Lyell, Analogy and the Distancing of Geology from Cosmology

While for contemporary readers the reason may not be so readily apparent, in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology he needed to insist that geology was something other than cosmogony as the very precondition for his attempts to persuade his readers of the three main premises of his work, namely: Actualism, the view that the same kind of causes have been at work at all times in history, Uniformitarianism, that they have also been operating at the same intensity and the existence of a closed, self-sustaining, system in which these forces act.

Having previously stated that “[g]eology is intimately related to almost all the physical science, as is history to the moral”, he then proceeds to distance it from other modes of knowing for “just as the limits of history, poetry and mythology were ill-defined in the infancy of civilization” so too were the limits of geology in his own time. This is of some note, for where Lyell sets his boundaries will greatly affect his ability to present his point.

Take, for instance, his statement that when we inquire “into the state of the earth and its inhabitance at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition” which demonstrates both his Actualism and his Uniformitarianism. If the concept of cosmogony were permitted to encroach on geology then this statement would have been made much more problematic for him, for any inquiry into the beginning of things generally either posits a definitive beginning (in which there was some fundamental change in the structure of causality) or else accept that the universe was cyclical (which he goes to great length to disprove in the second and third chapter of this work, attributing this position in part to an early misunderstanding by pagan religions of the presence of fossilized animals). True, there are many other potential conditions, and the concept of a purely infinite cosmos which is not cyclical, is not addressed, however these were the two alternatives that he wished to specifically avoid in his geological researches.

It is telling to note how closely his explanation for the primitive belief in a cyclical cosmos reflects his opposition to the Neptunist doctrine of catastrophic floods. He uses both pagan and Christian examples to point out the psychological origins of catastrophic thinking, which resonates with his previous analogy of the relationship between geology and history. He states that “[t]he connexion [sic] between the doctrine of successive catastrophes and repeated deteriorations in the moral character of the human race, is more intimate and natural than might at first be imagined”, making reference to the Chilean earthquake of 1822, and those Catholics who attributed it to God’s displeasure. Through this comparison, he argues the existence of Pagan and Catholic misunderstandings of nature as being the basis for his Neptunist opponents’ position.

Lyell’s dependency on analogies, the same analogies which allow him to distance himself from his detractors, also rests on the separation of cosmogony from the true object of his study, as can be seen in his discussion of the relationship between history and geology. Near the end of the first chapter he promises that he will “attempt in the sequel of this work to demonstrate that geology differs as widely from cosmogony, as speculations concerning the creation of man differ from history”. Both history, in the sense that Lyell means, as the history of civilization, and geology cease being recognizable disciplines when they are drawn back far enough into the past. Thus as prehistory is to the history of civilization, so too is cosmogony to geology; it is a paradigm shift whose transgression eclipses the purpose of its original study. For the purpose of Lyell’s project it does not matter how ancient the earth is, as long as we do not begin at the very beginning we can assume a certain consistency and therefore draw conclusions (which indeed, may not be possible in any other fashion). This is particularly evident in his comments on human history, in which he states that we can:

“trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations […], which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.”

Without the ability to trace these “historical associations” through a consistent, though finite, chain of cause and effect his argument is made lame by its lack of causal and historical certainty, yet this uncertainty is exactly what cosmogony would throw into Lyell’s geography if he were to accept it as part of his study. How could the ultimate origins of the earth be explained by geology without the possibility of a frightful regression into an endless chain of causality, or else without the need for a transcendent principle acting beyond the commonly understood order of cause and effect?

Thus Lyell’s need to amputate cosmogony from geology demonstrates a persistent paradox in the nature of the historical sciences. This is particularly so in the case of geology which depends on an understanding of secondary causes (or an indirect approach to causality) to demonstrate its validity: In order for the science to explain things with some universality, as Lyell insists is necessary, it must limit itself to a finite subject whose very finitude makes the historical associations mentioned in the preceding quotation possible. Thus there is an interesting and potentially paradoxical concern that if we wish to be able to say anything universal it can not take as its object that which is actually universal, such as the beginning of things.

