Charles Lyell


Charles Lyell : biography

14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875


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. 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.

Lyell saw himself as "the spiritual saviour of geology, freeing the science from the old dispensation of Moses." The two terms, uniformitarianism and catastrophism, were both coined by William Whewell;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]. 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 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.

Volcanoes and geological dynamics

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.Adams, Frank D. The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences. Dover Publications, Inc., 1938. Lyell, in contrast focused on 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.Stafford, Robert A. Scientist of Empire. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press, 1989. 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. He also renamed the traditional Primary, Secondary and Tertiary periods (now called eras) to Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic, which nomenclature was gradually accepted worldwide.