiality. But his kindliness was not the result of mere unobservant and uncritical good nature. He kept his eyes open, as usual, to all the main sociological factors, and rightly remarks that many Englishmen set down much to American political institutions which is really due to American circumstances—abundant land, free elbow-room, and constant European immigration, often of the poorest and most ignorant class. On the other hand, when he crosses the border at Niagara, he sees the weak points of the colonial system on the north of the Great Lakes keenly and acutely:
This is less true now than it was then, but there is still much truth in it; and it is painful to think that we have condemned Canada to such a poor and petty mock-national existence for forty years longer, since Lyell wrote, merely for the sake of our own meaningless imperial claim, which nobody ever seriously means to assert, but which everybody pretends to believe is vastly important. The interesting thing to note here, however, is the fact that Lyell should have come to so definite and just a conclusion after only a few weeks' sojourn in a new country. It is one of the many proofs of his keen practical penetration which lie scattered over every page of his memoirs and journals.
Perhaps the chief visible results of this first American trip was the formation of a close friendship with Mr. Ticknor, of Boston—a member of the well-known publishing firm—to whom many of his letters are henceforth addressed. They are among the most interesting he ever wrote, containing expressions of broad general opinions, which would hardly be needed in writing to European friends. Some of them are very characteristic at once of his wide tolerance and his marked tendency toward conciliation and compromise. For example, he writes once:
He made altogether four voyages to America, always with an increasing sympathy for whatever is best in American life. Slavery troubled him much. He saw that the slaves were fairly well treated; that they worked lightly, fed well, enjoyed themselves hugely, and were profoundly careless about their own condition. He thought that, "if emancipated, they would suffer very much more than they would gain," and just at first he was half disposed to palter and parley with the accursed thing. But more thinking brought him back to himself; and, when the War of Secession came, he was firm as a rock on the right side, when all English society was going steadily wrong. No political movement of his time seems ever to have interested and excited him so much.
"If the result of the struggle," he writes to Mr. Ticknor in the very thick of the war, "could be the abolition of slavery by the year 1900, it would be worth a heavy debt and many lives, at any rate when one thinks of what most wars are waged for, not but that the Union alone is worth a long fighting for." And the longest letter, I think, in the whole correspondence, is one to his friend Mr. T. Spedding, defending his faith in the North against adverse criticism—a manly, noble, outspoken letter, which by itself sufficiently stamps its writer. A few condensed extracts are well worth making:
In a man of Lyell's antecedents and position, such reasoning is both brave and unexpected. I regret to say he observes in the same letter that he would rather fight for any number of years than let Ireland be "independent," though he admits that the Irish might make out a fair case for "repeal." Like most English Liberals, he can be just and sympathetic to Venetians, Poles, Hungarians, and negroes, but can not go quite so low as Irishmen.
