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An apprenticeship in theory: rethinking Darwin's debt to Lyell

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This paper emerges from my interest in how Charles Darwin came to develop and publish his theories in the ways that he did. Here I examine the substantial role played by his personal interactions with Charles Lyell in the years immediately after returning from the Beagle voyage. Lyell’s influence on Darwin (both indirectly through his authorship of The Principles of Geology and subsequently as a friend and advocate) is well known. However, I argue that Lyell played a more active role in reshaping Darwin’s ideas for specific audiences and in choreographing responses to them than has previously been recognised. Through these interventions Lyell urged Darwin toward specific modes of theorizing and scientific authorship that served both men’s interests. When Darwin called Lyell his ‘master’ in geology, he meant this literally. I show how Lyell claimed a proprietary right to his apprentice’s work and assumed a share of the credit for Darwin’s achievements. I offer three conclusions: that Darwin’s apparent talent for constructing written scientific arguments should be considered a learned skill; that during his integration in the specialist scientific community, Darwin relied on the sort of personal mentorship that has been identified as crucial to the success of young scientists in laboratory-based research schools in the nineteenth century; and that Darwin’s subsequent unease with the ‘speculation’ that he believed had characterised the early work he produced under Lyell’s guidance was a factor in his reticence to make his species theory public.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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