The Antiquity of Man as a Metaphysical Response to The Origin of Species

Daniel Lev
Writer’s Comment: In retrospect, I realize that the process of writing this piece was more the intellectual crux for me than the finished product—the means more important than the ends. In researching this project, I found myself utilizing new methods of historical inquiry and exploring exciting areas of study I had previously only casually experienced. Whether it was rummaging through the private diaries of British naturalists, sifting painstakingly through some of Charles Darwin’s 14,500 archived letters, or examining original 19th-century printed books in that “special” room in the library, I discovered that research can be an arduous yet delightfully enlightening process. Getting the facts right was of paramount importance to me because, as a student of biology, the subject of evolution has always sat close to my heart. I found that the discussion regarding Darwinism was as metaphysical in nature during Darwin’s time as in our own—mind versus matter, natural versus supernatural, design versus natural selection. Therefore, probing into Sir Charles Lyell’s personal dilemma concerning The Origin of Species was a gratifying way for me to further explore the roots of the philosophical issues that Darwinism has carried into the present day. I have certainly gained a newfound appreciation for the history and philosophy of science—an interest that I am very thankful to Professor Griesemer for sparking.
—Daniel Lev

Instructor’s Comment: Daniel Lev’s essay—written for my course, Science and Technology Studies 131: Darwin, in Spring 2009—describes the pattern of mutual influences between two great 19th-century English scientists. Lyell’s earlier work, Principles of Geology (1831–33), had a profound impact on the young Darwin, teaching him how to think like a geologist, and providing him with a framework within which to develop his theory of evolution, which culminated in On the Origin of Species. Darwin, in turn, convinced Lyell that species were not immutable, although Lyell remained unconvinced of Darwin’s main mechanism—natural selection. In The Antiquity of Man (1863) Lyell reviewed the emerging evidence of fossil man and concluded that man indeed had an ancient pedigree, one extending far enough back to coexist with now-extinct mammal species. But he would not and could not fully endorse the Darwinian implication of man as a degraded ape. Darwin regretted that Lyell failed to “go the whole Orang” with him and thus to give Darwin’s theory the public boost it needed, but Lyell, as Daniel Lev ably argues, was deeply troubled by the implications of Darwin’s theory for man. Lev’s essay is engagingly written and at a professional level. His argument goes well beyond the secondary historical sources we read in class and reveals fine judgment in his close reading of an astonishing variety of archived correspondence and private diaries, as well as the primary 19th-century scientific literature—reading that sorts out details and discerns nuances not described in the award-winning biography of Darwin that framed our class discussions. He does a fine job of relating Lyell’s thoughts on species and his concerns about the moral status of that one species of concern to all, Homo sapiens.
—James Griesemer, Science and Technology Studies Program and Department of Philosophy

Sir Charles Lyell was an early supporter of the notions of common ancestry and the transmutation of species that Charles Darwin outlined in The Origin of Species. Nonetheless, he struggled to fully accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection as the primary mechanism for the origins of new species, especially in regard to man. This internal struggle was due in part to his inability to abandon, as he wrote to Joseph Hooker, “long cherished ideas, which constituted the charm to me of the theoretical part of the science in my earlier days,” and largely as a result of his belief that Darwinian evolution would degrade the special providence of man. In The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man, published only four years after The Origin of Species, Lyell presented a somewhat hesitant endorsement of Darwin’s theory and allowed that man could have evolved from lower life forms, given more evidence to that effect. However, Lyell quite clearly left open the possibility of “new and powerful causes, such as the moral and intellectual faculties of the human race” to account for man’s spiritual nature. He refused to draw final conclusions on the origins of man’s intellect, morality, and free will, allowing that some “counterpart in the Deity or First Cause,” as he told Darwin, could explain them as well as natural selection. While Lyell publicly supported The Origin of Species, he was privately struggling with the theory as it related to man’s origins. Lyell could not accept that man had become a moral agent through evolution and survival of the fittest; to Lyell, such a crude mechanism degraded man’s divine stance in the animal kingdom. I make the argument that Darwin’s theory in The Origin of Species directly impacted and altered Charles Lyell’s own evolutionary thinking, prompting a deep metaphysical struggle for him in regard to man’s moral standing in nature—the expression of which appeared in The Antiquity of Man.

