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Was Darwinian Theory Based on a False Analogy to Geology?

Neil Thomas
Photo: Sir Charles Lyell, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is James Hutton, rather than Lamarck, who ought to be considered Darwin’s intellectual ancestor.1

Charles Coulton Gillispie

Charles Darwin’s frequent mentions of “the noble science of Geology” reflected his long interest in and engagement with that subject, and Sandra Herbert once made the reasonable claim that “the primary reason why Darwin is not well known as a geologist today is that the Origin of Species has outshone all else.”2 Many of Darwin’s earliest researches had in fact been in the field of geology and it was unsurprising that he regarded Sir Charles Lyell, the leading geologist of the mid Victorian era, as an unofficial mentor. Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology (1830-3), which worked on and developed geological principles first enunciated by James Hutton in his Theory of the Earth (1788), was to furnish an important intellectual springboard for the Origin of Species. Darwin readily admitted as much when he recorded the distinct perceptual shift he experienced on reading Lyell: 

The great merit of the Principles of Geology was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind and, therefore, that when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet partially saw it through his eyes.3

Given this degree of discipleship for Sir Charles, Darwin fully expected to receive Lyell’s commendation for his labors on the Origin of Species. Might it not be legitimately expected that Lyell would be gratified to see the method he had used in his Principles of Geology applied by Darwin so faithfully to the biological sphere? Alas, such was not Lyell’s reaction. Why so?

“The Most Heterogeneous Ideas Are Yoked by Violence Together”4

To some degree this was simply a matter of common sense. One did not need to be a renowned geologist to understand that like was not being compared with like by a conflation of geology and biology. Even the most basic proverbial wisdom baulked at such an analogy, as is evidenced when one of Shakespeare’s minor characters berates his peers for their lack of human feeling by calling out to them, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things.” This accusation is presented by Shakespeare as an unarguable and absolute binary to distinguish insentient stones from humans with their potential for consciousness and feeling.5 Sir Fred Hoyle described the same distinction in more scientific terms when contrasting what is now commonly referred to as the irreducible complexity of the living world with the relative simplicity of inanimate objects where 

there is no hierarchy of structure, with one level of subtlety piled on another. It is the existence of such a hierarchy which characterizes biological systems. A single crystal of rock, or of a mineral, or of a snowflake, contains subtleties of great interest. But such crystals do not fit together into larger patterns of still greater interest and complexity.6

Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon touched on this issue when they observed that not all academic disciplines should be obliged to explain phenomena purely by reference to the same form of natural law. For such a fallacy “assumes a cookie-cutter view of science in which all disciplines ask similar questions and use the same ‘scientific method.’”7 In the case of the Darwin/Lyell contretemps, some analogies are clearly more apt than others and Lyell thought Darwin’s analogy had been adopted without due discrimination and logical foundation. Essentially, he viewed Darwin’s undiscriminating transference of Lyell’s geological modus operandi to the world of organic and human life as an impermissible attempt to postulate an ontological equivalence between organic and inorganic spheres. There is after all a great difference between planet Earth as a geological formation, which shares its history and mode of formation with the “senseless blocks and stones” of the outer cosmos, and the later, superposed realm of terrestrial life and sentience.

An Analogy Too Far  

Hence Lyell could not accept that the forms of explanation he used for the inanimate realm of geology were applicable to the world of animals and people. Although biological gradualism following on from geological uniformitarianism seemed a natural and uncontroversial form of progression to Darwin, Lyell appears to have thought that Darwin carried over his early formation as a geologist into the biological realm too uncritically and without attending to appropriate and indeed necessary modifications of analysis. In modern parlance it might be claimed that Lyell thought Darwin was practising a form of undiscriminating scientism. Not assenting to Darwin’s implied equivalence between geology and biology (despite Darwin’s repeated appeals to him), Lyell as late as 1872 declared the basic problem of creation/evolution to be as inscrutable as it had been in the earlier Victorian period when it was commonly referred to as “the mystery of mysteries.” In this conviction Lyell effectively joined hands with the later Wallace, and from the mid 1860s onwards Lyell and Wallace (after the latter’s notorious “apostasy from his own theory”) would, to Darwin’s chagrin, become fast friends and intellectual allies.

A Scientistic Fallacy

Posterity on the other hand, rightly or wrongly, has favored Darwin’s view of things and framed the matter as being a case of science extending its sway from one discipline to the next by the same methodological means. For many the trajectory of scientific progress has seemed crystal-clear: Newton having satisfactorily explained the starry heavens above, and Lyell having explained the inanimate realm of terrestrial geology, the sights of scientific research should next be trained on organic life in quest of a solution to the riddles of the terrestrial world in natural terms. This was thought the only route to answering the eternal mystery of how the earth’s plant and animal life had emerged and developed. So, since Lyell had removed the hand of God from geological history, why then retain it to explain natural history in terms of separate special creations? If there was a story of natural evolution in the geological record, so too surely there must be a similar story to tell in the study of sentient beings. 

