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Lyell, Sir Charles (1797 – 1875) Scottish Geologist

Sir Charles Lyell (1797 1875)
Scottish geologist

Lyell was born in Kinnordy, Scotland, the son of well-todo parents. When Lyell was less than a year old, his father moved his family to the south of England where he leased a house near the New Forest in Hampshire. Lyell spent his boyhood there, surrounded by his father's collection of rare plants. At the age of seven, Lyell became ill with pleurisy and while recovering began to collect and study insects. As a young man he entered Oxford to study law, but he also became interested in mineralogy after attending lectures by the noted geologist William Buckland. Buckland advocated the theories of Abraham Gottlob Werner, a neptunist who postulated that a vast ocean once covered the earth and that the various rocks resulted from chemical and mechanical deposition underwater, over a long period of time. This outlook was more in keeping with the Biblical story of Genesis than that of the vulcanists or plutonists who suscribed to the idea that volcanism, along with erosion and deposition, were the major forces sculpting the Earth. While on holidays with his family, Lyell made the first of many observations in hopes of confirming the views of Buckland and Werner. However, he continued to study law and was eventually called to the bar in 1822. Lyell practiced law until 1827 while still devoting time to geology.

Lyell traveled to France and Italy where he collected extensive data which caused him to reject the neptunist philosophy. He instead drew the conclusion that volcanic activity and erosion by wind and weather were primarily responsible for the different strata rather than the deposition of sediments from a "world ocean." He also rejected the catastrophism of Georges Cuvier, who believed that global catastrophes, such as the biblical Great Flood, periodically destroyed life on Earth, thus accounting for the different fossils found in each rock layer. Lyell believed change was a gradual process that occurred over a long period of time at a constant rate. This theory, known as uniformitarianism, had been postulated 50 years earlier by Scottish geologist James Hutton. It was Lyell, though, who popularized uniformitarianism in his work The Principles of Geology, which is now considered a classic text in this field. By 1850 his views and those of Hutton had become the standard among geologists. However, unlike many of his colleagues, Lyell adhered so strongly to uniformitarianism that he rejected the possibility of even limited catastrophe. Today most scientists accept that catastrophes such as meteor impacts played an important, albeit supplemental, role in the earth's evolution .

In addition to his championing of uniformitarianism, Lyell named several divisions of geologic time such as the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene Epochs. He also estimated the age of some of the oldest fossil-bearing rocks known at that time, assigning them the then startling figure of 240 million years. Even though Lyell came closer than his contemporaries to guessing the correct age, it is still less than half the currently accepted figure used by geologists today. While working on The Principles of Geology, Lyell formed a close friendship with Charles Darwin who had outlined his evolutionary theory in The Origin of Species. Both scientists quickly accepted the work of the other (Lyell was one of two scientists who presented Darwin's work to the influential Linnaean Society). Lyell even extended evolutionary theory to include humans at a time when Darwin was unwilling to do so. In his The Antiquity of Man (1863), Lyell argued that humans were much more ancient than creationists (those who interpreted Book of Genesis literally) and catastrophists believed, basing his ideas on archaeological artifacts such as ancient ax heads. Lyell was knighted for his work in 1848 and created a baronet in 1864. He also served as president of the Geological Society and set up the Lyell Medal and the Lyell Fund. He died in 1875 while working on the twelfth edition of his Principles of Geology.



Adams, Alexander B. "Reading the Earth's Story: Charles Lyell19791875." In Eternal Quest: The Story of the Great Naturalists. NY: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969.

Wilson, Leonard G. Charles LyellThe Years to 1841: The Revolution in Geology. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1972.


Camardi, Giovanni. "Charles Lyell and the Uniformity Principle." Biology and Philosophy 14, no. 4 (October 1999): 537560.

Kennedy, Barbara A. "Charles Lyell and 'Modern Changes of the Earth': the Milledgeville Gully." Geomorphology 40 (2001): 9198.

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