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Charles Lyell and Darwin

In Britain early in the 1800s the study of geology contributed to a revolution in how people viewed the world. The Geological Society of London was created in 1807, its founders expressing their desire to avoid preconceived notions and to collect facts for discussion. Geologists had been describing their findings in a way compatible with Biblical scripture. They had been explaining the formation of mountains and other distributions of earth according to the catastrophic theory of geological change – change as the result of sudden upheavals, including a flood thought to have covered the entire globe – a view compatible with the prevailing belief that the earth was about 6,000 years old.

These were times when geologists and biologists were called naturalists. A leading naturalist was a Prussian, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). He was a forerunner of another to be called a naturalist: Charles Darwin. Between 1799 and 1804, Humboldt travelled in Latin America, exploring and writing scientific descriptions of what he saw, to be published in volumes. He was one of the first to propose that the lands on either side of the Atlantic Ocean were once joined.

Humboldt tried to correct the approach to nature by Berlin's scholars, men who tended to ignore empirical work in favor of intuition, awe and wonder. Of Humboldt, Joyce Appleby writes:

Speaking extemporaneously he enchanted audiences of students, professors and thousands of the general public. He talked about volcanoes, sunspots, meteorites, optics, the motions of planets, and the distribution of plants and animals on the earth's surface, weaving all the information into a complex pattern. note100

In the early 1830s a British geologist, Charles Lyell, tried to make sense of what he was seeing in geological formations. Lyell proposed that volcanic activity, earthquakes and erosion had slowly been remodeling the earth's surface, and for this he supplied empirical evidence. His Elements of Geology, published in 1838, became a standard work in stratigraphical and palaeontological geology. Lyell and his successors found no evidence of a flood that had been world wide. And Lyell's theory of change required an earth much older than 6,000 years. It took 6,000 years for just one inch of limestone to build.

Lyell and Darwin

Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell (1797–1875)

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (1809-82),
watercolor by George Richmond.

Lyell's views on geology reached a 21-year-old Englishman collecting beetles in the Americas – Charles Darwin. Appleby writes that "Darwin called Humboldt the parent of 'a grand progeny of scientific travellers' and [Darwin] would mention him four hundred times in his writing."

Darwin was thinking about species changing with their environment. He was trying to make sense of mockingbirds on one island in the Galapagos differing from the mockingbirds on another island and his awareness that South America had only one specie of mockingbird. He thought maybe the different species of mockingbird had a common ancestor and that maybe as a single species mockingbirds had undergone changes (transmutations), producing another species.

Humboldt, writes Appleby, had embraced evolution, but "he couldn't explain the origin of species." Darwin recognized that individual creatures didn't reproduce an exact replica of themselves, that they created close copies but that variation however small was involved. In 1838, Darwin devised his theory of natural selection: that across a broad span of time a member of a species might reproduce a creature with a new trait that survives and reproduces, creating a new species. This was heresy among those who believed all species remained the same after they were created by God.

Rudimentary theories of evolution had been around a long time, as recently as with the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark who was writing in the early 1800s. Darwin was aware of Lamarck's belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Darwin worked on his theory quietly, then in 1858 the biologist Alfred Russell Wallace sent him an essay describing a similar theory, so Darwin had his writings published, in 1859, titled On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

Darwin and his contemporaries did not know of genetic mutations. Like other theories drawn empirically, his theory wasn't a complete picture. Science never intended to be a complete picture, or more than a working hypothesis.

A public debate arose, including the well-known exchange in 1860 between an Anglican bishop, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, a student of natural history. It was Huxley who began using the term agnostic, meaning not having knowledge in spiritual matters, and some of Darwin’s critics believed that Huxley's self-characterization was appropriate.

Some anti-Darwinists complained that they knew that humans had not developed from monkeys, while Darwinists made no such claim, arguing instead that monkeys and humans had a common ancestor.

For some people it was easier to imagine the creation of species as sudden and miraculous than it was to imagine biological developments across millions of years. But some persons of faith would accept the new theory of evolution, opting for a view of God's intentions behind evolution's processes.

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