Field of Science

De La Beche's Awful Changes

Caricatures are exaggerated sketches of a person or human behavior. However, such cartoons appear only at a superficial glance as simple drawings, as they contain deep and complex insight in our culture and society. This consideration is also true for scientific caricatures, dealing with subjects or persons involved in science and research.

For a long time, the caricature by British geologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) "Awful Changes. Man Found only in a Fossil State - Reappearance of Ichthyosauri" was considered a caricature of fellow geologist and paleontologist William Buckland (1784-1856). The sketch was widely publicized in Francis Buckland's (1826 - 1880, son of William) book-series "Curiosities of Natural History" (1857-72), including a biography of his father.

"A lecture, - 'You will at once perceive,' continued Professor Ichthyosaurus, 'that the 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."

However, geologist and earth-science historian Martin J.S. Rudwick realized the connection of this scene with some drawings produced before 1831 by De la Beche in his diary, where he ridiculed the approach adopted by Charles Lyell. In the unpublished drawings, a lawyer (the reference to Lyell, who actually was a lawyer, seems obvious) is carrying a bag with "his" theory around the world, or he is shown wearing particular glasses (like Professor Ichthyosaurus), and offering his "view" and the resulting "theoretical approach" to a geologist carrying a hammer and collecting bag, a reference to the geologist actually working in the field. De la Beche never completed the sketch, because he abandoned this design in order to try out others, including the now famous "Awful Changes."

De la Beche believed that Lyell injected too much of his lawyer profession into the emerging field of geology, focusing too much on theories than real research. "Awful Changes" does lampoon one crucial part of Lyell's uniformitarianism - theory, the concept of time repeating itself, as prehistoric animals are behaving much like Victorian scholars. In a second cartoon De la Beche is mocking another idea of Lyell, the effects of present causes operating at the same slow magnitude throughout geologic history. The cartoon shows a vast U-shaped valley, in the foreground a nurse with a child, presumably the son of William Buckland, can be spotted. The child is peeing into the huge valley and in the caption De la Beche has his nurse exclaiming, "Bless the baby! What a valley he have made!!!"

The caricature was inspired by the ongoing debate of river-erosion at the time. The glacial theory wasn't still accepted to explain the formation of large valleys and the shape of many valleys in Europe was hard to explain only based on, as proposed by Lyell's uniformitarianism, slow fluvial erosion.