In many respects, Charles Lyell had actually smoothed the path toward evolutionary thinking in his first book and magnum opus, The Principles of Geology, which Charles Darwin had read aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. As Lyell wrote to Ernst Haeckel, “I had certainly prepared the way in this country, in six editions of my work [The Principles of Geology] . . . for the reception of Darwin’s gradual and insensible evolution of species.” Darwin also acknowledged the significance of Lyell’s influence, admitting that his own scientific thinking “has been derived from studying the well-known and admirable Principles of Geology.” After the Beagle had returned in 1836, Darwin and Lyell began corresponding on issues of geology and biology, fostering a long and fruitful friendship. Indeed, Lyell would act as a mentor and scientific father figure to Darwin as he developed his science. It was only after Darwin gradually divulged more to Lyell about his theory of evolution by natural selection that Lyell began questioning his own views about the origin and transmutation of species.

Although Lyell had influenced Darwin through his concept of Uniformitarianism—the view that “the same natural processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past, and at the same rates”—Lyell did not originally accept that species had evolved. Lyell’s initial view was that animals did not share common ancestors, having instead originated in separate “centres of Creation.” Indeed, “the thought of a chimpanzee in the family, of an ape aspiring to the ‘attributes and dignity of man’” disgusted Lyell. Lowering man from his “high estate” was the primary obstacle to Lyell’s acceptance of evolution, considering that even as late as 1851 he was declaring to the Geological Society that “no gradual advance towards a more perfect organization . . . resembling that of man,” had occurred. However, while The Principles of Geology had severely attacked Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck’s evolutionary model of a “chain of being,” Lyell did keep an open mind toward non-progressive theories of evolution. As Darwin’s colleague T. H. Huxley wrote of Lyell, “It is easy to see that, with all his energetic opposition to Lamarck . . . Lyell, in his own mind, was strongly disposed to account for the origination of all past and present species of living things by natural causes.” Therefore, due to his correspondence with Darwin, Lyell could eventually bring himself to accept the mutability and shared ancestry of species, if not the evolution of man’s moral intellect. 

Natural selection was a different story. Regarding the mechanism by which evolution was supposed to have occurred, Lyell preferred to suspend judgment until more evidence had surfaced. He wrote to Darwin after reading The Origin of Species, pronouncing the theory of natural selection “an effective and important preliminary statement, which will admit, even before your detailed proofs appear, of some occasional useful exemplification,” and wished that “you lived to the age of a hundred, when you had prepared all your facts on which you ground so many grand generalizations.” The problem for Lyell, beside the “lack of evidence” (Darwin deemed it overwhelming), was that he wanted there to be a selector in Darwin’s grand scheme of natural selection. “What is this Variety-making power? That is the question,” he mused in his private notebook on speciation. “We cannot answer it by saying that it is the power which causes the deviation from an original type when these are in the direction of advancement to a higher grade of being, it must be some power beyond that of secondary mechanism, unless delegated by a supreme artificer.” How else to account for the existence of man’s unique moral dignity? Lyell wanted a more venerable answer than the crude “struggle for existence.”

Lyell intended to answer the question of man’s origin for himself, eventually to be published in The Antiquity of Man. In response to Darwin’s “grand generalizations” in their correspondence and in The Origin of Species, Lyell set out to find evidence of human fossils to shed light on the matter. Hence, he set out to visit the caves at Brixham, England, in 1858, where he found flint tools. Then, in 1859, he toured the flint site in Abbeville, France, and discovered further evidence of Stone Age tools. He found similar flint tools in Bedford, England, in April 1861. Finally, in France he discovered stone tools beside fossils of extinct hyenas, confirming to Lyell that man had existed long ago indeed. Thus, the evidence was directing Lyell in favor of man’s antiquity, suggesting that the “high estate” hadn’t always existed. Scientists elsewhere had found compelling evidence as well—an old and primitive Neanderthal skull from a cave near Düsseldorf had been discovered by Hermann Schaaffhausen in 1858. The facts were now staring Lyell in the face, forcing him to admit that humans had a long geological history, long enough for evolution to have occurred. He had rejected man’s antiquity for thirty years but the proof was now undeniable. 