However, is it so important to “amputate” cosmogony in Lyell’s scheme, considering that the scientific and rhetorical basis of his arguments are so strong? Yet it must necessarily be of the greatest importance. It is striking that the chapters refuting geology’s difference from cosmogony were left out of the Weber anthology on this subject. They constitute Lyell’s efforts to sweep the slate clean of “the most common and serious source of confusion” in early geology. He does this in order to firmly root his hypothesis in what he sees as more empirical soil, but which has its own implications outside of this particular project.

To play the devil’s advocate, could it not be said that Lyell’s need for a closed, self-sustaining system would necessarily benefit from admitting cosmogony into the scheme of geology? If he were only trying to demonstrate the self-sufficiency of the closed system this would have been the case; however, here we again come up against the demands of Actualism and the Uniformitarianism placed by Lyell on his geology.

Ultimately then, in order for Lyell’s project to succeed he needed to separate the definite science of geology from the indefinite results of cosmogony. Whereas the one would leave him no starting point from which to draw his other conclusions, the other allowed him a freedom to demonstrate the consistency of causes on this earth, without having to resort to explanations beyond or behind its origins. It is in its way another example of the trend in the nineteenth century towards increased specialization, in which disciplines were further subdivide in order than anything might be known with certainty about the particulars of nature. The problem after Lyell would then not be a matter of separation, but one of consolidation.

For More Information:

Lyell, Charles. Principles of Geology. London: John Murray, 1830.

(Accessed online at ESP: Electronic Scholarly Publishing: http://www.esp.org/books/lyell/principles/facsimile/)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principles_of_Geology

Weber, A.S. Ed. 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Life from the Unliving

“I shall never forget the sight. The vessel of crystallization was three-quarters full of slightly muddy water — that is, dilute water-glass — and from the sandy bottom there strove upwards a grotesque little landscape of variously coloured growths: a confused vegetation of blue, green, and brown shoots which reminded one of algae, mushrooms, attached polyps, also moss, then mussels, fruit pods, little trees or twigs from trees, here and there of limbs. It was the most remarkable sight I ever saw, and remarkable not so much for its appearance, strange and amazing though that was, as on account of its profoundly melancholy nature. For when Father Leverkühn asked us what we thought of it and we timidly answered him that they might be plants: ‘No’, he replied, ‘they are not, they only act that way. But do not think the less of them. Precisely because they do, because they try to as hard as they can, they are worthy of all respect’. It turned out that these growths were entirely unorganic in their origin; they existed by virtue of chemicals from the apothecary’s shop, the ‘Blessed Messengers’. Before pouring the waterglass, Jonathan had sprinkled the sand at the bottom with various crystals; if I mistake not potassium chromate and sulphate of copper. From this sowing, as the result of a physical process called ‘Osmotic pressure’, there sprang the pathetic crop for which their producer at once and urgently claimed our sympathy. He showed us that these pathetic imitations of life were light-seeking, heliotropic, as science calls it. He exposed the aquarium to the sunlight, shading three sides against it, and behold, toward that one pane through which the light fell, thither straightway slanted the whole equivocal kith and kin: mushrooms, phallic polyp-stalks, little trees, algae, half-formed limbs. Indeed, they so yearned after warmth and joy that they clung to the pane and stuck fast there. ‘And even so they are dead’, said Jonathan, and tears came in his eyes, while Adrian, as of course I saw, was shaken with suppressed laughter. For my part, I must leave it to the reader’s judgment whether that sort of thing is matter for laughter or tears.”

This passage, in Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend, by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955) features the work of the French biologist Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939), who attempted to show, with his artificial life, the chemical basis of development and growth through the processes of osmosis and diffusion. In her book Making Sense of Life the philosopher of science, Evelyn Fox Keller (1936-present) dedicates a considerable portion of her first chapter to a study of Leduc’s synthetic biology in an exploration of what it means to understand organisms, as opposed to other aspects of nature.

