Charles Lyell

For other people named Charles Lyell, see Charles Lyell (disambiguation).
Sir Charles Lyell, Bt
Born 14 November 1797 (1797-11-14)
Kinnordy, Angus, Scotland
Died 22 February 1875(1875-02-22) (aged 77)
Harley Street, London, England
Nationality British
Fields Geology
Institutions King's College London
Alma mater Exeter College, Oxford
Known for Uniformitarianism
Influences James Hutton and John Playfair; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck; William Buckland
Influenced Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Thomas Henry Huxley, Roderick Impey Murchison
Notable awards Royal Medal (1834)
Copley Medal (1858)
Wollaston Medal (1866)

Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, FRS (14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875) was a British lawyer and the foremost geologist of his day. He is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, which popularized James Hutton's concepts of uniformitarianism—the idea that the Earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today. Principles of Geology also challenged theories popularized by Georges Cuvier, which were the most accepted and circulated ideas about geology in England at the time.[1]

His scientific contributions included an explanation of earthquakes, the theory of gradual "backed up-building" of volcanoes, and in stratigraphy the division of the Tertiary period into the Pliocene, Miocene, and Eocene. He also coined the currently-used names for geological eras, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. He incorrectly conjectured that icebergs may be the emphasis behind the transport of glacial erratics, and that silty loess deposits might have settled out of flood waters.

Lyell was one of the first to believe that the world is older than 300 million years, on the basis of its geological anomalies. He was a close friend of Charles Darwin, and contributed significantly to Darwin's thinking on the processes involved in evolution. He helped to arrange the simultaneous publication in 1858 of papers by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace on natural selection, despite his personal religious qualms about the theory. He later published evidence from geology of the time man had existed on Earth.


Lyell was born 14 November 1797 in Scotland about 15 miles north of Dundee in Kinnordy, near Kirriemuir in Forfarshire (now Angus). He was the eldest of ten children. Lyell's father, also named Charles Lyell, was a lawyer and botanist of minor repute: it was he who first exposed his son to the study of nature.

The main geographical
divisions of Scotland

The house/place of his birth is located in the north-west of the Central Lowlands in the valley of the Highland Boundary Fault. Round the house, in the rift valley, is farmland, but within a short distance to the north-west, on the other side of the fault, are the Grampian Mountains in the Highlands.[2] His family's second home was in a completely different geological and ecological area: he spent much of his childhood at Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, England.

Lyell entered Exeter College, Oxford, in 1816, and attended William Buckland's lectures. He graduated BA second class in classics, December 1819, and M.A. 1821.[3][4] After graduation he took up law as a profession, entering Lincoln's Inn in 1820. He completed a circuit through rural England, where he could observe geological phenomena. In 1821 he attended Robert Jameson's lectures in Edinburgh, and visited Gideon Mantell at Lewes, in Sussex. In 1823 he was elected joint secretary of the Geological Society. As his eyesight began to deteriorate, he turned to geology as a full-time profession.[4] His first paper, "On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire", was presented in 1822.[4] By 1827, he had abandoned law and embarked on a geological career that would result in fame and the general acceptance of uniformitarianism, a working out of the ideas proposed by James Hutton a few decades earlier.

Charles Lyell at the British Association meeting in Glasgow 1840. Painting by Alexander Craig.

In 1832, Lyell married Mary Horner in Bonn, daughter of Leonard Horner (1785–1864), also associated with the Geological Society of London. The new couple spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area.[5]

Lyell Family Grave in Brookwood Cemetery with a memorial to Lyell

During the 1840s, Lyell travelled to the United States and Canada, and wrote two popular travel-and-geology books: Travels in North America (1845) and A Second Visit to the United States (1849). After the Great Chicago Fire, Lyell was one of the first to donate books to help found the Chicago Public Library. In 1866, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Lyell's wife died in 1873, and two years later (in 1875) Lyell himself died as he was revising the twelfth edition of Principles. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.[5][6] Lyell was knighted (Kt) in 1848,[7] and later, in 1864, made a baronet (Bt),[8] which is an hereditary honour. He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1858 and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society in 1866. Mount Lyell, the highest peak in Yosemite National Park, is named after him; the crater Lyell on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honour; Mount Lyell in western Tasmania, Australia, located in a profitable mining area, bears Lyell's name; and the Lyell Range in north-west Western Australia is named for him as well. In Southwest Nelson in the South Island of New Zealand, the Lyell Range, Lyell River and the gold mining town of Lyell (now only a camping site) were all named after Lyell.[9] The jawless fish Cephalaspis lyelli, from the Old Red Sandstone of southern Scotland, was named by Louis Agassiz in honour of Lyell.[10]

Career and major writings

Lyell had private means, and earned further income as an author. 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. From 1830 onward his books provided both income and fame. Each of his three major books was a work continually in progress. All three went through multiple editions during his lifetime, although many of his friends (such as Darwin) thought the first edition of the Principles was the best written.[11][12] Lyell used each edition to incorporate additional material, rearrange existing material, and revisit old conclusions in light of new evidence.

