Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet, Kt FRS (November 14, 1797 – February 22, 1875) was the foremost geologist of his time and publisher of the influential work, Principles of Geology. Amassing a tremendous amount of evidence, both from his own field research and the work of others, Lyell popularized the concept that the geological features of the Earth could best be explained by the slow action of geological forces that have occurred throughout Earth's history and are still occurring today. This view, known as uniformitarianism, was in contrast to the theory that the Earth's features were formed in single, catastrophic events and remained unchanged thereafter. Sir Charles Lyell first published Principles of Geology in 1830 and continued to publish new revisions until he died in 1875.
Lyell was a close friend and valued professional colleague of Charles Darwin and his ideas were influential in Darwin's development of his theory of evolution. Among the intersects: Darwin read Principles of Geology, which he used during his trip on the HMS Beagle to explain features he was seeing; Darwin explains species distribution in the first edition of his The Voyage of the Beagle in the light of Charles Lyell's ideas of “centres of creation”; Darwin read his first paper to the Geological Society of London on January 4, 1837 with Lyell's enthusiastic backing; and in 1858, Lyell urged Darwin to present his theory of evolution to establish precedence after Lyell read Alfred Russel Wallace's paper on speciation. Finally, after Darwin received another paper from Wallace in 1858 describing the evolutionary mechanism, with a request to send it on to Lyell, it was Lyell (along with Joseph Hooker) who famously arranged a joint co-presentation of the groundbreaking Darwin and Wallace papers at the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858.
Lyell's views countered a prevailing paradigm in the Western world in the early nineteenth century that explained the Earth's history in light of catastrophic events in line with biblical narrative of Creation and the universal deluge (Noah's flood and such deluge accounts in various cultures). The framework of a short Earth history was also part of this dominant paradigm. Building upon the views of such people as geologist James Hutton in the late 18th century, Lyell was able to amass evidence for a long Earth history and geological forces that prevail even today. Although uniformitarianism went against a prevailing religious view, in reality its concept that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe today have always operated in the universe in the past, and apply everywhere in the universe, is well in keeping with religious views. While uniformitarianism remains a key geological concept, its gradualism component is not strictly adhered to: The current consensus in geology is that Earth's history is a slow, gradual process but one punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events that have affected Earth and its inhabitants.
Lyell was born in Scotland about 15 miles north of Dundee in Kinnordy, near Kirriemuir in Forfarshire (now in Angus). He was the eldest of ten children. Lyell's father, also named Charles, was a lawyer and botanist of minor repute: it was he who first exposed his son to the study of nature.
The house/place of his birth is located in the north-west of the Central Lowlands in the valley of the Highland Boundary Fault, one of the great features of Scottish geology. Surrounding 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. Charles would have seen this striking view from his house as a child. He was also fortunate that 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. Both these places undoubtedly kindled his interest in the natural world.
Lyell entered Exeter College, Oxford in 1816, and attended the lectures of English geologist and paleontology palaeontologist William Buckland. (Among his accomplishments, Buckland wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, which he named Megalosaurus, and he was a pioneer in the use of fossilized feces, for which he coined the term coprolites, to reconstruct ancient ecosystems. Buckland also was a proponent of the Gap Theory that interpreted the biblical account of Genesis as referring to two separate episodes of creation separated by a lengthy period.) Lyell graduated B.A. second class in classics in December 1819, and M.A. 1821.
After graduation, Lyell took up law as a profession, entering Lincoln's Inn in 1820. (The Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn is one of four Inns of the Court in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong and where they are called to the Bar.) He completed a circuit through rural England, where he could observe geological phenomena. In 1821, Lyell attended Scottish naturalist and professor Robert Jameson's lectures in Edinburgh, and visited geologist/paleontologist Gideon Mantell at Lewes, in Sussex. In 1823, Lyell was elected joint secretary of the Geological Society. As his eyesight began to deteriorate, he turned to geology as a full-time profession. His first paper, "On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire", was presented in 1822. 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 idea proposed by James Hutton a few decades earlier.
In 1832, Lyell married Mary Horner of 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.
During the 1840s, Lyell traveled 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 Lyell himself died as he was revising the twelfth edition of Principles. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. Lyell was knighted (Kt), and later made a baronet (Bt), which is an hereditary honor. He was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1858 and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society in 1866. The crater Lyell on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honor. In addition, Mount Lyell in western Tasmania, Australia, located in a profitable mining area, bears Lyell’s name. The ancient jawless fish Cephalaspis lyelli, from the early Devonian, was named by Louis Agassiz in honor of Lyell.
Lyell had private means to support his career, 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 (Principles of Geology; Elements of Geology; and Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man) 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. Lyell used each edition to incorporate additional material, rearrange existing material, and revisit old conclusions in light of new evidence.
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. It was a work of synthesis, backed by his own personal observations on his travels. Lyell continued to publish new revisions until his death in 1875, when he was revising the twelfth edition of this work.
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 worded 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." In other words, 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 gave him a revolutionary insight into the geological history of the island, an insight he applied throughout his travels. With the Principles of Geology helping to explain features as the outcome of gradual processes over huge periods of time, Darwin wrote home that he was seeing landforms "as though he had the eyes of Lyell."