Under the aegis of the mighty scientific metanarrative, Darwinism was swiftly inducted into the post-Enlightenment domain labelled “science,” and precious few further questions were asked or reservations permitted. Hence by the later 1860s Lyell’s uniformitarianism, now rebranded as biological gradualism, came to represent the “completion of the unfinished Cartesian revolution that demanded a mechanical model for all living processes.”8 Lyell’s fine discriminations were overlooked by the rather wholesale views of the many who were positively willing there to be natural rather than miraculous answers to their questions about the world. Hence when Darwin made his entrance on to the public stage in late 1859, he was able to give such persons the kind of answer they were crying out for. Despite having no empirical proof to recommend it, Darwinism was able to triumph simply because it synchronized with the spirit of the age. In the context of the secularizing zeitgeist of the 1860s it felt right to people who, then as now, had no objective means of assessing whether it was right or wrong.

A Secularist Creed

That mindset prompted many to think that the Origin of Species represented the capstone of the post-Enlightenment scientific project, and that the very idea of revisiting the controversy would be tantamount to reopening a criminal case thought to have been solved long ago. Even the literary intelligentsia began at length to think in terms of case closed. To be sure, the final decades of the 19th century did witness the publication of such notable cris de coeur as James Thomson’s Darwin-inspired atheist nightmare, “The City of Dreadful Night” (1878) and Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s tragic novel of a clergyman’s loss of faith, Robert Elsmere (1888), but by century’s end the Darwin trauma seems to have been overcome or at least normalized in people’s consciousness. Literary historian John Holmes commented,

For the next generation of English poets [on the other hand] evolution was an accepted fact. … [T]he full intellectual challenge of Darwinism rarely presented itself. Surviving Victorians like Hardy aside, English poets largely ignored Darwinism after the turn of the century. It was their parents’ and grandparents’ controversy, not their own.9

In other words, Darwin was thenceforth given a pass by default, his theory going largely unexamined in Britain — although for historical reasons pertaining to that country’s religious history this was not the case in America. Referring to the writers Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Holmes noted, “It is largely because the religious seriousness that characterized the Victorians still pertains in the United States that the American poetry of Darwinism has been so substantial and profound.”10

Accelerating Secularization

It is difficult to resist the impression that the accelerated pace of secularization in Britain may have been the factor that accounted for an entirely unproved and unprovable theory being able to gain more traction and credence in the country of Darwin’s birth than in America. One thinks of the example of Thomas Huxley defending Darwin so pugnaciously whilst privately not believing in the special theory of natural selection at all. Peter Bowler once aptly termed Huxley a pseudo-Darwinian, that is, a fervent materialist ready to lend his support to any non-theist cause, be it right or wrong. Conceiving of nature and planet Earth as a closed system unsupervised by a divinity or any other transcendent force, Huxley was forced by prior philosophic conviction to seek some form of wholly naturalistic process of species development. 

Given Huxley’s agenda, even if Darwin had not hit on the right natural solution, this was of relatively less importance to Huxley than the fact that the theory was entirely naturalistic. Whilst there is no doubting the moving emotional power of Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s evocations of Robert Elsmere’s loss of religious belief, it appears that within a few decades the truly convulsive sense of loss of faith she evokes had attenuated to the status of a merely sentimental regret for many Britons who now, like Huxley, found themselves prepared to accept a flimsy and ill-substantiated theory because it accorded with their now much reduced commitment to any form of transcendent explanation.


  1. Genesis and Geology: The Impact of Scientific Discoveries Upon Religious Beliefs in the Decades Before Darwin (New York: Harper, 1959), p. 218.
  2. Charles Darwin, Geologist (New York: Cornell UP, 2005), p. 356.
  3. Cited by Loren Eisley, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X (London, Toronto, Melbourne: Dent, 1979), p. 44.
  4. Dr. Samuel Johnson on the over-elaborate poetic similes employed by the poet John Donne.
  5. The crowd figure Murellus in Shakespeare’s play equates the insensitivity of his peers with the inability of inanimate objects to experience fellow feeling for a departed Roman commander, Pompey (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 1, lines 32-37).
  6. Hoyle elaborates further, “Large quantities of inorganic material only repeat the simpler forms. The information content of a blizzard is essentially the same as that of a single snowflake” (The Faces of the Universe [London: Heinemann, 1977], p. 164).
  7. Of Pandas and People: The Central Questions of Biological Origins, second edition (Dallas: Haughton, 1993), pp. 158-9, citation 159.
  8. Richard Lewontin, It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (London: Granta, 2000), p. 66.
  9. John Holmes, Darwin’s Bards: British and American Poetry in the Age of Evolution (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2009), p. 23.
  10. Darwin’s Bards, p. 23.