Lyell between 1865 and 1870

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 propounded the doctrine of uniformitarianism.[13] It was a work of synthesis, backed by his own personal observations on his travels.

The central argument in Principles was that the present is the key to the past – a concept of the Scottish Enlightenment which David Hume had stated as "all inferences from experience suppose ... that the future will resemble the past", and James Hutton had described when he wrote in 1788 that "from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter."[14] 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 a powerful influence on the young Charles Darwin. Lyell asked Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, to search for erratic boulders on the survey voyage of the Beagle, and just before it set out FitzRoy gave Darwin Volume 1 of the first edition of Lyell's Principles. When the Beagle made its 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 considered the ideas of Lamarck in some detail. Lyell rejected Lamarck's idea of organic evolution, proposing instead "Centres of Creation" to explain diversity and territory of species. However, as discussed below, many of his letters show he was fairly open to the idea of evolution.[15] In geology Darwin was very much Lyell's disciple, and brought back observations and his own original theorising, including ideas about the formation of atolls, which supported Lyell's uniformitarianism. On the return of the Beagle (October 1836) Lyell invited Darwin to dinner and from then on they were close friends. Although Darwin discussed evolutionary ideas with him from 1842, Lyell continued to reject evolution in each of the first nine editions of the Principles. He encouraged Darwin to publish, and following the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species, Lyell finally offered a tepid endorsement of evolution in the tenth edition of Principles.

The frontispiece from Elements of Geology

Elements of Geology began as the fourth volume of the third edition of Principles: Lyell intended the book to act as a suitable field guide for students of geology.[3] The systematic, factual description of geological formations of different ages contained in Principles grew so unwieldy, however, that Lyell split it off as the Elements 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. The book was widely regarded as a disappointment because of Lyell's equivocal treatment of evolution. Lyell, a devout Christian, had great difficulty reconciling his beliefs with natural selection.[16]

Scientific contributions

Lyell's geological interests ranged from volcanoes and geological dynamics through stratigraphy, palaeontology, 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 drew his explanations from field studies conducted directly before he went to work on the founding geology text.[4] He was, along with the earlier John Playfair, the major advocate of James Hutton's idea of uniformitarianism, that the earth was shaped entirely by slow-moving forces still in operation today, acting over a very long period of time. This was in contrast to catastrophism, a geologic idea of abrupt changes, which had been adapted in England to support belief in Noah's flood. Describing the importance of uniformitarianism on contemporary geology, Lyell wrote,

Never was there a doctrine more calculated to foster indolence, and to blunt the keen edge of curiosity, than this assumption of the discordance between the former and the existing causes of change... The student was taught to despond from the first. Geology, it was affirmed, could never arise to the rank of an exact science... [With catastrophism] we see the ancient spirit of speculation revived, and a desire manifestly shown to cut, rather than patiently untie, the Gordian Knot.-Sir Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 1854 edition, p.196; quoted by Stephen Jay Gould.[17]

Lyell saw himself as "the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses."[18] The two terms, uniformitarianism and catastrophism, were both coined by William Whewell;[19] in 1866 R. Grove suggested the simpler term continuity for Lyell's view, but the old terms persisted. In various revised editions (12 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.

Geological Surveys

Lyell noted the "economic advantages" that geological surveys could provide, citing their felicity in mineral-rich countries and provinces. Modern surveys, like the US Geological Survey, map and exhibit the natural resources within the country. So, in endorsing surveys, as well as advancing the study of geology, Lyell helped to forward the business of modern extractive industries, such as the coal and oil industry.

Volcanoes and geological dynamics

Lyell argued that volcanoes like Vesuvius had built up gradually.

Before the work of Lyell, phenomena such as earthquakes were understood by the destruction that they brought. One of the contributions that Lyell made in Principles was to explain the cause of earthquakes.[20] Lyell, in contrast focused on recent earthquakes (150 yrs), evidenced by surface irregularities such as faults, fissures, stratigraphic displacements and depressions.[20]

Lyell's work on volcanoes focused largely on Vesuvius and Etna, both of which he had earlier studied. His conclusions supported gradual building of volcanoes, so-called "backed up-building",[3] as opposed to the upheaval argument supported by other geologists.


