Biographies of Scientific Men/Lyell

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



AT the time when England won the great naval sea-fights of St Vincent and Camperdown, when the Spanish, French, and Dutch fleets were defeated, there was born on 14th November 1797, Charles Lyell, the future geologist of Great Britain.

He was the eldest son of Charles Lyell of Kinnordy, in Forfarshire. His father was an extensive landed proprietor, and a man of scientific and literary pursuits. Lyell père was an ardent botanist and translator of Dante's Vita Nuova and Convito; and Lyell fils had a liking for entomology, which he cultivated to his heart's content in the New Forest, his parents having removed to that neighbourhood soon after his birth.

He was educated at Midhurst and at Exeter College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1819—the same year that saw the birth of Queen Victoria. At the university he had the good fortune to attend the lectures of Dr William Buckland, the founder of English geology, and which

Sir Charles Lyell, Bart.

greatly inspired him to make "the study of the rocks" his life's work. In 1821 Lyell came to London, entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1825 was called to the bar. Having practised as a barrister for two years, he finally resolved to follow the life of a man of science. His first contribution to scientific literature was "On the Marls of Forfarshire," in 1822. In the following year he visited France, was introduced to Cuvier, Humboldt, and other distinguished men, and in 1824 accompanied Buckland on a geological tour in Scotland, and thereby laid the foundation of his subsequent scientific career.

Having been appointed Professor of Geology at King's College, London, Lyell was elected F.R.S. in 1826. Between the years 1830-33 he published his famous work, The Principles of Geology. This work is the masterpiece of the great geologist, and is a classic in scientific literature: encyclopaedic in its scope, and exhaustive in its treatment, it may be looked upon with pride, not only as a representative of English science, but as without a rival of its kind anywhere.

The Principles contain an elaborate criticism of Lamarck's views. Lamarck, poor, neglected, and blind in old age, died in 1829, and was attacked by Lyell, who refuted the former's ideas concerning the origin of species; but this adverse criticism was the means of giving Herbert Spencer "a decided leaning to them"—"a partial acceptance of Lamarck's view." Nevertheless, The Principles of Geology was "a work destined to assist in paving the way for the removal of one difficulty attending the solution of the theory of the origin of species, namely, the vast period of time for the life-history of the globe which that theory demands." Although at the time, when the book was first published, its author had other aims in view than those to which it contributed. Charles Darwin says, in the ninth chapter of The Origin of Species: "For my part, following out Lyell's metaphor, I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced."

In The Principles of Geology Lyell followed the doctrines of geological uniformity and continuity of action laid down by Hutton, Buffon, and William Smith, and proved that the various formations of the earth's crust were produced by the very same agencies that are still active in the world. These views were assailed from all quarters as trifling and insignificant—trifling in attempting to explain the formation of valleys and mountain ranges, etc.; but a few, and only a few, read between the lines, and saw that

The world is wide—these things are small:
They may be nothing, but they are all.

Nevertheless, Lyell, despite all opposition, devoted his life to pursuance of the doctrine that the rocks, mountains, valleys, seas, rivers, etc., were produced in past time by "causes now in operation," still going on "unresting" and "unhasting."

The Principles of Geology was a work which revolutionized geology; theories of cataclysms and catastrophes were swept away by the master-mind of Lyell. What a stupendous service was rendered to science—progress free from prejudice; well might his bones rest in Westminster Abbey.

"Geology," Lyell defines, "is the science which investigates the successive changes that have taken place in the organic and inorganic kingdoms of nature; it inquires into the causes of these changes, and the influence which they have exerted in modifying the surface and external surface of our planet. By these researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate productions."

He classified rocks, according to their origin, into four great divisions—aqueous, volcanic, plutonic, and metamorphic rocks. These divisions have reference to their origin the agencies at work in rock formation.

Lyell was always making geological tours in order to gain information and further evidence to support the great idea of his life. In 1828 he, in company with Murchison, went to France, and the observations then made gave rise to two papers: "On the Volcanic District of Auvergne," and "On the Tertiary Formations of Aix-en-Provence." In the former paper he confutes Von Buch's idea of "elevation craters," and states that cones owe their "origin to a series of eruptions," .... "where the cavity is present, it has probably been due to one or more great explosions similar to that which destroyed a great part of ancient Vesuvius in the time of Pliny. Similar paroxysmal catastrophes have caused in historical times the truncation on a grand scale of some large cones in Java and elsewhere."

Due to studying Bonelli's collection of Tertiary shells at Turin, and the marine fossils of the Tertiary rocks of Sicily and Ischia, Lyell divided the Tertiaries into the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations.

In 1832 Lyell married Mary, the eldest daughter of Leonard Homer. She was an accomplished linguist, and her husband's companion through life, sharing his labours, and "who braved with him the dangers and difficulties of travel, no matter how rough." It has been said of her that "had she not been part of him, she would herself have been better known to fame."