To reflect his change of opinion on human antiquity, Lyell published The Antiquity of Man in 1863. He remained uneasy with the prospect of an ape ancestry, but felt he had to “reconcile himself—somehow—to the artifacts and fossils that proved man’s ancient pedigree.” Lyell used evidence of human fossils and artifacts found alongside extinct fauna to prove that “Man coexisted with the mammoth” and therefore had a pedigree as long as (if not longer than) other ice-age mammals. He explained that “the flint tools and their fabricators were coeval with the extinct mammalia embedded in the same strata,” indicating that man had coexisted with prehistoric animals. Lyell also referenced his cave excavations, writing that “the facts brought to light in 1858, during the systematic investigation of the Brixham cave . . . prepared the way for a general admission that scepticism in regard to . . . the antiquity of Man had previously been pushed to an extreme.” Darwin was pleased that Lyell had changed his mind. “It is great,” he wrote to him. “What a fine long pedigree you have given the human race.” 

Having significantly extended man’s age, Lyell felt he had expressed to the best of his ability his modified viewpoint on the subject. After all, given the mounting evidence for man’s antiquity, there was no use denying it any longer. However, Lyell was still too hesitant to draw from man’s antiquity the conclusion that modern humans had evolved from apes. He was not convinced that the pedigree could be pushed back that far, and left open the possibility of multiple primate ancestors to account for modern ones—meaning that modern apes would have different ancient ancestors than humans. He was even open to “referring Man to a distinct Kingdom of Nature,” separate from other primates. He frequently referenced Schaaffhausen’s Neanderthal skeleton as a prime example, claiming that “the skeleton by no means indicates a transition between Homo and Pithecus [apes].” Again, Lyell preferred to suspend judgment on an ape ancestry, leaving that “as yet we have no distinct geological evidence that the appearance of what are called the inferior races of mankind has always preceded in chronological order that of the higher races.” Thus, he did not believe that the Neanderthal skull (and, by induction, any other human fossils) had any bearing on “whether the farther back we trace Man into the past, the more we shall find him approach in bodily conformation to those species of the anthropoid quadrumana [extinct apes].” 

On this point, Lyell differed diametrically from Darwin and his colleagues. In fact, when Lyell showed the cast of the Neanderthal cranium to Huxley, “he remarked that it was the most ape-like skull he had ever beheld.” George Busk, another of Darwin’s supporters, saw the skull and agreed that it “approached that of the gorilla and chimpanzee.” Nonetheless, an ape ancestry was too much for Lyell to admit—accepting man’s antiquity was as far as he could go for the time being (it would only be in the tenth edition of the Principles of Geology, published between 1866 and 1868, that he would finally accept evolution unequivocally). Still, Darwin was disappointed in Lyell’s current timidity: “As you say that you have gone as far as you believe on species-question, I have not a word to say; but I must feel convinced that at times . . . you have as completely given up belief in immutability of specific forms, as I have done.—I must still think a clear expression from you, if you could have given it, would have been potent with the public, & all the more so, as you formerly held opposite opinion.” In actuality, Lyell never rejected the possibility of evolution or man’s ape ancestry in The Antiquity of Man; he simply felt that the matter was mysterious and had yet to be proven. The book’s sub-header, Remarks on Theories of the Origin of Species by Variation, referred to the last section of the book, where Lyell expressed his thoughts on these “mysterious” issues.

Darwin, upon reading these claims in The Antiquity of Man, was severely disappointed that Lyell had not gone “the whole orang.” In a section where Lyell wrote that the gap between man and animals remained a mystery left to be resolved, Darwin scribbled “Oh!” in the margin of his copy, telling Lyell that it “makes me groan.” In another section Lyell went so far as to agree with Asa Gray’s belief that “there is no tendency in the doctrine of Variation and Natural Selection to weaken the foundations of Natural Theology.” To Darwin, who, as he told Lyell, “had always thought your judgment would have been an epoch on the subject” of speciation, The Antiquity of Man had disastrously dealt with natural selection as described in The Origin of Species. Darwin immediately wrote to Lyell:

I have been of course deeply interested by your book [The Antiquity of Man] . . . but I will first get out what I hate saying, viz. that I have been greatly disappointed that you have not given judgment and spoken fairly out what you think about the derivation of species. I should have been contented if you had boldly said that species have not been separately created, and had thrown as much doubt as you like on how far variation and natural selection suffices.

