Monday, February 09, 2009

Darwin on Uniformitarianism

Charles Darwin was a fan of Charles Lyell (1797 - 1875). Lyell's three volume work Principles of Geology did much to convince Darwin that the Earth was very old and that geological change took place slowly over the course of millions of years. This principle of slow, gradual change is called uniformitarianism and it was meant to refute the idea that major geological structures are the result of sudden catastrophic events. Lyell's geology is inconsistent with a great deluge.

Darwin saw his efforts to explain evolution and refute special creation as a way to incorporate uniformitarianism into biology. In Chapter IV: Natural Selection he writes,
I am well aware that this doctrine of natural selection, exemplified in the above imaginary instances, is open to the same objections which were at first urged against Sir Charles Lyell's noble views on 'the modern changes of the earth, as illustrative of geology;' but we now very seldom hear the action, for instance, of the coast-waves, called a trifling and insignificant cause, when applied to the excavation of gigantic valleys or to the formation of the longest lines of inland cliffs. Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being; and as modern geology has almost banished such views as the excavation of a great valley by a single diluvial wave, so will natural selection, if it be a true principle, banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings, or of any great and sudden modification in their structure.

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