Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

Most people know the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) for the role that his Principles of Geology played in helping to ground Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Along with his intellectual mentor James Hutton (1726–1797), Lyell support a principle known as uniformitarianism, the belief that the past behaved essentially in the same way as the present and that massive changes could be accounted for by smaller changes given sufficient time. The most immediate consequence of this being the development of a notion of “deep time”, the vast, almost incomprehensible age of the Earth that played such an important role in arsenal of evolutionary naturalism in the nineteenth century. Yet this was not all, it also asserted that a close study of the earth based upon uniformitarian principles revealed that it exhibited a steady state pattern of endlessly repeating cycles.

While Lyell did support Darwin’s work and was one of the early defenders of The Origin of Species, he often seemed at best lukewarm in his support for natural selection itself. This was a cause for some consternation amongst his fellows, and Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), and others in their circle were keenly aware of his position. It is a valid observation, and often commented upon, that Lyell’s ambivalence to the theory stemmed in part from his religious convictions, particularly in regards to the origin and development of the human animal. However, there were other, more theoretical reasons that also played a role in his discomfort.

Despite the fact that the evidence emerging from the fossil records hinted towards an ever increasing degree of complexity in the realm of organic development and organization, Lyell’s uniformitarian position and his observations of the actual layers of the earth directed his attention to the steady state pattern previously mentioned. How could it be that there was an apparent directionality in the evolution of species if the environments that produced them appeared to pass through essentially the same cycles? If natural selection accounted for the majority of evolutionary changes, that is, creatures changing in response to their environments, wouldn’t there be a certain, set number of variations possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible for these variations to die out during a cycle that could not support them, but to reappear again when the environment returned to a previous state?

This line of questioning then, leads us to the sea serpent.

Lyell was a skeptical and cautious observer in these matters; however, in some of his published writings, and many more of his personal ones, he displayed a keen interest in every account of sea monsters and serpents that he could find. If something from the fossil records of one age could be found alive today, in effect, a living fossil, perhaps it could act as organic evidence for his more radical geological position.

Here the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the New England states of America play a particularly important role. In his A Second Visit to the United State of North America, Vol I published in the year 1849, he writes of a disappointing hoax he was led to in 1845 during his stay in Boston. It was perpetrated by a Mr. Koch, who claimed of his serpent’s skeleton that this “hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli”. Lyell determined the bones to be of an extinct zeuglodon (what is today called a Basilosaurus), dug up in Alabama and arranged to resemble a serpent.

Albert Koch's "Hydrarchos" fossil skeleton from 1845.

 Yet he was forced to reconsider his position after hearing back from a friend of his in Nova Scotia:

“At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty.”

The creature had also been seen off the coast of Prince Edward Island, terrifying the fishermen, and a year before a similar creature troubled the natives of Arisaig on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. Lyell provided the following image and commented on its strange, undulating movements:

He went on to describe sightings of creatures from across North America and Norway and observed that not only was it “impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement”, but that a pattern could even be seen in their points of contradiction, namely, in the quality of evidence provided by those on the shore “without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger”, and the consternation of those fishermen in the water who, more than anyone, should be able to tell a serpent from “an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish.”

However, the sheer number of people shooting the creatures in what they thought to be their heads (an all too common trope in the history of sea monsters), but who did not in fact kill them, was a cause of some puzzlement, and ultimately Lyell concluded that the creature was most likely a large, fast moving species of shark:

“It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark.”

A misunderstanding of the processes of decomposition of marine animals on shore, combined with the optical effects of water was the likely cause of the accounts. Yet even discounting the serpentine nature of the creature, this did not totally undermine his hopes that researches into sea monsters could bring fourth evidence of living fossils.

It is clear that Lyell did at one point believe in sea serpents, but importantly, not fully as given by the narratives he explored. As he said:

“I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian [snake], for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.”

He was unsure if the sea serpent was actually a serpent at all, given the climactic conditions then prevalent in the North Atlantic, furthermore little solid proof could be found for their existence that could not be explained in some other way. Yet, like the depths of time, the depths of the oceans provided another chasm of uncertainty and he: “[questioned] whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence”.

A modern reconstruction of a Basilosaurus.