In fact, Darwin’s suspicion that Lyell had not spoken fairly about what he really thought about speciation was correct. Darwin wrote to Joseph Hooker, “I had hoped he would have guided the public as far as his own belief went.” Ever since Darwin had begun disclosing his evolutionary thoughts after the Beagle voyage, Lyell had begun to question his own views on immutability and “centres of Creation.” Certainly, the fact that he had urged Darwin to publish his theory even before Wallace’s letter had arrived from Borneo is quite telling of Lyell’s plasticity of mind on the subject. To try to make sense of these problems, Lyell opened a private notebook on speciation in 1855 where he philosophized on speciation in a far bolder manner than in The Antiquity of Man (still jotting down private notes as he wrote the book). His thoughts from 1859, when The Origin of Species was published, to The Antiquity of Man in 1863 illustrate that Lyell was privately agonizing more about ape ancestry than his book had let on, and in a metaphysical rather than purely scientific respect. In December of 1859, only a month after The Origin of Species was published, Lyell contemplated in his notebook that speciation may not be problematic per se. “The real apprehension, however,” he wrote, “if the truth be told, the sensitiveness is founded on this, that the dignity of Man is at stake. It is the genealogy of Man which is rendered less imposing. And if it were lowered, if we were led to estimate less highly the position of Man in the Universe, no doubt it would be a loss—it would render our hopes less elevated.” Whereas in The Antiquity of Man Lyell had fallen back on a “lack of evidence” and had referred to man’s link with the animals as “a profound mystery,” his private writings made things more clear: if Darwin’s theory were to prove man merely an improved ape, evolved from inferior animals, then all human dignity would be lost. This was Lyell’s real dilemma, the true basis of his hesitance to boldly champion The Origin of Species as Darwin had expected in The Antiquity of Man. Lyell was more open about this dilemma with his scientific friends as well; as he wrote to Hooker, “He [Darwin] seems much disappointed that I do not go farther with him, or do not speak out more. I can only say that I have spoken out to the full extent of my present convictions, and even beyond my state of feeling as to man’s unbroken descent from the brutes.”

To reconcile himself to the mounting evidence of man’s antiquity, Lyell came to the final conclusion that evolution, if proved to be true, could still be compatible with divine intervention in the case of human morality, intellect, and free-will. He convinced himself that an ape ancestry was only “lowering” if one denied an after-life and that “transmutation . . . leaves the argument in favor of design, and therefore the designer, as valid as ever.” Cases of human genius, he wrote in his notebook, “should be looked to as direct emanations of the Divine Spirit, the first Cause.” And, in direct opposition to Darwin, Lyell declared that “the improvable reason of Man himself, presents us with a picture of the ever-increasing dominion of mind over matter.” Therefore, in order to deal with the mounting evidence in favor of evolution and man’s ape ancestry, Lyell opted for the middle road: an evolutionary model not inconsistent with some special divine intervention in the case of man’s moral intellect—“all may be constant & the moral & intellectual & rational superadded as new.”

Thus, Lyell affirmed his final beliefs. It was a shaky but suitable compromise for a man who had held opposite opinions for his entire scientific career. Undoubtedly, Lyell’s failure in The Antiquity of Man to valiantly back The Origin of Species had diminished the once fruitful and famous friendship he had with Darwin. “You will leave the public in a fog,” Darwin wrote to him. Lyell’s book had been a blow to Darwin; for he knew that Lyell was tantalizingly close to accepting the theories in The Origin of Species. “I know you rank it higher,” he wrote Lyell, “which is curious, as it did not in the least shake your belief.” If Darwin had known the extent to which Lyell was agonizing over the metaphysical repercussions for humanity, perhaps he could have swayed him somehow. It was not for Darwin, however, to brood over such philosophical quandaries—his task was purely scientific. On this point, Lyell and Darwin differed in a way that eventually led them down opposing paths. As Darwin wrote to Hooker, “I wish to Heaven he [Lyell] had said not a word on the subject . . . . I must say how much disappointed I am that he has not spoken out on species, still less on man. And the best of the joke is that he thinks he has acted with the courage of a martyr of old.” Indeed, The Antiquity of Man did little to help Darwin in making his case to the public at large. More likely, Lyell’s attempt to reconcile his personal beliefs with evolution only served to hurt Darwin’s cause. Hence, as a result of Lyell’s failure in The Antiquity of Man, Darwinism in England was left without a single major work to support it for many years to come.