So much by anticipation. A life like this is so full of real triumphs that one almost forgets to mention such a small matter as that in 1848, when at Kinnordy, "he rode over the hills by Clova and Lochna-gar to Balmoral, when he had the honor of being knighted by the Queen." He was Englishman enough to appreciate the distinction, as well as the baronetcy which followed it later on. Nor was he insensible to the blandishments of royalty: he records the doings of little princes and princesses, when he happens to meet them, a trifle too much in the style of the special correspondent, and he details his conversations with a distinguished personage somewhat more fully than their intrinsic nature really demands. But there is not much of this sort of thing: as a rule, when he mentions a man, it is because the man is worth mentioning. The life in London during the years of full maturity is even richer in reminiscences of famous people than the earlier days. Dining at Hallam's, the great subject of conversation is the vacant editorship of the "Edinburgh"—Longman closeted for hours with Macaulay, and Jeffrey strongly opposed to letting the control go from Auld Reekie. Breakfasting at Rogers's, the veteran poet tells him how he knew a boatman who used to ferry Mr. Alexander Pope across the river at Twickenham, how Chantrey once came to his house as a workman, at five shillings a day, to receive orders for some ornamental drawing-room furniture, and how he still possessed the identical table at which Addison wrote his "Spectator" papers. Now it is "Ruskin, who was secretary of our Geological Section"; now it is "a friend of mine, Huxley, who will soon take rank as one of the first naturalists we have ever produced"; and now it is "young Geikie,. . . certainly the coming geologist and writer." His eye for men was very keen, and his predictions have almost always turned out to be correct. Of Agassiz, just settling in Boston, he says: "He will be the founder of a school of zoölogy (for he has many pupils) of a high order. His enthusiasm is catching, especially when he has a good soil to work upon." Nor do his interests narrow at all with years. "I sat long before the Madonna di San Sisto to-day," he writes from Dresden, "and can feel its beauty." At Madeira, Teneriffe, the Grand Canary, and Palma, he enlarges his notions by new sub-tropical experiences. But the great scientific and philosophical revolution of the present century burst upon him, after all, half unprepared. He has long ago demolished the Mosaic cosmogony; he is deeply interested in Bishop Colenso; he has already strong views as to the antiquity of man; and yet Mr. Darwin's "Origin of Species" comes across his horizon at last almost like a thunder-clap. The truth is, he was committed to the opposite belief, and he was old for a sudden revulsion. He accepted the new creed, indeed, slowly and cautiously, but he had a struggle for it, and it cost him hard.
Lyell's attitude toward the grand theory of the origin of species by descent with modification was, indeed, in many ways a singular one; and these letters throw much light upon the evolution of his ideas with regard to it. Though his own views as to uniformitarianism and the antiquity of man might seem naturally to lead toward the acceptance of the development hypothesis—for it is much more difficult to imagine creation taking place in the midst of an ordinary physical series of events than to imagine it taking place in order to restock a world desolated by a divinely ordered cataclysm—he formally rejected the theory as broached by Lamarck, and he hesitated for some time to accept it as altered and amended by Darwin. Indeed, to the last he was but a lukewarm convert. Unless my memory misleads me, I have heard Mr. Herbert Spencer say that the true test whether a man was an evolutionist in fiber or not was to be found in the question whether he accepted evolution before Mr. Darwin had made its modus operandi intelligible. There are men who rejected the doctrine of special creation on evidence adduced; and there are men who never for a moment even entertained it as conceivable. These latter may not always have seen the πῶς of evolution, but they always saw the ὅτι. Judged by such a standard, Lyell occupies a middle position. From his earliest days he seems to have hankered after some such naturalistic explanation of life, and yet to have feared cordially to accept it. In 1827 Mantell sent him Lamarck, when he was on circuit at Dorchester. He writes back shortly after:
The last two sentences show how, even then, Lyell was trembling upon the brink of the truth. He had got in the thin end of the wedge; he was prepared to admit the first infinitesimal in the long series whose sum makes up at last the difference between himself and the amoeba: and yet he refused to go any further.
Time after time, for many years, we find the same thing cropping up again. The question is always before him, though he wavers much in the way he regards it. It seems to fascinate him and draw him on; even when he is fighting against it, it appeals to him as the natural complement of his other beliefs. In 1830 he writes to his sister from Paris:
Any one can see the falsity of this reasoning, which would imply an absolute uniformity in the rate of change in nature everywhere. A little later, in 1836, he writes to Sir John Herschel:
In some ways this is marvelously near Darwin; but in others it differs toto cœlo; for Lyell does not see that these variations could arise "spontaneously," that is to say, in the ordinary course of small differences of antenatal conditions; he sets them all down directly to "the Presiding Mind." Nor does he see that they might result at last in the production of new species. Indeed, the context, which I have suppressed, takes off much from the superficial air of anticipating Darwin, which the passage nakedly quoted undoubtedly bears. A year later he tells his sister—
In 1854 he notes, after an evening at Mr. Darwin's, how Sir Joseph Hooker astonished him with an account of that strange orchid, Catasetum, which bears three totally distinct kinds of flower. "It will figure," he says, "in C. Darwin's book on species, with many other 'ugly facts,' as Hooker, clinging like me to the orthodox faith, calls these and other abnormal vagaries."