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. Darwin utilized this idea of "Centres of Creation" to explain species diversion in his first edition of The Voyage of the Beagle, although he soon moved beyond this view to the concept of evolution by natural selection. In geology, Darwin was very much Lyell's disciple, and brought back observations and his own original theorizing, including ideas about the formation of atolls, which supported Lyell's uniformitarianism. When the Beagle returned on October 2, 1836, Darwin was a celebrity in scientific circles. An eager Charles Lyell met Darwin on October 29 and invited Darwin to dinner and from then on they were close friends. Lyell also introduced Darwin to the up-and-coming anatomist Richard Owen, who, after working on Darwin's collection of fossil bones at his Royal College of Surgeons, caused great surprise by revealing that some were from gigantic extinct rodents and sloths, enhancing Darwin's reputation.
With Lyell's enthusiastic backing, Darwin read his first paper to the Geological Society of London on January 4, 1837, arguing that the South American landmass was slowly rising. A month later, on February 17, 1837, Lyell used his presidential address at the Geographical Society to present Owen's findings to date on Darwin's fossils, pointing out the inference that extinct species were related to current species in the same locality. At the same meeting, Darwin was elected to the Council of the Society.
Although Darwin discussed evolutionary ideas with Lyell 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.
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. 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.
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 popularizing the doctrine of uniformitarianism.
Lyell's multi-volume Principles of Geology, first published from 1830 to 1833, was a major contribution in promoting the doctrine of uniformitarism. Uniformitarianism, held 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 biblical belief and Noah's flood. Lyell's view that the slow geological processes that shaped the Earth are still occurring today was effectively captured in his book's subtitle: "An attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation." Lyell saw himself as "the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses."
Lyell drew his explanations from field studies conducted directly before he went to work on the founding geology text. He was, along with the earlier John Playfair, the major advocate of James Hutton's idea of uniformitariansm. Though Hutton believed in uniformitarianism, the idea was not widely accepted at the time.
The two terms, uniformitarianism and catastrophism, were both coined by William Whewell; 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.
Lyell left the doctrine of uniformitarianism on firm footing. He amassed a tremendous amount of evidence, both from his own field research and the work of others, that showed that rather than depending on past catastrophes, most geological features could be better explained by the slow action of present day forces, such as volcanism, earthquakes, erosion, and sedimentation. Lyell also claimed that the apparent evidence for catastrophic changes from the fossil record, and even the appearance of progression in the history of life, were illusions caused by imperfections in that record. As evidence, Lyell pointed to the Stonesfield mammal, and to the fact that certain Pleistocene strata showed a mixture of extinct and still surviving species. Lyell had significant success in convincing geologists of the idea that the geological features of the earth were largely due to the action of the same geologic forces that could be observed in the present day acting over an extended period of time. However, he was much less successful in converting people to his view of the fossil record, which he claimed showed no true progression.
Lyell noted the “economic advantages” that geological surveys could provide, citing their felicity in mineral-rich countries and provinces. Modern surveys, like the U.S. 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.
Before the work of Lyell, phenomena such as earthquakes were understood by the destruction that they wrought. One of the contributions that Lyell made in Principles was to explain the cause of earthquakes. Lyell studied recent earthquakes (150 yrs), evidenced by surface irregularities such as faults, fissures, stratigraphic displacements, and depressions.
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," 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 traveled with Roderick Impey Murchison (1792–1871) to the south of France (Auvergne volcanic district) and to Italy. In these areas, he concluded that the recent strata (rock layers) could be categorized 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 (first edition, vol. 3, Ch. 2, 1833), Lyell proposed that icebergs could be the means of transport for erratics. He conjectured that during warmer global periods, ice breaks off the poles and floats across submerged continents, carrying debris with it. 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. Today some of Lyell's mechanisms for geologic processes have been disproven, though many have stood the test of time. His observational methods and general analytical framework remain in use today as foundational principles in geology.
Lamarck was a French naturalist and an early proponent of the idea that evolution (descent with modification) occurred and proceeded in accordance with natural laws. Lamarck, however, is remembered today mainly in connection with his now superseded theory of heredity, the "inheritance of acquired traits." 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 that 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..."
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. 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".
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.
Later, as noted above, Darwin 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.
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 had actually urged Darwin to publish his theory earlier, after Lyell had read, in the spring of 1856, a paper from Wallace on the introduction of species. But Darwin pressed ahead with his work, gathering specimens and information. In December 1857, as Darwin worked on his Natural Selection manuscript, he received a letter from Wallace asking if it would delve into human origins. Sensitive to Lyell's fears, Darwin responded that "I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist." It was only after Darwin received a manuscript from Wallace on June 18, 1858, outlining very similar mechanics for speciation, that Darwin wrote to Lyell and noted: "He could not have made a better short abstract! Even his terms now stand as heads of my chapters!" Although Wallace had not requested that his essay be published, Lyell and Joseph Hooker decided to present the essay, together with excerpts from a paper that Darwin had written in 1844, and kept confidential, to the Linnean Society of London on July 1, 1858, highlighting Darwin's priority.
Lyell's data on stratigraphy were important for Darwin's theory, 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, after the Darwin-Wallace papers and the Origin Lyell wrote in his notebook:
May 3, 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".
Lyell's acceptance of natural selection, Darwin's proposed mechanism for evolution, was equivocal, as reflected in the tenth edition of Principles.. As Desmond noted, "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.'" 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' ". Darwin seemingly took exception with Lyell's repeated suggestion that Darwin 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?" 
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".J. Browne, Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. Volume 2 of a biography. (London, Cape: 2003), p. 218. ISBN 1844133141.</ref> 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.
|Baronetage of the United Kingdom
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