Actual causes on trial (1834–39)

in Worlds Before Adam

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print July 2008 | ISBN: 9780226731285
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226731308 | DOI:
Actual causes on trial (1834–39)

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This chapter focuses on Charles Lyell's success with actual causes of another kind, namely those that literally underlay the movements of the earth's crust. The question of crustal elevation was a crucial part of Lyell's campaign to show that actual causes were adequate to explain all the traces of past geohistory. He might have welcomed the alleged slow rise of the land around the Baltic as evidence for his gradualist view of elevation, but he had doubted its reality because it was not accompanied by any earthquakes. However, once he saw the evidence for himself and became convinced that the effect was genuine, Lyell used it to enlarge his explanatory repertoire. In papers read at the Geological Society, Charles Darwin developed an ambitious global geotheory, according to which crustal plates of continental dimensions were in slow and continuous movement, either up or down, as revealed respectively by raised beaches and by coral reefs and atolls. The steady-state character of Darwin's geotheory, and its total dependence on actual causes, marked him out as a true “uniformitarian,” Lyell's first and only full-blooded convert.

Keywords: Charles Lyell; Charles Darwin; earth's crust; crustal movements; geohistory

Chapter.  9101 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Science and Technology

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