Charles Lyell and the Principles of Geology

Charles Lyell
(1797 – 1875)

On November 14, 1797, Charles Lyell, British lawyer and the foremost geologist of his day, was born. Lyell was a close friend to Charles Darwin and is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, which popularised James Hutton’s concepts of uniformitarianism – the idea that the earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today.

Politically, in the first decade of Lyell’s life Europe was dominated by the Napoleonic Wars, bringing many changes to Europe and North America, The UK became one of the most powerful countries on the continent and the Royal Navy achieved naval superiority. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain shaped the country remarkably and enabled new technologies and industrial branches to emerge. Scientifically, Lyell worked simultaneously with his compatriot, the brilliant physicist and chemist Michael Faraday. It was at the time, when Alexander von Humboldt just finished his journeys to through Latin America and Russia, and the Philosopher Friedrich Hegel revolutionized European philosophy, that Lyell published his famous Principles of Geology.

Charley Lyell grew up in Scotland and entered his father’s footsteps through becoming a lawyer as well as showing a great interest in nature. Since the family spent most of their time in forests and on farms, there was much to discover. Lyell entered Exeter College in Oxford in 1816 and was already elected joint secretary of the Geological Society a few years after, which caused him to completely focus on geology. Lyell was lucky to share his interests in studying Earth’s conditions with the woman he loved, so he took her on a geological trip for their honeymoon.

Everything seemed to turn out great for Lyell, especially in sense of his career. In his mid-30’s, Lyell was a well known and highly accepted geologist. During this time, he held a post as Professor of Geology in London and published his Principles of Geology, which again increased his great reputation as a scientist. In his book, he leaned on David Hume‘s theory that “all inferences from experience suppose … that the future will resemble the past” and James Hutton‘s theory of uniformitarianism, which he greatly supported and therefore caused it to be widely accepted by society.

Lyell, who saw himself as “the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses“, influenced many scientists of his period, but the most special scientific relationship and private friendship developed between Lyell and Charles Darwin. Darwin heard of Lyell’s Principles and while studying them, he made several observations in South America which he exchanged with Lyell in a fruitful scientific correspondence. Their friendship grew even though Lyell rejected the theory of evolution that Darwin deeply believed in. It took nine editions of Lyells Principles and years of discussion with Darwin to finally grant Darwin’s theories on evolution some respect and at the end, he even supported Darwin to publish his masterpiece ‘On the Origin of Species‘.

Through his scientific achievements, the geological surveys, works on geological dynamics, and his great influence to Charles Darwin, Lyell counts as one of the most important scientists of the Victorian Era, wherefore he was knighted, made a baronet, and honored numerous times like having a Lunar and Martian crater named after him.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a lecture by Walter Alvarez on ‘Earth History in the Boradest Possible Context‘ at Berkeley.

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