Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lyell's "Principles of Geology"

Lyell, Charles. "Principles of Geology", 1830-33. In Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed., edited by Philip Appleman, 49-52. New York: W.W Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Norton Critical editions contain abridged excerpts from source texts so we rely somewhat on the discretion of the editor for arguments and observations to critique. It has been pointed out that Appleman is not a scientist but a poet and English Professor. Must one be a scientist to legitimately comment on science? What defines a scientist? Is it adherence to philosophical or methodological naturalism? I will attempt to answer these questions over the course of the project but already, getting to the truth seems to be a messy endeavor. These questions are relevant to critiques of evolutionary theory as well. Philip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial and prominent critic of evolutionary theory, is a Law Professor from Berkeley. He is also a founder of the Intelligent Design Movement and architect of the Wedge Strategy. Does this make his argument against evolution any less valid? I briefly mentioned presuppositions in my prior post. How do we not color our reasoning and arguments with bias to legitimize our conclusions? I have provided more questions than answers here but this may be a great way to start this project. Skepticism should be the default position of science ... maybe non-scientists ought to approach it the same way. Oh yeah, the link on the Wedge Strategy is from Wikipedia. As with all things Wiki, I encourage further reference and understanding that at best, Wikipedia only provides a broad definition, not a definitive one and not everyone agrees on even the broad definitions. OK, onto to Lyell.

Here are the main points and observations from Principles of Geology:

1. He references Lamarck and Cuvier to the progress of geological understanding of the fossil record. Lamarck believed that the fossil record indicated that species diverged from the original but not that species went extinct. This supported more of an old earth view that was rejected by Cuvier and the scientific community of the time. Cuvier was a catastrophist who believed in the fixity of species and extinction.
2. Lyell refers to rock formation (volcanic) and strata as evidence of an old earth and, "... tranquil deposition of sedimentary matter, and the slow development of organic life.” (49).
3. He seems to refer to modern continental theory that the continents were at one time a single land mass (Pangaea). The excerpt does not refer to Pangaea directly, only that continents grow. Is this a reference to erosion, volcanic action, and continental drift?
4. He does acknowledge an "Eternal Being" and refers to design and unity of purpose.
5. He does not think that the "finite powers of Man" will allow even speculation of the truth regarding the beginning or end of so vast a scheme (geology and biology?).

Lyell was one of the biggest influences on Darwin. He was given Volume I of Lyell's work by Captain Fitzroy on the Beagle soon after departure from England. Darwin sent for Volume II later on in the voyage. Lyell's work and the concept of an old earth is important to Darwin's theory because, generally speaking, natural selection requires vast amounts of time. Evidence of a roughly 6,000-year-old earth as posited by some religious groups would be a difficulty for evolutionary theory even though they would still have to answer the question of genetic drift and mutation. Does anyone know of the best evidence that supports a young earth outside of an appeal to the Bible?

I am curious to know of the best modern evidence of an old earth. Carbon dating? Tectonic plate theory? Paleontology? This also seems to relate to modern astronomical/cosmological theory.

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