Lyell published, in 1838, the Elements of Geology; but his books and papers are all either more or less expansions of the epoch-making Principles, or observations which extend and confirm the theories enunciated in it. He followed the ideas of Hutton, who said: "I take things such as I find them at present, and from these I reason with regard to that which must have been."

In 1834 he published two papers, "On the Proofs of the Gradual Rising of the Land in Certain Parts of Sweden," and "On the Cretaceous and Tertiary Strata of Zeeland and Moën," after paying a visit to Sweden and Denmark. Three years later he again visited Scandinavia; and in 1841 he spent a year in the United States and Canada, repeating the visit in 1845. These travels gave rise to numerous geological papers, and to two books: Travels in North America, published in 1845; and A Second Visit to the United States, in 1849. In these works he describes the American character and institutions, and his adventures in the land of liberty.

The same year that Louis Philippe abdicated, and the kingdom of Poland was absorbed in Russia, Germany, and Austria, Lyell was knighted, and sixteen years later, namely, in 1864, he received a baronetcy, but dying without issue, his baronetcy, like that bestowed on his confrère Murchison, became extinct.

In 1858, one year before the publication of Darwin's famous book, The Origin of Species, he revisited Sicily in order to make observations upon the structure of Etna, and, as already stated, he refuted the theory of "Elevation Craters"—the "cupolas" of the German geologists. This theory stated that all great volcanoes were formed of masses originally deposited in a horizontal position, and subsequently blown up into a conical form. Lyell proved that in the case of Etna, during the earlier periods of its history, the piling up of materials went on around a centre which is now situated at a distance of nearly four miles from the present focus of eruption. His "Memoir on the Lavas and Mode of Origin of Mount Etna" is to be found in the Philosophical Transactions for 1858.

In 1863 Sir Charles Lyell published his famous work on The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, with Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation. In this marvellous book a vast amount of details and research are brought forward in regard to prehistoric man, and the times in which he lived. Concerning the Pleistocene alluvial deposits in many European valleys, there were found "works of art of the ages of iron and bronze, and of the later or Neolithic stone period. In the more ancient or Palæolithic gravels there have been found in several valleys in France and England stone implements of a rude type, showing that man co-existed with the mammoth and other extinct quadrupeds." "The alluvial and marine deposits of the Palaeolithic age, the earliest to which any vestiges of man have yet been traced back, belong to a time when the physical geography of Europe differed in a marked degree from that now prevailing. . . . Among the general of extinct quadrupeds most frequently met with in England, France, Germany, and other parts of Europe, are the elephant, rhinoceros, hippopotamus, horse, great Irish deer, bear, tiger, and hyæna.

The first portion of The Antiquity of Man is devoted to the "geological memorials of man"—his bones, implements, etc., proving that he was an inventive animal even in these early ages of the world; the second portion is on the glacial epoch, and bears strictly on the question whether primitive man is pre-glacial or post-glacial; and the third and final portion treats of the " origin of species," and "man's place in nature."

The book altered public opinion as to the duration of the human race upon the earth. In the same work, Lyell threw in his lot with Darwin on the origin of species by natural selection, although with reservations, for "he never wholly accepted the inclusion of man."

In 1871 Lyell published his Student's Elements of Geology, and in this and his other books, which have passed through many editions, the gist of his doctrines and discoveries may be found.

During the seventy-eight years that he lived on this mundane sphere, he published seventy-six memoirs or nearly one every year of his existence. Lyell was a philosopher in every respect, sound to the core, free from bias, a respecter of other men's opinions, although a critic where criticism was thought to be just. He was "the most philosophical and influential geologist that ever lived, and one of the very best of men."

Sir Charles Lyell received almost every honour which usually falls to scientific men from his own and other countries. He was a member of nearly every academy and scientific society in the world, and many degrees and medals were awarded to him.

During the later years of his life his sight, always weak, failed him altogether. Although very feeble, the actual cause of his death was a fall down the stairs of his house, 75 Harley Street, London, W. This took place on 22nd February 1875.

During his long life, as the late Dean Stanley said, "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 in himself."

Sir Charles Lyell was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey, where the well-known gravestone of fossil marble from Derbyshire (and twenty paces from the grave of Darwin) bears a lengthy inscription detailing his labours. Near the grave there is a marble bust to his memory.

As an epoch-maker, Sir Charles Lyell had to pass through the fire of hostile criticism. He knew, however, that he had discovered truth, as interpreted by Nature's book—the rocks—and that he could with equanimity listen to the babble of little minds. Moreover, he was entirely free from vanity, egotism, and jealousy—in fact, a true philosopher and gentleman, with kind feelings and appreciation for the work of others. Science owes much to Lyell, and for centuries to come, yea for all time, he will receive the homage of posterity.