Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 20.djvu/627

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SIR CHARLES LYELL.

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.[1]

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:

I am very full of Darwin's new theory of coral islands, and have urged Whewell to make him read it at our next meeting. I must give up my volcanic crater theory for ever, though it costs me a pang at first, for it accounted for so much—the annular form, the central lagoon, the sudden rising of an isolated mountain in a deep sea, all went so well with the notion of submerged, crateriform, and conical volcanoes, of the shape of South Shetland, and with an opening into which a ship could sail. . . . Yet, spite of all this, the whole theory is knocked on the head, and the annular shape and central lagoon have nothing to do with volcanoes, nor even with a crateriform bottom.

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

  1. 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.