Charles Lyell

The frontispiece from Principles of Geology

Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, Order of the Thistle, (November 14, 1797 – February 22, 1875), Scottish lawyer, geologist, and populariser of uniformitarianism.

Charles Lyell was born in Kinnordy, Angus, the eldest of ten children. Lyell's father, also named Charles, was a lawyer and botanist of minor repute and first exposed the younger Charles to the study of nature. Charles spent much of his childhood at the family’s other home, Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, England, where his interest in the natural world was sparked. Having attended Exeter College, Oxford ending in 1816, Lyell encountered geology as a serious profession under the wing of the naturalist William Buckland. Upon graduation he took a professional detour into the law, but dabbled in geology. His first paper, "On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire", was presented in 1822. By 1827 he had abandoned the law and embarked on a long geological career that would result in the widespread acceptance of the ideas proposed by James Hutton a few decades before.

During the 1840s, he travelled to the United States and Canada, which resulted in his writing two popular travel-and-geology books: 1845's Travels in North America and A Second Visit to the United States (from 1849).

He won the Copley Medal in 1858 and the Wollaston Medal in 1866. After the Great Chicago Fire, Lyell was one of the first to donate books to help found the Chicago Public Library.

Upon his death in 1875, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Lyell crater on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honour.

Career and major writings

Charles Lyell in later life.

Virtually alone among leading British geologists of his era, Lyell supported himself by writing books about his scientific work. He came from a prosperous family, worked briefly as a lawyer in the 1820s, and held the post of Professor of Geology at King's College London in the 1830s, but from 1830 onward his books provided both a comfortable living and growing fame. Each of his three major books was a work continually in progress. All three went through multiple editions during his lifetime, and Lyell used almost every edition as an opportunity to incorporate additional material, rearrange existing material, and revisit old conclusions in light of new evidence. These frequent, substantial revisions added significant value to new editions of Lyell's books, and helped to ensure robust sales to both the scientific community and the general public.

Principles of Geology, Lyell's first book, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. First published in three volumes in 1830-33, it established Lyell's credentials as an important geological theorist and introduced the doctrine of uniformitarianism. The central argument in Principles was that "the present is the key to the past:" That geological remains from the distant past can, and should, be explained by reference to geological processes now in operation and thus directly observable. Lyell's interpretation of geologic change as the steady accumulation of minute changes over enormously long spans of time was also a central theme in the Principles, and a powerful influence on the young Charles Darwin, who was given Volume 1 of the first edition by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, just before they set out on the voyage of the Beagle. On their first stop ashore at St Jago Darwin found rock formations which seen "through Lyell's eyes" gave him a revolutionary insight into the geological history of the island, an insight he applied throughout his travels. While in South America Darwin received Volume 2 which firmly rejected the idea of organic evolution, proposing "Centres of Creation" to explain diversity and territory of species. Darwin's ideas gradually moved beyond this, but in geology he was very much Lyell's disciple and sent home extensive evidence and theorising supporting Lyell's uniformitarianism, including Darwin's ideas about the formation of atolls. On his return they became close friends. Lyell continued to firmly reject the idea of organic evolution in each of the first nine editions of the Principles. Confronted with Darwin's On The Origin of Species, he finally offered a tepid endorsement of evolution in the tenth edition.

Elements of Geology began as the fourth volume of the third edition of Principles: A systematic, factual description of geological formations of different ages. The material grew so unwieldy, however, that Lyell split it off into a single volume under the Elements title in 1838. The book went through six editions, eventually growing to two volumes and ceasing to be the inexpensive, portable handbook that Lyell had originally envisioned. Late in his career, therefore, Lyell produced a condensed version titled Student's Elements of Geology that fulfilled the original purpose.

Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man brought together Lyell's views on three key themes from the geology of the Quaternary Period of Earth history: glaciers, evolution, and the age of the human race. First published in 1863, it went through three editions that year, with a fourth and final edition appearing in 1873.

Scientific contributions

Lyell's geological interests ranged from volcanoes and geological dynamics through stratigraphy, paleontology and glaciology to topics that would now be classified as prehistoric archaeology and paleoanthropology. He is best known, however, for his role in popularising the doctrine of uniformitarianism.


From 1830 to 1833 his multi-volume Principles of Geology was published. The work's subtitle was "An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation", and this explains Lyell's impact on science. He was, along with the earlier John Playfair, the major advocate of the then-controversial idea of uniformitarianism, that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces acting over a very long period of time. This was in contrast to catastrophism, a geologic idea that went hand-in-hand with age of the earth as implied by biblical chronology. In various revised editions (twelve in all, through 1872), Principles of Geology was the most influential geological work in the middle of the 19th century, and did much to put geology on a modern footing. For his efforts he was knighted in 1848, then made a baronet in 1864.

Volcanoes and geological dynamics


Lyell's most important specific work was in the field of stratigraphy. In 1828, he travelled to the south of France and to Italy, where he realised that the recent strata could be categorised according to the number and proportion of marine shells encased within. Based on this he proposed dividing the Tertiary period into three parts, which he named the Pliocene, Miocene, and Eocene.


In Principles of Geology Lyell proposed that icebergs could be the means of transport for erratics. During periods of global warming, ice breaks off the poles and floats across submerged continents, carrying debris with it, he conjectured. When the iceberg melts, it rains down sediments upon the land. Because this theory could account for the presence of diluvium, the word "drift" became the preferred term for the loose, unsorted material, today called "till." Furthermore, Lyell believed that the accumulation of fine angular particles covering much of the world (today called loess) was a deposit settled from mountain flood water.


Charles Darwin was a close personal friend, and Lyell was one of the first prominent scientists to support The Origin of Species—though he never fully accepted natural selection as the driving engine behind evolution. In fact, Lyell was instrumental in arranging the peaceful co-publication of the theory of natural selection by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, after each discovered it independently. Lyell's own The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man followed a few years later in 1863. Lyell's data was important because Darwin thought that populations of an organisms changed very slowly, requiring lots of time.

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