Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell (1797–1875) was a geologist who popularised uniformitarianism, and who was vocal in his belief that science and religion should be kept separate.

Charles Lyell was born in Scotland on November 14, 1797. His father was a little-known botanist who exposed Lyell to nature at a very early age. In 1816, at the age of nineteen, Lyell attended Oxford University, where he developed an interest in geology thanks in part to the lectures of William Buckland.[1] His interest in geology was accompanied by a passion for a number of other fields of study including mathematics, the legal system and the classics. Subsequently, Lyell would pursue a legal career upon receiving his BA from Oxford in 1816.

Shortly thereafter, Lyell began to gravitate towards the sciences. His failing eyesight, due to a "chronic weakness of the eyes", is said to have been a factor in his decision to pursue the geological sciences.[2] In 1819, he was elected a member of the Linnean and Geological Societies, where he often took part in debates. He was able to communicate his first paper, entitled "On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire", in 1822.[3] By 1827 Lyell was becoming a popular voice in geological research, and an influential scientific theorist.

Because Lyell was a close friend to Charles Darwin, it comes as no surprise that Lyell's support for the theory of evolution stemmed from his study of On the Origin of Species. Lyell accepted the theory of natural selection as the root of the evolutionary process and extrapolated on the subject in his tenth edition of Principles of Geology. Lyell wrote The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man in 1863.

In 1832 Lyell married Mary Horner of Bonn. Throughout the rest of his life Mary was greatly involved in his work as well as the presentation of his ideas to the public. Lyell became the president of the Geological Society in 1835. After his successes in Britain, Lyell travelled to the U.S.A. and Canada. Lyell was knighted in 1848. He also won the Copley Medal in 1858 and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of England in 1866.

By this time Lyell's vision had completely failed him. He died on February 22, 1875, and is buried at Westminster Abbey in London, England.


At Oxford University, Lyell studied under William Buckland, a well-known catastrophist. However, Lyell started to disagree with Buckland when he began to connect the concepts of catastrophism with the Bible. This troubled Lyell, who wanted to develop a dialogue for geology that could be independent from that of "wild speculations" or the "supernatural".[4] Thus, Lyell turned to another scientist for a new kind of inspiration — James Hutton. Hutton had developed the argument that the earth had been formed out of gradual changes throughout time and not random catastrophes. This new idea prompted Lyell to travel to Europe to find more evidence of the gradual changes presented by Hutton. Lyell came to conclude that numerous natural events throughout the course of time resulted in the formation of the earth as we recognize it now. He found a link between the formation of mountains and the occurrence of earthquakes and eruptions, as well as the occurrence of older rocks being found beneath volcanoes and evidence of sea-level change.[5]


While in Italy studying the marine remains of the Italian Tertiary Strata, Lyell conjured up the idea to divide the strata into different subgroups. He figured out that the strata could be divided into categories based on the number and proportion of marine shells found within it. Thus he coulddivide the Tertiary period into three parts: the Pliocene, the Miocene and the Eocene epochs.[6]

"In the first place, if we examine the whole series of known animals, from one extremity to the other, when they are arranged in the order of their natural relations, we find that we may pass progressively, or at least with very few interruptions, from beings of more simple to those of a more compound structure ; and in proportion as the complexity of their organization increases, the number and dignity of their faculties increase also. Among plants a similar approximation to a graduated scale of being is apparent. Secondly, it appears from geological observations, that plants and animals of more simple organization existed on the globe before the appearance of those of more compound structure, and the latter were successively formed at later periods: each new race being more fully developed than the most perfect of the preceding era."[7]