Gradualism

1828-1838

Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology, came out between 1831 and 1833. Lyell advocated an uncompromising uniformitarianism: the same geological forces at work today, causing small changes over the course of lifetimes, were at work in the past, causing massive changes over the course of geological ages. We’ve seen over the course of this blog that uniformitarianism is not a completely reliable guide either to geology or to human history, which have been punctuated often enough by catastrophes – asteroid strikes, continent-scale floods, volcanic eruptions, and devastating wars and plagues. But the theory is nonetheless at least part of the story of history, and Lyell’s work was deservedly influential.

In 1837 Charles Darwin, a careful reader of Lyell, published a short article entitled On the Formation of Mould. This would eventually led to his last book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s work on soil formation was Lyellianism in miniature. He demonstrated, through a combination of careful reasoning and experiment, that the surface layer of pasture soil is formed by earthworms. “Although the conclusion may appear at first startling, it will be difficult to deny the probability that every particle of earth forming the bed from which the turf in old pasturelands springs, has passed through the intestines of worms.” Reading Darwin on worms you get the feeling he identifies with his subjects, gradually remaking the world through their patient industry.

The doctrine of progress through gradual change was appealing not just for scientific reasons. In the 1830s, English liberals (of whom Darwin was one) were attempting to reform their society gradually, without the violence of the French Revolution, and without turning over politics to a Great Man in the style of Napoleon. (Darwin was also a gradualist with regard to his own work: he came up with the theory of natural selection in 1838, but England at the time wasn’t ready for anything so radical, and he didn’t publish The Origin of Species for another twenty years.)

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), a friend of Darwin’s, set her greatest novel, Middlemarch, around the time of the Reform Act of 1832, which moved England one big step closer to a genuinely representative government. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, might in another age have been a famous saint, another Theresa of Avila. In the England of her time she has another fate. Here is the famous conclusion of the novel:

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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