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:

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


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