Two years later, speaking of the wingless beetles of Madeira, he asks, "Was it not foreseen that wings would only cause them to be blown out to sea and be drowned?"
Soon after, meeting "Huxley, Hooker, and Wollaston at Darwin's," he is constrained to ask, "After all, did we not come from an orang?" At last the "Origin of Species" comes out, and bit by bit Lyell is compelled to give in. Even then he can reconcile himself but slowly to the new creed. "I plead guilty," he writes to Sir Joseph Hooker, "to going further in my reasoning toward transmutation than in my sentiments and imagination, and perhaps for that very reason I shall lead more people on to Darwin and you than one who, being born later, like Lubbock, has comparatively little to abandon of old and long-cherished ideas, which constituted the charm to me of the theoretical part of the science in my earlier days, when I believed with Pascal in the theory, as Hallam terms it, of 'the archangel ruined.'" To Mr. Darwin himself he writes that "the descent of man from the brutes takes away much of the charm from my speculations on the past relating to such matters." In the end he comes to the conclusion, as he idiomatically puts it, that "we must go the whole orang"; for that old mode of envisaging the facts clings to him to the last. Finally, he writes: "The question of the origin of species gave me much to think of, and you may well believe that it cost me a struggle to renounce my old creed. One of Darwin's reviewers put the alternative strongly by asking whether we are to believe that man is modified mud or modified monkey."
I have illustrated this matter thus fully because it is one which very clearly shows the weak side of Lyell's intellect. With all his breadth of mind and freedom from prejudice, he was not ever one of those who really get to the very deepest bottom of things. His tendencies were all in the right direction, and his instinct inclined him always to the true solution; but he did not build himself up a set of first principles to start with, firmly based upon a philosophical foundation, and make these the fixed criteria of his judgments throughout. His was too English a mind for that. He clung to all old beliefs as long as possible; he parleyed and temporized with the enemy; he was for effecting a compromise wherever he could, a patched-up modus vivendi which had to be tinkered anew at every fresh discovery. To the very last his acceptance of evolution was but half-hearted; he never came out and gave it the right hand of friendship fearlessly; he was always making reservations and starting difficulties, although his own beliefs fell short of it in places only by an infinitesimal fraction. "No miracle and no catastrophes in the cosmical system," he seems to say from time to time; "no miracle in the evolution of our planet; no fresh creations en bloc to repeople a desolate world; but just a very tiny miracle now and then, somewhere behind the scenes—a single new species to be created at a time, very unobtrusively, in Australia perhaps or St. Helena—that is all I ask." Whereas a thoroughly logical mind, a mind of the very highest order, would have said even before Darwin: "Creation can have no possible place in the physical series of things at all. How organisms came to be, I do not yet exactly see; but I am sure they must have come to be by some merely physical process, if we could only find it out." And such a mind could not fail to jump at the Darwinian solution the moment it was once fairly presented to it.
At the same time it would be unjust to deny that Lyell possessed and retained throughout life an unusual plasticity of thought and modifiability of opinion. It was no small thing that long after his sixtieth year he should have had the courage formally to recant in print the condemnation of "transformism" in his earlier works, and to accept, however unwillingly, the theory that he had so often and so deliberately rejected.
