Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:19 pm on 19th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 3:19 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, I rise with humility this afternoon to thank my noble friend Lady Hooper. I shall concentrate my remarks, which I hope will be brief and to the point, on the tremendous relationship between my ancestor, my great-great-great-uncle, Charles Lyell, and Darwin. They had their first meeting fairly early on, and certainly much was discussed in 1836. My first meeting with my noble friend Lady Hooper was October 1985, under a wonderful blue banner with the motto, "Nil satis nisi optimum"; I can explain the precise details and relevance of that to the noble Lord the Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard later.

I declare my interest as the great-great-great-nephew of Sir Charles, which was mentioned so kindly by my noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. Sir Charles went on to become the first professor of geology at King's College, London—not, I humbly suggest to the right reverend Prelates, without some opposition from the ecclesiastical establishment. Never mind, he was a tough Angus lad, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cullen, can attest, and stuck to his ground.

Declaring my interests as a non-geologist and a non-scientist, I convey my humble thanks to Professor Leonard Wilson, Professor Gordon Craig and Dr Nowell Donovan, all of whom have kept my brief thoughts and remarks on the relevant path.

On October 2 1836, the "Beagle"—referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey—dropped anchor at Falmouth. In four days, Darwin had reached Shrewsbury. On 28 October, the "Beagle" had reached Greenwich and Darwin was able to unpack all the specimens that he had gathered on his remarkable tour of the world. Thankfully, he was already in touch in with my ancestor, Charles Lyell, and had continually declared that he was very grateful, and interested, among his other enormous interests, in geology. In December 1836, he was discussing the elevation of the landmass of South America with Charles Lyell. Indeed, I understand that he celebrated the New Year of 1837 by having a particularly good dinner, so he said, with the Lyells.

From my studies of Charles Darwin's tour down the coast of South America, he had paid particular attention to the coast of Chile and had noticed the elevations, the structure and strata of the rocks and landscape there. He understood that the entire landmass of Chile and South America had risen something in the region of what we call "two feet"—I am not too sure what that is in metres; I do not know if my noble friend Lord Lamont will advise me. This was thanks to two massive earthquakes, one in 1822 and another in 1835. The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, who is not in his place, has advised me that the hamlet of Concepción was virtually eliminated by the colossal earthquake of 1835. Charles Darwin visited the site within a month of the earthquake occurring and noticed the elevation of the strata. He pointed out to my ancestor, Charles Lyell, the recently uplifted sea bottom and shell beds on the Atlantic coast. On the cliffs of Argentina, which stretch some 400 to 500 miles, Darwin noticed deposits that were of enormous interest to him and Charles Lyell. I understand that Lyell and Darwin admired each other enormously. Indeed, Charles Lyell pointed out that he was immensely grateful for Darwin's confirmation of his theories on the uplift of land masses, of those below the sea, and on subsidence. Darwin expressed enormous gratitude to Charles Lyell for the principles of geology set out in the second or third edition of his work—certainly, he was reading the first edition as he undertook his tour—which helped him to interpret the geological aspect of his studies in South America.

Both Lyell and Darwin had a great deal to say about coral reefs in the Pacific. I do not have a science O-level but I have attempted to dabble in my distinguished ancestor's records and in some of his letters. Therefore, I shall spare your Lordships my thoughts on the structure of coral and how it might affect the subsidence and elevation of the Pacific sea bed. Perhaps I, my noble friend Lady Hooper and other noble Lords might wish to undertake exploratory voyages to study that phenomenon. Some noble Lords might still be speaking when we got back; one would not know. I shall leave the study of Pacific corals to the specialists and to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who will speak next.

As I say, Darwin expressed enormous gratitude to Sir Charles Lyell. I conclude my O-level remarks on science, let alone on the records of Charles Darwin, by citing a wonderful letter written by his wife, Emma Wedgwood. They held their first dinner party on 1 April 1839. Emma wrote to her sister saying that the entire evening was something of an ordeal. First, Dr Fitton was late—I do not know why she was worried about that—then Mr Brown, a distinguished biologist, was so shy that it seemed to Emma that he would shrink and disappear entirely into himself. Emma went on to say that Mr Lyell was quite enough to flatten a dinner party and that he never spoke above his breath. Certainly, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who is to speak after me, will know that I try to speak up, but that other speakers will compensate for any deficiency in that regard. As regards the other guests at this wonderful dinner party, Emma records that Mrs Henslow had a good, loud, sharp voice and that Mrs Lyell, my great-great-great aunt, had a constant supply of talk. Perhaps that characteristic has descended down the blood line.

I am immensely grateful to Charles Lyell's guru, Professor Leonard Wilson, for pointing out that Darwin's friendship with Lyell was not greatly encouraged after the former's marriage. In Charles Darwin's biography, edited by his granddaughter, Darwin is quoted as saying,

"I saw more of Lyell than of any other man both before and after my marriage".

Therefore, it seems that bridges could be built. It is an enormous privilege for me to mention my great-great-great uncle's name in your Lordships' House today. Above all, I am immensely grateful to my noble friend Lady Hooper for giving us the opportunity to celebrate the bicentenary of a particularly distinguished man, who was linked to my great-great-great uncle.