Context played a crucial role in both his conclusion, and his qualifications, for: “in the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum.” In addition to this limitation of witnesses, there was also the larger context of the geological record, for even in his dismissal of the sea serpent as a serpent, it did not rule out earlier, larger mammals and sharks.

“[I]n the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.”

The sea serpent could very well be a shark, and still retain its common title, what mattered to him was not so much its nomenclature, as its potential place in multiple geological periods.

Even given this concession, Lyell never found the evidence he was looking for in any of the accounts he collected throughout his life, and today his attempt to demonstrate the circularity of geological periods and the creatures to be found within them seems by many to be one of the misguided inheritances he received from his predecessor, Hutton.

Yet before we judge Lyell too harshly, consider this: Darwin’s own estimate for the age of the earth was 300 million years, based on the rate of erosion of the Weald valley in the sound of England; it was considered a terrible miscalculation by both more geologically inclined supporters of his theories as well as notable detractors such as the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Outside of using deep time as a resource for his own theories, there is little evidence that Darwin himself struggled with the concept in any significant way, whereas Lyell, drawing from Hutton, was actively engaged in its more troubling aspects as a theory which then, as even now, demonstrates how ill equipped the human mind is to fully appreciate the consequences of eons.

In the nineteenth century the evidence of the best physics of the day consistently contradicted the vision of the earth’s history provided by the evolutionary naturalists, as well as the geologists, and it was in no ways certain whose account was inherently more coherent, for in truth, they all were, but some were looking at the sun as their guide, others at the snails, and others still at the stones themselves. By the same measure we cannot smugly smile and say: but we have found living fossils, and they do nothing to demonstrate the circularity that Lyell had anticipated, but only the stability of certain environmental conditions, for if we were more circumspect the sheer span of that statement would stagger the mind. Even in these cases, 100 million years, the age of one of the oldest unchanged species known to date, the Schizodactylidae, shown below, pails in comparison to 4.54 billion years of the earth itself.

Image from the University of Illinois.

Schizodactylus monstrosus

Everyone who has watched a BBC documentary or taken a class in biology feels that they know that the age of the earth is now fully appreciated, and its consequences largely deduced. He or she has seen the time laps videos comparing its age to the length of a day, heard the stories of how even in terms of the old measurements based on the dimensions of the King’s body, the human age would hardly account for more than a sliver off of his royal fingernail, and we feel quite comfortable with our apparent insignificance, indeed, feel it to be something familiar and emboldening. In truth we have forgotten its strangeness. Far more existential agonies are forgotten than are ever resolved, and so too it is with the notion of deep time, for we have not tamed it, but merely placed it out of sight, on an enormous rodent’s running wheel, to do its work for us – to be sure it is always an excellent weapon against facile notions of creation – but not really trouble us overmuch.

However, when it comes to the heart of the matter, we are no more capable today of explaining the apparent increase in the complexity of organisms by means of evolutionary theory than they were at the time of Lyell’s writing. The alternative, some plateau or self-contained and consistent state of complexity that is attained sometime after the development of organic beings, still begs the same questions that he was trying to come to terms with in regard to evolutionary changes within a finite series of environmental parameters.

And so, being ask to write for this, the first installment of the Cosmic Standard, I could think of no more fitting way to honour it than to help point the reader to the incredible strangeness of the cosmos, especially and above all in those things which we tend to take for granted. Explore as we may, and explore as we will, it still remains questionable how many places on the map of existence we must mark off, or fill in with fanciful illustrations and consign ourselves to the old and fearful caution: “Here be dragons.”

For More Information:

Benson, Keith Rodney and Philip F. Rehbock (eds). 2002. Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond. University of Washington Press: Washington D.C..

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: Albany.


3 thoughts on “Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

  1. Undine says:

    Quite an interesting story. I particularly liked your last paragraph. I’ve often thought modern science–in all fields–would be much healthier if such words were heeded more often.

    • Dear Undine,

      I’m glad you liked it. It was going to be my first contribution to The Cosmic Standard, a collective of bloggers that sadly never got off the ground. I hope your hiatus from The World of Edgar Allan Poe is productive and fulfilling. Its been a good run of articles.


  2. Undine says:

    Thank you! I’m working now on some “real world” writings that I hope will eventually amount to something.

    That “Cosmic Standard” idea sounds interesting. If it’s ever revived, I hope you’ll let us know. I’ve wondered why there aren’t more group blogging projects.

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