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Charles Lyell | Darwin Correspondence Project

Lyell himself, ironically, was reluctant to accept Darwin's model of evolution because he did not see evidence to support it. In much the same way, some scientific evidence is applauded by a community when it supports the beliefs they already have. Evidence, even when valid, that goes against this belief is either ignored or attacked as being "unscientific. Since catastrophism was associated, to some degree, with religious beliefs, it fell quickly out of favor with scientists who preferred not to believe in Creation.

Uniformitarianism presented a view that was more compatible with a naturalistic, very old world. There was evidence for both, yet scientists considered catastrophism "less scientific. It is critical to remember that an explanation may be logical, comprehensive, and have supporting data, yet still be wrong. The back-and-forth swing between these theories, as with other major discoveries throughout history, emphasizes that human beings have a tendency to believe first and find facts to fit their beliefs later.

The enabling aspect of Sir Charles Lyell's work in relationship to Charles Darwin highlights the tendency for human beings, even scientists, to accept reasons and explanations based on preference, more than merit. Learn More about Darwin's Theory of Evolution! In particular, Darwin's reading of Lyell's Principles of Geology prompted him to think of evolution as a slow process in which small changes gradually accumulate over immense spans of time.


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In this founding document of modern geology, Lyell emphasized natural law. It makes sense, he said, to assume that geological processes acting in the past were much the same as those we see today — forces such as sedimentation in rivers, erosion by wind, or deposition of ash and lava by volcanic eruptions. This is the principle of uniformitarianism, the reasonable assumption that the forces that acted in the past are of the same sort as those we see acting today.

In emphasizing these natural processes, he undermined the claims of earlier geologists many of whom had a distinct tendency to explain geological formations in terms of biblical floods. In the same way, Darwin, who took a copy of Lyell's Principles around the world with him on the voyage of the Beagle , constructed an explanation of the origin of living things in terms of natural processes.

Lyell graduated B. After graduation, Lyell took up law as a profession, entering Lincoln's Inn in He completed a circuit through rural England, where he could observe geological phenomena. In , Lyell was elected joint secretary of the Geological Society.

Sir Charles Lyell

As his eyesight began to deteriorate, he turned to geology as a full-time profession. The new couple spent their honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy on a geological tour of the area. In , he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Lyell's wife died in , 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. The crater Lyell on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honor. The ancient jawless fish Cephalaspis lyelli , from the early Devonian , was named by Louis Agassiz in honor of Lyell.

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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 s, and held the post of Professor of Geology at King's College London in the s. From 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. Principles of Geology , Lyell's first book, was also his most famous, most influential, and most important. First published in three volumes in —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 , 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 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.

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, , 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.

Charles Lyell

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, , arguing that the South American landmass was slowly rising.

A month later, on February 17, , 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 , Lyell continued to reject evolution in each of the first nine editions of the Principles.

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He encouraged Darwin to publish, and following the 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 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 , it went through three editions that year, with a fourth and final edition appearing in 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.


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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.