Lyell Charles

A child of privilege as the eldest son of a welloff Scottish laird, Charles Lyell was born at the family estate Kinnordy, in the mountain country of eastern Scotland. While he was still a toddler, the family moved to New Forest, near Southampton, England, and he grew up collecting butterflies and aquatic insects in the woods near his home. His father, an amateur

naturalist and literary man, had opened up the world of nature to him, although he pushed him to become a lawyer. At nineteen, Lyell entered Oxford University, where his interest in geology was encouraged by his teacher, the famed geologist William Buckland. Eventually, Lyell became a lawyer, but he usually spent his summers hiking throughout Europe, exploring geological formations wherever he went.

During a visit to Paris in 1823, he met the famous naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Georges Cuvier and then spent weeks studying the geology of the French countryside. Although he was admitted to the bar in 1825, he never practiced. With his father's blessings and financial support, he turned all his energies to making his mark in geology.

Between 1830 and 1833, Lyell published his Principles of Geology, which was vastly influential in shaping the modern earth sciences. He established the principle that the geologic past can be understood in terms of natural processes we can still observe today, such as rivers depositing layers of silt, wind and water eroding landscapes, and glaciers advancing or retreating. This idea, known as actualism, had first been put forward by another Scots savant, James Hutton, in his Theory of the Earth (1778), some fifty years earlier. Like Hutton, Lyell thought that major geological changes are generally slow and steady, and obey constant, eternal natural laws, operating at about the same intensity in the past as they do today. His development of the idea, and methods of applying it, later came to be known as Uniformitarianism—as opposed to Cata-strophism, the then widely accepted view that the earth had been shaped by supernatural forces that were different from any that could be observed today.

In 1831, just before young Charles Darwin embarked on his five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle, a Cambridge professor gave him the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830) to "read it for the facts and ignore the wild theories." Darwin devoured the book, which was brilliantly written, thoroughly grounded in fieldwork, and seemed to place the study of geology on a new and sensible footing. If slow, small forces operating over immense spans of time had reshaped the earth many times over, why couldn't living creatures develop in a similar manner? "I am tempted to extend Lyell's methods even farther than he does," Darwin wrote. Later, he said, "I really think my books come half out of Lyell's brain. I see through his eyes."

But Lyell, who became Darwin's friend and mentor after the voyage, had a hard time returning the compliment. Although for years he privately encouraged Darwin's evolutionary work, Lyell could not bring himself to endorse his friend's theories in his own popular geology books. Nevertheless, later in life he grudgingly acknowledged the growing evidence. Darwin was frustrated and angry with Lyell's reluctance to support evolutionary ideas wholeheartedly in print, though he did so in private conversations. Lyell simply could not, as he put it, "go the whole Orang."

Lyell subtitled his great work An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. His systematic observations of erosion, sedimentation, and volcanic formations enabled him to clarify many long-standing mysteries about the earth's features. What was really peculiar to Lyell, however, are two ideas rarely associated with his Principles of Geology—the older ideas that earth and water trade substances and shape each other, maintaining some kind of long-range balance (the steady-state earth), and that time and life proceed in planetary cycles.

Lyell continued to revise his Principles of Geology through thirteen editions. It had started out as a long, connected argument, but later became a jumble of bits and pieces added to include newer research. Finally, the book itself became a career and produced substantial revenues for its author.

By 1840, Lyell's uniformitarian principles (encompassing actualism, progressionism, vast geological time scales, a steady-state earth, and more) had exerted a huge influence. It was not until 1863, however, in his book The Antiquity of Man, that he publicly supported Darwin's ideas about the continuity of life in the natural world—though he still skirted the issue of humankind. "Perhaps," he grudgingly conceded, "community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking while they often imagined that they were looking for some unknown plan of creation."

Inasmuch as Sir Charles Lyell's uniformi-tarian geology strongly influenced Charles Darwin, it is commonly—and mistakenly— assumed that Lyell believed that the earth itself had "evolved," undergoing progressive or directional change. Oddly enough, Lyell never questioned the very old idea of a "steady-state" earth, and he wove it into his uniformitarian doctrine. Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould has argued that Lyell's famous books appear in hindsight as a mixed bag of seemingly irreconcilable ideas. For instance, Lyell believed in a steady-state earth, resisted Darwin's demonstrations that evolution had taken place, and believed that time moved in great recurrent cycles. He thought that perhaps, given enough time, the flying reptiles and dinosaurs would one day return.

—Richard Milner

See also: Darwin, Charles; Deposition; Evolution; Geological Time Scale; Glaciation; Hutton, James


Gould, Stephen Jay. 1987. Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Jordanova, L., and R. Porter. 1997. Images of the Earth: Essays in the History of Environmental Sciences. British Monographs 1. London: British Society for the History of Science; Milner, Richard. 1994. "Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Naturalist." New York: Facts on File.

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