Cosmic Connections: James Croll’s Influence on Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin

James Rodger Fleming

American Institute of Physics

Wednesday, May 4, 2022 3:30 pm EDT

This paper examines the influence of the Scotsman James Croll (1821-1890) on his contemporaries, Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin. Working at the nexus of astronomy, geology, and natural philosophy, Croll developed an astronomical theory of ice ages in which variations in Earth’s orbit orbital triggered feedbacks leading to complex changes in climate and the distribution of plant and animal life. Croll was an autodidact deeply involved in metaphysical thinking and an early proponent of what came to be called “cosmic physics.” He referred to climate change as the most important problem in terrestrial physics, and the one which will ultimately prove the most far reaching in its consequences. It is widely known that Lyell’s geology helped frame Darwin’s theory of evolution, but Croll’s significant influences on both Lyell and Darwin have yet to be explored.
James Rodger Fleming (PhD, Princeton University) is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Emeritus, at Colby College. He is the author of Meteorology in America (Johns Hopkins, 1990), Historical Perspectives on Climate Change (Oxford, 1998), The Callendar Effect (American Meteorological Society, 2007), Fixing the Sky (Columbia, 2010), Inventing Atmospheric Science (MIT, 2016), and FIRST WOMAN: Joanne Simpson and the Tropical Atmosphere (Oxford, 2020). He served on two National Academy of Sciences study panels, was a contributing author for the IPCC, and is series editor of Palgrave Studies in the History of Science and Technology.