The brief duration of human life, and our limited powers


By Gregory Vogel


                 Below is an excerpt from Charles Lyell’s introduction to his book Principles of Geology, Volume I, published in 1830.  At the time, “geology” encompassed most of the natural sciences.  Lyell studied geology, botany, zoology, and even some archaeology.             


                 In this excerpt Lyell makes three points key to the study of archaeology:
- By studying the past we are better able to understand the present.
- To fully understand the past we need to employ many disciplines.
- More archaeological information is gathered from everyday objects and trash than from artistic     or aesthetically pleasing relics.


                 Principles of Geology is a classic work and helped set the stage for many of the natural sciences as we know them today.  It was one of the few books Charles Darwin had with him on his famous voyage aboard the Beagle, and it helped inspire his ideas about evolution through natural selection.  Except for the typical nineteenth century nonsense about "degrees of moral and intellectual refinement", I hope you find it similarly inspiring. 

                 It may help if you imagine yourself in Darwin's position as he read these passages himself: the year is 1831 and you are setting out on a sea voyage that will last at least three years.  You will visit lands entirely uncharted and never before visited by anyone of your training.  The social codes of the time do not allow you to fraternize overtly with the crew, only the officers and the captain.  This forms a very small social circle, and none of them have training in any area of interest to you, except the captain, with whom you disagree about nearly everything.  Eagerly expecting your first landfall to an exotic land, but knowing it to be dreary sea-months away, you retire to your cabin of an evening for some reading.  You light a candle and select from your chest the recently published Principles of Geology.  The Beagle seems a tiny ship as it makes way under a light breeze across the vast Atlantic.  You begin to read…


                  Geology is the science which investigates the successive changes that have taken place in the organic and inorganic kingdoms of nature; it enquires into the causes of these changes, and the influence which they have exerted in modifying the surface and external structure of our planet. 

                 By these researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate productions.  When we study history, we obtain a more profound insight into human nature, by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society.  We trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations – the various peculiarities of national character – the different degrees of moral and intellectual refinement, and numerous other circumstances, which, without historical association, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood.  As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extremely remote and others more recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent, so the state of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events, and if we would enlarge our experience of the present economy of nature, we must investigate the effects of her operations in former epochs. 

                ....Geology is intimately related to almost all the physical sciences, as is history to the moral.  An historian should, if possible, be at once profoundly acquainted with ethics, politics, jurisprudence, the military art, theology; in a word, with all branches of knowledge, whereby any insight into human affairs, or into the moral and intellectual nature of man, can be obtained.  It would be no less desirable that a geologist should be well versed in chemistry, natural philosophy, mineralogy, zoology, comparative anatomy, botany; in short, in every science relating to organic and inorganic nature.  With these accomplishments the historian and the geologist would rarely fail to draw correct and philosophical conclusions from the various monuments transmitted to them of former occurrences.  They would know to what combination of causes analogous effects were referrible, and they would often be enabled to supply by inference, information concerning many events unrecorded in the defective archives of former ages.  But the brief duration of human life, and our limited powers, are so far from permitting us to aspire to such extensive acquisitions, that excellence even in one department is within the reach of few, and those individuals most effectually promote the general progress, who concentrate their thoughts on a limited portion of the field of inquiry... 

                 Some remains of former organic beings, like the ancient temple, statue, or picture, may have both their intrinsic and their historical value, while there are others which can never be expected to attract attention for their own sake.  A painter, sculptor, or architect, would often neglect many curious relics of antiquity, as devoid of beauty and instructive with relation to their own art, however illustrative of the progress of refinement in some ancient nation.  It has therefore been found desirable that the antiquary should unite his labors with those of the historian, and similar co-operation has become necessary in geology.


  .…the candle gutters and fails as the ship lurches over the waves through the starry Atlantic night, and you are left alone in the dark of your cabin.  The riggings creak, you hear the officer of the watch call to dress the topsail, and you ponder Lyell's words,  "But the brief duration of human life, and our limited powers..."