A somewhat ungenerous critic has lately declared that Lyell often shut his eyes when brought face to face with evidence adverse to his own views. These letters abound in proofs to the contrary. Twenty years before the publication of the "Origin of Species," he writes on another subject to Sir John Herschel:
The same spirit comes out in many other places. "I am sure I have no objection" he says in one place about some disputed Old Red fish-scales, "for I would as lief start with vertebrated animals and fresh water as with a universal ocean and the simplest forms of animal life." Perfect loyalty to fact, a complete readiness to accept anything, provided it can be shown to be true, marks Lyell's procedure throughout. It is very clearly seen in the last great work of his life, the "Antiquity of Man." As a matter of taste, it is obvious that Lyell did not relish the application of evolutionism to his own species. But he found that the facts compelled him, and he gave in. No book ever published—not even the "Origin of Species" or the "Descent of Man"—did so much to shake the common belief in the origin of our race: so far as all thinking Europe was concerned, Lyell simply demolished the current cosmogonies. More than that, by incorporating in the book Professor Huxley's remarks about the skull and much similar matter, he advertised the new creed in the animal origin of man with all the weight of his European reputation. The last years of his life were almost wholly spent in investigating this question of antiquity. Fifty years before, when he was at Oxford, he noted the occurrence of certain "pear-shaped flints" at Norwich, which he supposed must have "owed their shapes entirely to animals"; and all through his life he had been especially interested in the glacial period and its remains, the border-land where geology merges imperceptibly into archaeology and history. But from the Darwinian era onward he turned his attention almost entirely to the question of antiquity. He inspected everywhere, and got abundant specimens from abroad, at times not without ludicrous difficulties. Dr. Falconer had procured him a fine cast of a fossil rhinoceros; at Naples the police voted it an infernal machine, and confiscated it accordingly. After a time it was restored, but the priests kept Dr. Falconer's osteological notes, which they declared to be treasonable, as no doubt they were from an ecclesiastical point of view. After some years spent in hunting palæoliths and weighing evidence (which involved some heavy field-work for so old a man, in the Bedford drift, the and Maestricht caves, and so forth), the "Antiquity of Man" finally appeared in February, 1863. In three months he had sold five thousand copies, a remarkable success for such a book. It was his last great serious work. The remaining years of his life, though still actively spent, were devoted mainly to reconsideration and revision of what had been already done.
In February, 1875, his great and useful life closed quietly and worthily. In reviewing the seventy-eight years of his labors, it is impossible to avoid seeing throughout how admirably his opportunities were adapted to the work he had to do. He was the right man, to start with; but the lines also fell to him in the right places. With equal abilities, equal ardor, and equal singleness of purpose, he could not have done so much without the happy conjunction of circumstances as well. On the other hand, the lesson of his valuable life throws only into stronger relief the utter waste of powers and opportunities on the part of most other Englishmen in like positions. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred, put in Lyell's place, would have been nothing better than masters of fox-hounds or slaughterers of tame pheasants. When one thinks of the life-work performed by such men as Lyell and the great band of thinkers to which he belonged, one sees only the best side of wealth and position: one feels for a moment half inclined to thank the constitution of things as they are here in England for the chance it offers to such broad-minded and comprehensive workers as these. But then one thinks also of the extraordinary rarity of men who so make use of their opportunities, who regard their wealth as anything more than an easy means of the vulgarest personal gratification. It is lamentable to remember all the thousands of conservatories all over England in each of which, without perceptible difference to the owner, a few useful experiments might be tried, a few valuable observations made; and yet how many of them are ever used for any other purpose than to provide distorted flowers for a dinner-table, for a lady's hair, or for a fop's button-hole? We must congratulate ourselves if now and then, at rare intervals, we get a single Lyell out of all this mass of wasted humanity. After all, that result is in itself a great thing. We have always enough of narrow specialists in science, men valuable and important in their own way, though that is not the highest way; but we have never too many of the great coordinating and organizing intelligences, who take the scattered strands of scientific thought, and weave them together into one consistent and harmonious whole. Among such men as these Lyell stands well to the front, though not exactly in the very first rank.—Fortnightly Review.
- It is curious to note, however, that he never seems quite fully to have realized the immense difference between Mr. Darwin's view and Lamarck's. A priori, creation is from the first unbelievable; but, as a matter of evidence, Lamarck failed to make evolution comprehensible, while Mr. Darwin succeeded in doing so. Hence he was able to convert many who, like Lyell, were hanging back and waiting for a posteriori proofs. Yet Lyell himself never wholly recognized the difference.