On Sir Charles Lyell's alleged distortion of Abraham Gottlob Werner in Principles of Geology and its implications for the nature of the scientific enterprise

Sengor A.

JOURNAL OF GEOLOGY, vol.110, no.3, pp.355-368, 2002 (SCI-Expanded) identifier identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Review
  • Volume: 110 Issue: 3
  • Publication Date: 2002
  • Doi Number: 10.1086/339537
  • Journal Name: JOURNAL OF GEOLOGY
  • Journal Indexes: Science Citation Index Expanded (SCI-EXPANDED), Scopus
  • Page Numbers: pp.355-368
  • Istanbul Technical University Affiliated: No


Taking Sir Charles Lyell to task for having distorted the image of Abraham Gottlob Werner in his historical introduction to Principles of Geology to support his own conception of what geology ought to be about, Alexander M. Ospovat claimed that Lyell either invented or borrowed from others four myths about Werner: (1) the antipathy-to-writing myth, (2) the lack-of-travel myth, (3) the "onion" myth, and (4) the retrograde-influence-on-geology myth. Ospovat also held Lyell responsible, though only indirectly, for propagating a supposedly false image of Werner as one whose geological ideas were based on the biblical narrative. A review of pre-Lyellian primary sources shows that others also criticized and/or viewed Werner in the light of what Ospovat thinks are myths invented or perpetuated by Lyell. What Ospovat calls myths seem to be accurate descriptions of aspects of Werner's personality and his science. Moreover, examination of the intellectual background of Werner's theories shows that it was clearly biblical. Ospovat's judgment on Lyell's account of Werner has had a considerable influence on historians of geology. It has encouraged sociological assessments of the development of science, in which logic of discovery, in the light of observations and their rational criticism in an objective scientific community, has been allotted a secondary place with respect to irrational social forces. The purpose of this article is to show that Lyell's account of Werner cannot be used to support the latter views.