1830: The dinosaurs will return to Cuckfield

Martin John Spencer Rudwick is a British geologist, historian, and academic. Back in 1975 Rudgwick wrote a paper discussing the cartoons and theories of former geologist Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche (1796-1855). De la Beche, to get his own arguments across, lampooned the leading Scottish geologist of the time Charles Lyell (1797-1875) who espoused some fairly bizarre notions of evolution.

For example, Lyell favoured an indefinitely long age for the earth, despite evidence suggesting a finite age. He believed that species were permanent and not evolving. But, to be fair, this was the time of legitimate discussion and debate among scientists. The publication of the Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell between 1830 and 1833 provoked a far-reaching discussion among British geologists about his ideas. Here is an extract from Rudgwick’s paper:

‘You will at once perceive,’ continued Professor Ichthyosaurus, ‘that the [human] skull before us belonged to some of the lower order of animals, the teeth are very insignificant, the power of the jaws trifling, and altogether it seems wonderful how the creature could have procured food.’

In other words, in Lyell’s interpretation a human being is no ‘higher’ than a reptile; indeed, its functional anatomy might even make it seem ‘lower.’ This refers to Lyell’s argument, based on a rigid dualism between the physical and the moral realms, that the recent appearance of man was no evidence of organic progress, on the grounds that man’s superiority was exclusively moral, and that physically he was no higher than any other mammal.

But Lyell’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the fossil record had deeper implications that linked it indissolubly to the rest of his steady-state system. Not only had there been no overall progression in organic life in the past; there would be none in the future either.

Lyell tried to guard against being interpreted as postulating a strictly cyclical theory of indefinite repetition on the Greek model, but it is clear that many of his contemporaries did regard his theory as being for all practical purposes one of cyclical repetition. Indeed he laid himself open to this interpretation. For example, having told Mantell his ‘receipt’ for producing organisms of diverse climatic habits more or less to order at any latitude, he explicitly applied this to the future as well as the past.

Dinosaurs live again in Cuckfield

Mantell had discovered the fossil terrestrial reptile Iguanodon in Sussex, and Lyell told him that:

‘All these changes are to happen in future again, and iguanodons and their congeners must as assuredly live again in the latitude of Cuckfield as they have done so.’

Likewise in the published Principles Lyell wrote: ‘Then might those genera of animals return, of which the memorials are preserved in the ancient rocks of our continents. The huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyl might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns.’

Lyell may not have believed that organisms would ever reappear as precisely identical species after their earlier embodiments had become extinct. But his concept of new species being ‘created’ in ecologically and adaptively appropriate space/time locations, combined with his geological concept of a continual flux at the earth’s surface which was repeatedly producing virtually identical environments, led him inexorably to a view that very similar species must have been produced repeatedly in the past and would continue to be produced indefinitely into the future.

As far as the writer is concerned he has no plans to take any anti-dinosaur precautions next time he shops in the Coop at Whiteman’s Green.



Sir Henry Thomas De la Beche KCB, FRS (1796 –1855) was an English geologist and palaeontologist, the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, who helped pioneer early geological survey methods. He was the first President of the Palaeontographical Society. A great supporter of the work and the importance of the work of Mary Anning, of Lyme Regis featured in the recent film 'Ammonite'.

Main source

Caricature as a Source for the History of Science: De la Beche's Anti-Lyellian Sketches of 1831. Martin J. S. Rudwick. Isis Vol. 66, No. 4 (Dec., 1975), pp. 534-560 (27 pages). Pub: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society. From JSTOR.org.

Wikipedia entry for Charles Lyell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Lyell

Wikipedia entry for De la Beche https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_De_la_Beche

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.