, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 153-187

Charles Lyell's Antiquity of Man and its critics

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Conclusion: Toward a reassessment

It should be clear that Lyell's scientific contemporaries would hardly have agreed with Robert Munro's remark that Antiquity of Man created a full-fledged discipline. Only later historians have judged the work a synthesis; those closer to the discoveries and events saw it as a compilation — perhaps a “capital compilation,”95 but a compilation none the less. Its heterogeneity made it difficult to judge as a unity, and most reviewers, like Forbes, concentrated on the first part of Lyell's trilogy. The chapters on glaciation were admired by Lyell's friends but had relatively little appeal to more general readers. His discussion of the species question hedged far too much to please those who accepted the cogency of Darwin's evidence and arguments. This last section of the book blatantly lacks originality or commitment and certainly has no claim to classical status in anthropology.

We are left, then, with the first twelve chapters, for it was this portion that dictated the book's title and that amassed the available evidence favoring the antiquity of the human species. Did it do anything more than marshall the evidence that others had discovered? I think not. Lyell could write with style and verve. Principles of Geology is a remarkably readable book. But Antiquity is the work of a geologist, not of a systematic student of man. Despite its occasional touches of power, it never captures the freshness and immediacy of Lubbock's Pre-historic Times nor the theoretical brilliance of E. B. Tylor's Researches into the Early History of Mankind (1865).96 Antiquity utilizes little of the comparative method whereby Lyell's contemporaries used data from modern “savagery” to elaborate the possible social functions of the prehistoric remains being uncovered. It contains little social theory and has virtually no integrated framework. Even the first twelve chapters do not really hang together. As Hooker, commenting to Darwin on Lubbock's review, sadly wrote: “Lubbock in [the] N[atural] H[istory] Review, had in a note called attention to Lyell's ... ‘doing injustice’ to Prestwich & Falconer. I modified this expression ‘injustice’ in Lubbock's paper (which was friendly and apologetic). I am deeply sorry for it, but what can one do? I do think Lyell's first XII chapters a complete mess.”97 In another letter to Darwin, Hooker described this first portion of Antiquity as “confused and confusing.”98

Part of the problem, of course, lay in the subject's novelty for Lyell and for most of his contemporaries. At a deeper level, however, I believe that the book accurately reflects Lyell's uncertainties about Darwin's work and its implications for man.99 Leonard Wilson's edition of Lyell's Scientific Journals provides a unique insight into Lyell's mind during the years just before he began to write Antiquity.100 Preoccupied with the human implications of evolutionary biology, Lyell was not clear how many of those implications were compatible with his deep convictions about the dignity of man's place in the cosmos. With a certain naiveté, Lyell complained in 1873 that many of his readers had failed to see the “natural connections” among the three portions of Antiquity.101 Connections could indeed be drawn between man's antiquity and his evolutionary origins; Lyell's private Scientific Journals movingly demonstrate that he was well aware of this fact. But he never fully made the connections in his published writings. Antiquity of Man is more appropriately seen as the last gasp of the heroic period in British geology than as the opening salvo in a new, post-Darwinian anthropological synthesis. Between the founding of the Geological Society of London in 1807 and the middle of the nineteenth century, geology was recognized as one of the most exciting and innovative scientific fields in Britain.102 Lyell himself had contributed much to that drama, and by the 1860's he was a public figure of venerable proportions. More then any other man he represented a geology that had extended the boundaries of process, time, and life. The fundamental achievements of Lyell and his colleagues had been assimilated into the wider Victorian consciousness, yet the earlier public debates about “genesis and geology” had left untouched in its essentials the concept of Man as a moral, responsible, created being.103

Lyell never abandoned this view of his own species, and in 1863 it was a completely responsible creature which, under the weight of empirical evidence, Lyell admitted had lived on earth far longer than had previously been thought. Certainly this more generous allowance for human existence was constitutive to what Burrow calls the evolutionary social theory of midcentury Britain.104 Unlike Lyell, the younger representatives of this anthropology quietly accepted both man's antiquity and his aboriginal animality. Herbert Spencer's Principles of Psychology (1855), as well as the other volumes of his grand Synthetic Philosophy, presented as part of the cosmic process the development of human from prehuman beings.105 Tylor's discussion of what in his Researches (1865) he called the “gesture-language” presupposed the gradual and de novo origin of language in early human populations.106 Lubbock's young and polished mind was untroubled by the human implications of Darwin's work, and he cast his Prehistoric Times into such a perfect mold that it and its companionpiece (On the Origin of Civilization, 1870) went through seven editions each between 1865 and World War I, with their original theoretical structures intact. In a way that Lyell could not grasp, Lubbock was intrigued by questions concerning the origins of moral and religious beliefs and did not flinch at the thought of an amoral, atheistic creature as an ancestor.107 Indeed, as the German naturalist Carl Vogt pointed out in his Lectures on Man, translated into English the year after Antiquity, both Darwin's theories and the primitive flint knives of the Stone Age bore witness to a time beyond that imaginable from the condition of the lowest present-day “savage”:

From such a low condition [little better than anthropomorphous apes], compared to which that of the so-called savages of the old and new world is a refined civilisation, has the human species gradually extricated itself, in a bitter struggle for existence, which it was well able to maintain, by being gifted with a larger amount of brain and intelligence than that possessed by the surrounding animal world.108

The easy integration of biological and social themes was perhaps the distinguishing hallmark of Victorian anthropology of the 1850's and 1860's. After his fashion, Lyell got both themes into Antiquity, but he carefully separated them with a seven-chapter wall of glacial ice. Lyell's anthropology was not that of a thoroughgoing evolutionist like Lubbock, Tylor, or Spencer. For Lyell prehistoric man was not a product of biological evolution. Rude and superstitious he may have been, but he possessed ritual and a belief in a future state, and thus deserved “the epithet of ‘noble,’ which Dryden gave to what he seems to have pictured to himself as the primitive condition of our race: as Nature first made man/when wild in woods the noble savage ran.”109

As a systematic argument, Lyell's book was at best a significant failure. As a popularization, it was a success — largely because of the personal stature of its author and the particular moment of its appearance. It helped establish the fact of man's antiquity with a wider Victorian audience, in itself no mean achievement. But Lyell was unable to exploit the fuller implications of his material in the service of a secular science of man. Ironically, he exploited only his colleagues' discoveries. Though the aging Lyell, with failing eyesight but unfailing mental powers, can still be seen as a man of considerable importance, his Antiquity belongs to the carefully circumscribed world of British geology rather than to the less disciplined world of Victorian anthropology.