Unlike physicists, Keller observes, biologists do not look for a “theory of everything”, strictly speaking, for:

“Just as the diversity of life, rather than its unity, has historically commanded the respect of life scientists, so too, [she proposes], the epistemological diversity of their aspirations demands our respect as historians and philosophers of science.”

This epistemic shift places a much greater emphasis on the role of description in explanation, leading Keller to conclude that:

“A description of a phenomenon counts as an explanation, I argue, if an only if it meets the needs of an individual or community. The challenge, therefore, is to understand the needs that different kinds of explanations meet.”

Since needs vary by time and place, so too do the explanatory terms that are seen to address them. “Theory”, “knowledge”, “understanding” are such fluid, historically contradictory terms, and their fluidity emerges, in part because:

“As evolutionary beings, there is some extent to which it can not make sense in its entirety.”

These observations place a much greater emphasis on analogical, metaphorical thinking, even while undermining traditional claims to the kinds of understanding they can potentially lead us to. In my previous post on the role of analogical reasoning in Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s study of microorganisms, I pointed out some of the ways in which it helped Leeuwenhoek come to terms with, and develop a working knowledge of, his microscopic observations, while at the same time, by contemporary standards, led him to draw erroneous, though understandable conclusions about the life processes of the creatures he was studying. Synthetic life, based, as it is, on an emphasis on the continuity between the organic and inorganic worlds, is another area that lends itself well to these kinds of considerations.

Whether seen in reductionistic or vitalistic terms, crystallization in particular, and the formation of minerals in the earth in general has a very ancient connection with living matter in western thought. Ancient and medieval alchemy was premised, in part, on the thought that metals gestated in the earth, and had a kind life, could be killed, and reborn in the alchemical furnace.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and other early modern alchemists were particularly taken by “the vegetation of metals”, chemical phenomena such as the “Tree of Diana”, Arbor Diana, a dendritic amalgam of crystallized silver, created from mercury in a solution of silver nitrate.

Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), who coined the term psychiatry in 1808, used crystallization as a powerful metaphor in his attempts to show how knowable forces could be responsible for the existence of life, while later naturphilosophen would use it to demonstrate the vitality of all of existence, the symmetries between the human and the natural worlds, and thereby the efficacy of using analogy, metaphor and introspection in their attempts to understand it.

In 1836, Andrew Cross (1784-1855) a British electrical experimentalist claimed to have produced insects through a process of electrocrystalization and presented his findings in Bristol at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. While not the inspiration for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein as is commonly believed, (Frankenstein was written in 1818) it did serve as evidence for the self-organization of life in Robert Chambers’ best selling and controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The self-organization of nature, whether found in evolutionary or nebular theories, was considered a particularly dangerous concept in England during the 1830s and 40s because of its political connotations for the self-organization of society, instead of a top down model in which a supreme ruler, i.e. God, governed absolutely. Because of the potentially damning political consequences, Chambers chose to remain anonymous for his entire life, but his work is now credited with making evolutionary theories acceptable to the British middle class, creating an environment in which Darwin, having agonized over whether or not to publish his view for almost twenty years, could present them with far less chance of legal action being taken against him.

In an interesting way appeals to analogical or metaphorical reasoning, with all of it’s promises and pitfalls, does seem to consistently undermine established political and epistemic structures, and in some ways is to explanation what the Protestant Reformation was to Christianity, a leveling of authority as each observer is given a new sense of confidence in the validity of their own observations, no matter how seemingly aberrant.

And as for the consequences this has for the creation of living or, semi-living things? Strange, one can only hope.

For More Information:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mann

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephane_Leduc

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_fox_keller

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Crosse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana%27s_Tree

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Christian_Reil

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naturphilosophie

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Isaac_Newton

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vestiges_of_the_Natural_History_of_Creation

http://www.councilforresponsiblegenetics.org/genewatch/GeneWatchPage.aspx?pageId=236&archive=yes

http://www.lumen.nu/rekveld/wp/?p=604

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2002. Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors and Machines. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Mann, Thomas. 1948. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, as Told by a Friend. New York: A.A. Knopf.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20906-lifelike-cells-are-made-of-metal.html

strand beast: http://www.strandbeest.com/