Lyell, Charles


Charles Lyell (1797–1875) a British geologist, well known for his ‘uniformitarian’ geology, his arguments on geological time and the Earth's age, his influence on Darwin and the application of Darwinian theory to humans. His theory involved the piecemeal extinction and emergence of species, the latter by some unknown process. The gradual changeover of forms allowed a ‘statistical’ subdivision of the Tertiary according to the percentages of extant species. Lyell envisaged the slow rise and fall of land in different parts of the globe (which idea was supported by observations of the so‐called ‘Temple of Serapis’ near Naples). Such movements led to climate changes, according to the proportion of high land located at high latitudes at different times. Thereby, Lyell tried to accommodate the evidence for the ‘Ice Age’.

Keywords: geology; uniformitarianism; fossils; species; age of earth; tertiary classification; environmental determinism; palaeoanthropology; stratigraphy; vertical earth movements; ice age

Figure 1.

Charles Lyell.

Figure 2.

Frontispiece and title page of Lyell's Principles of Geology, Volume 1, 1830.


Further Reading

Bartholomew M (1973) Lyell and evolution: an account of Lyell's response to the prospect of an evolutionary ancestry for man. British Journal for the History of Science 6: 261–303.

Gould SJ (1987) Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hodge MJS (1990) Darwin studies at work: a re‐examination of three decisive years (1835–37). In: Levere T and Shea W (eds) Nature, Experiment, and the Sciences, pp. 249–274. Dordrecht; Boston; London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Lyell Centenary Issue (1976) British Journal for the History of Science 9(2): 91–240.

Rudwick MJS (1969) Lyell on Etna and the antiquity of the earth. In: Schneer CJ (ed.) Toward a History of Geology, pp. 288–304. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rudwick MJS (1970) The strategy of Lyell's Principles of Geology. Isis 61: 4–33.

Rudwick MJS (1978) Charles Lyell's dream of a statistical palaeontology. Palaeontology 21: 225–244.

Rudwick MJS (2005) Lyell and Darwin, Geologists: Studies in the Earth Sciences in the Age of Reform. Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate Variorum.

Rudwick MJS (2008) Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform. Chicago; London: Chicago University Press.

Secord JA (ed.) (1997) Charles Lyell: Principles of geology. London: Penguin Books.

Wilson LG (ed.) (1970) Sir Charles Lyell's Journals on the Species Question. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilson LG (1972) Charles Lyell: The Years to 1841: The Revolution in Geology. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Wilson LG (1998) Lyell in America: Transatlantic Geology, 1841–1853. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Oldroyd, David(Dec 2010) Lyell, Charles. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0002524.pub2]