Charles Lyell


Charles Lyell : biography

14 November 1797 – 22 February 1875
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".Wilson, Leonard G. (ed) 1970. Sir Charles Lyell’s scientific journals on the species question. Yale University Press. p. 407

Lyell’s acceptance of natural selection, Darwin’s proposed mechanism for evolution, was equivocal, and came in the tenth edition of Principles.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.’ " 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’ ".Burkhardt F. and Smith S. 1982–present. The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge, vol. 11, pp. 173, 181.

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?" Burkhardt F. and Smith S. 1982–present. The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Cambridge, vol. 11, p. 223.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

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".Browne, E. Janet 2002. Charles Darwin: the power of place. Volume 2 of a biography. Cape, London. p. 218 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.



Places named after Lyell:

  • Mount Lyell (California)
  • Mount Lyell (Canada)
  • Lyell Land (Greenland)
  • Lyell Glacier
  • Lyell Glacier, South Georgia
  • Mount Lyell (Tasmania)

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. 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.

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." 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.