The man who invented the Principles of Geology
British Geologist and Lawyer Famous for Theory of Uniformitarianism. Foremost geologist of his day, Charles Lyell’s highly popular principles of geology had a huge influence on Charles Darwin.
Baron Charles Lyell was a Scottish lawyer, geologist and advocate of uniformitarianism. Famous in shaping 19th century ideas about science, he wrote the immensely popular Principles of Geology (three volumes, 1830-33), which went into 12 editions in his lifetime.
His other works include Elements of Geology and The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man. The year the founder of modern geology, James Hutton, died, Charles Lyell was born.
Life of Sir Charles Lyell in a Nutshell
Charles Lyell was born on November 14, 1797 at Forfarshire, Scotland, the eldest of 10 children. He entered Exeter, Oxford, where he was captivated by the lectures of William Buckland, a geologist and clergyman. After getting his B.A. degree, he entered London’s Inn to study law in 1819. The same year, he was also elected to the Linnean and Geographical Societies, where he presented his first paper, “On a recent formation of freshwater limestone in Forfarshire.”
Lyell was later called to the Bar to serve on the “Western Circuit” for two years. In 1826, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. The following year he formally abandoned the legal profession to pursue geology.
He married Mary Horner in 1832.
From Earth’s Catastrophic Theory into Uniformitarianism
In the dawning of the 19th century, the common belief was that in few major events had shaped the earth, in between these catastrophic incidents, the Earth had remained unchanged.
Funding his work and from the publication of his books, Charles Lyell traveled the world including Europe, the U.S. and Canada studying rock formations. His observations led him to replace catastrophe theory with uniformitarianism, which proposed that the Earth changed gradually as constantly-present forces acted on it.
He also attributed ages to rock strata, by looking at the fossils that they contained. This introduced a new way of studying the Earth leading further to modern geology founded by his countryman James Hutton.
Lyell argued that only a quarter of the surface of the planet can be observed and that the rest lies beneath the oceans and Earth’s surface. He also talked about the deeper effects of lava and rock strata formation.
Four Tertiary Periods or Ages of Rocks
Lyell studied rock formation and devised a system for dating them, based on fossilized marine shells he found encased in the layers. He provided them titles and in consultation with mineralogist William Whewell, Lyell came up with his naming convention.
He divided the period into four epochs with Eocene as the youngest rock and Pleistocene, the oldest in progression. These names have remained in common use:
Final Insights on Lyell
Although Charles Lyell’s geological principles greatly influenced Charles Darwin, Lyell’s spiritual beliefs, on the other hand, conflicted with Darwin’s concept of natural selection.
For his exemplary work in the advancement of geology, in 1848, he received a knighthood from Queen Victoria, and in 1864, he became a Baron. He died in London on February 22, 1875, aged 78.
Works by Charles Lyell
- Principles of Geology, Three Vols, 1830-1833
- Elements of Geology, 1838
- The Antiquity of Man, 1863