Lyell's most important specific work was in the field of stratigraphy. From May 1828, until February 1829, he travelled with Roderick Impey Murchison (1792–1871) to the south of France (Auvergne volcanic district) and to Italy.[3][5][21] In these areas he concluded that the recent strata (rock layers) 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. He also renamed the traditional Primary, Secondary and Tertiary periods (now called eras) to Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, which nomenclature was gradually accepted worldwide.


Lateral moraine on a glacier joining the Gorner Glacier, Zermatt, Switzerland.

In Principles of Geology (first edition, vol. 3, Ch. 2, 1833)[5] 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.[22] Today some of Lyell's mechanisms for geologic processes have been disproven, though many have stood the test of time.[4] His observational methods and general analytical framework remain in use today as foundational principles in geology.[4]


Lyell first received a copy of one of Lamarck's books from Mantell in 1827, when he was on circuit. He thanked Mantell in a letter which includes this enthusiastic passage:

"I devoured Lamark... his theories delighted me... I am glad that he has been courageous enough and logical enough to admit that his argument, if pushed as far as it must go, if worth anything, would prove that men may have come from the Ourang-Outang. But after all, what changes species may really undergo!... That the Earth is quite as old as he supposes, has long been my creed..."[23]
Charles Darwin

In the second volume of the first edition of Principles Lyell explicitly rejected the mechanism of Lamark on the transmutation of species, and was doubtful whether species were mutable.[24] However, privately, in letters, he was more open to the possibility of evolution:

"If I had stated... the possibility of the introduction or origination of fresh species being a natural, in contradistinction to a miraculous process, I should have raised a host of prejudices against me, which are unfortunately opposed at every step to any philosopher who attempts to address the public on these mysterious subjects".[25]

This letter makes it clear that his equivocation on evolution was, at least at first, a deliberate tactic. As a result of his letters and, no doubt, personal conversations, Huxley and Haeckel were convinced that, at the time he wrote Principles, he believed new species had arisen by natural methods. Both Whewell and Sedgwick wrote worried letters to him about this.[26]

During the Beagle survey expedition from 1831 to 1836, Darwin read Lyell's Principles as they were published, and made geological findings supporting Lyell's ideas. On return, he became a close personal friend, and Lyell was one of the first scientists to support On the Origin of Species, though he did not subscribe to all its contents. Lyell was also a friend of Darwin's closest colleagues, Hooker and Huxley, but unlike them he struggled to square his religious beliefs with evolution. This inner struggle has been much commented on. He had particular difficulty in believing in natural selection as the main motive force in evolution.[27][28][29]

Lyell and Hooker were instrumental in arranging the peaceful co-publication of the theory of natural selection by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858: each had arrived at the theory independently. Lyell's data on stratigraphy were important because Darwin thought that populations of an organism changed slowly, requiring "geologic time".

Although Lyell did not publicly accept evolution (descent with modification) at the time of writing the Principles,[30] after the Darwin–Wallace papers and the Origin Lyell wrote in his notebook:

3 May 1860: "Mr. Darwin has written a work which will constitute an era in geology & natural history to show that... the descendants of common parents may become in the course of ages so unlike each other as to be entitled to rank as a distinct species, from each other or from some of their progenitors".[31]

Lyell's acceptance of natural selection, Darwin's proposed mechanism for evolution, was equivocal, and came in the tenth edition of Principles.[4][32] The Antiquity of Man (published in early February 1863, just before Huxley's Man's place in nature) drew these comments from Darwin to Huxley:

"I am fearfully disappointed at Lyell's excessive caution" and "The book is a mere 'digest' ".[33]

Quite strong remarks: no doubt Darwin resented Lyell's repeated suggestion that he owed a lot to Lamarck, whom he (Darwin) had always specifically rejected. Darwin's daughter Henrietta (Etty) wrote to her father: "Is it fair that Lyell always calls your theory a modification of Lamarck's?" [34][35]

In other respects Antiquity was a success. It sold well, and it "shattered the tacit agreement that mankind should be the sole preserve of theologians and historians".[36] But when Lyell wrote that it remained a profound mystery how the huge gulf between man and beast could be bridged, Darwin wrote "Oh!" in the margin of his copy.[16]


California's Mount Lyell group

Places named after Lyell:


Principles of Geology

Online first edition

Details of publication

Main article: Principles of Geology

Elements of Geology

Travels in North America

Antiquity of Man

Life, Letters, and Journals


  1. Cannon, Walter F. "The impact of uniformitarianism: two letters from John Herschel to Charles Lyell, 1836–1837." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1961): 301–314.
  2. Google maps, including terrain and satellite.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Bailey, Edward 1962. Charles Lyell. Nelson, London.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wilson 1973.
  5. 1 2 3 4 MaComber 1997.
  6. Westminster Abbey.
  7. The London Gazette: no. 20905. p. 3692. 13 October 1848.
  8. The London Gazette: no. 22878. p. 3665. 22 July 1864.
  10. "Cephalaspis lyelli". The Natural History Museum. 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  11. Darwin, F. (1887). Life and letters of Charles Darwin. II. London. p. 90.
  12. Darwin, F; Seward, A.C. (1903). More letters of Charles Darwin. II. London. p. 232.
  13. Thanukos 2012.
  14. Mathieson, =Elizabeth Lincoln (13 May 2002). "The Present is the Key to the Past is the Key to the Future". The Geological Society of America. Retrieved 28 September 2010.
  15. Judd gives a number of examples: Judd J.W. 1910. The coming of evolution. Cambridge.
  16. 1 2 W.F., Bynum (1984). "Charles Lyell's Antiquity of Man and its critics". J. Hist Biol. 17 (2): 153–187. doi:10.1007/BF00143731. JSTOR 4330890.
  17. Galilei, Galileo (2001). Stephen Jay Gould, ed. Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. New York: Modern Science Library. pp. ix–x.
  18. Porter 1976, p. 91.
  19. Whewell, William 1837. History of the Inductive Sciences, vol. IV of the Historical and Philosophical Works of William Whewell. Chapter VIII The two antagonistic doctrines of geology. [reprint of 3rd edition of 1857, publ. Cass 1967].
  20. 1 2 Adams, Frank D. The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences. Dover Publications, Inc., 1938.
  21. Stafford, Robert A. Scientist of Empire. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  22. Lyell, Charles (1881). "XXIV". Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell. John Murray. p. 110.
    You hint at icebergs and northern waves. The former has no doubt had its influence, and when icebergs turn over, or fall to pieces, huge waves are caused not merely from the north. But it has always seemed to me that much more influence ought to be attributed to simple denudation where beds of loose sand, gravel, or mud were upheaved, and sometimes alternately depressed and upraised in an open sea. The exposure of such destructible materials must have led to the confusion you allude to, but much less so where the beds were protected in fiords, &c. The broken fossils found in these strata would agree with my denudation hypothesis, which I think strengthened by the frequent regular re-stratification of the beds containing the deep and shallow water species.
  23. Lyell K. 1881. The life and letters of Sir Charles Lyell. 2 vols, London. vol. 1 p. 168
  24. Lyell C. 1830–33. The principles of geology. Murray, London. vol. 2, Chapter 2.
  25. Lyell to William Whewell, 7 March 1837. In Lyell K. 1881. The life and letters of Sir Charles Lyell. 2 vols, London. vol. 2 p. 5
  26. Judd J.W. 1910. The coming of evolution. Cambridge. Chapter 8, pp. 83–86.
  27. Bowler P.J. 2003. Evolution: the history of an idea. 3rd ed, University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-23693-9 pp. 129–134, 149–150, 215
  28. Mayr E. 1982. The growth of biological thought. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36446-5 (esp pp. 375–381, 404–408).
  29. M., Bartholomew (1973). "Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell's response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man". Brit J Hist Sci. 6 (3): 261–303. doi:10.1017/S0007087400016265. JSTOR 4025445. PMID 11615533.
  30. Lyell C. 1830–33. The principles of geology. Murray, London. vol. 2, pp. 20–21.
  31. Wilson, Leonard G. (ed) 1970. Sir Charles Lyell's scientific journals on the species question. Yale University Press. p. 407
  32. Desmond A. 1982. Archetypes and Ancestors: palaeontology in Victorian London Blond & Briggs, London. page 179: "Even Charles Lyell agreed... that 'natural selection was a force quite subordinate to that variety-making or creative power to which all the wonders of the organic world must be referred.' "
  33. Burkhardt F. and Smith S. 1982–present. The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge, vol. 11, pp. 173, 181.
  34. Burkhardt F. and Smith S. 1982–present. The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge, vol. 11, p. 223.
  35. Cape, ISBN 1-84413-314-1 Browne, E. Janet 2002. Charles Darwin: the power of place. Volume 2 of a biography. Cape, London. page 219
  36. Browne, E. Janet 2002. Charles Darwin: the power of place. Volume 2 of a biography. Cape, London. p. 218


Image source

Baronetage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baronet
(of Kinnordy)
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