Lyell was born in Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland, the eldest of
ten children. Lyell's father, also named Charles, was a botanist
of minor repute and first exposed the younger Charles to the study
of nature. Charles spent much of his childhood at the family’s
other home, Bartley lodge in the New Forest, where his interest
in the natural world was sparked. Having attended Exeter College,
Oxford ending in 1816, Lyell encountered geology as a serious profession
under the wing of William Buckland.
graduation he took a professional detour into the law, but dabbled
in geology. His first paper, "On a Recent Formation of Freshwater
Limestone in Forfarshire", was presented in 1822. By 1827
he had abandoned the law and embarked on a long geological career
that would result in the widespread acceptance of the ideas proposed
by James Hutton a few decades before.
the 1840s, he travelled to the United States and Canada, which
resulted in his writing two popular travel-and-geology books:
1845's Travels in North America and A Second Visit to the United
States (from 1849). He won the Copley Medal in 1858 and the Wollaston
Medal in 1866. Upon his death in 1875, he was buried in Westminster
crater on the Moon and a crater on Mars were named in his honour.
and Major Writings
Virtually alone among leading British geologists of his era, Lyell
supported himself by writing books about his scientific work.
He came from a prosperous family, worked briefly as a lawyer in
he 1820s, and held the post of Professor of Geology at University
College London in the 1830s, but from 1830 onward his books provided
both a comfortable living and growing fame. Each of his three
major books was a work continually in progress.
three went through multiple editions during his lifetime, and
Lyell used almost every edition as an opportunity to incorporate
additional material, rearrange existing material, and revisit
old conclusions in light of new evidence. These frequent, substantial
revisions added significant value to new editions of Lyell's books,
and helped to ensure robust sales to both the scientific community
and the general public.
of Geology, Lyell's first book, was also his most famous, most
influential, and most important. First published in three volumes
in 1830-33, it established Lyell's credentials as an important
geological theorist. This book was a major inspiration for Charles
Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle where much of what Lyell
proposed was able to be seen.
of Geology began as the fourth volume of the third edition of
Principles: A systematic, factual description of geological formations
of different ages. The material grew so unwieldy, however, that
Lyell split it off into a single volume under the Elements title
in 1838. 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.
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 1863, it went through three editions
that year, with a fourth and final edition appearing in 1873.
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 popularising the doctrine of uniformitarianism.
From 1830 to 1833 his multi-volume Principles of Geology was published.
The work's subtitle was "An Attempt to Explain the Former
Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation",
and this explains Lyell's impact on science. He was, along with
the earlier John Playfair, the major advocate of the then-controversial
idea of uniformitarianism, that the earth was shaped entirely
by slow-moving forces acting over a very long period of time.
was in contrast to catastrophism, a geologic idea that went hand-in-hand
with age of the earth as implied by biblical chronology. In various
revised editions (twelve in all, through 1872), Principles of
Geology was the most influential geological work in the middle
of the 19th century, and did much to put geology on a modern footing.
For his efforts he was knighted in 1848, then made a baronet in
Lyell's most important specific work was in the field of stratigraphy.
In 1828, he travelled to the south of France and to Italy, where
he realised that the recent strata could be categorised according
to the number and proportion of marine shells encased within.
Based on this he proposed dividing the Tertiary period into three
parts, which he named the Pliocene, Miocene, and Eocene.
Charles Darwin was a close personal friend, and Lyell was one
of the first prominent scientists to support The Origin of Species—though
he never fully accepted natural selection as the driving engine
behind evolution. In fact, Lyell was instrumental in arranging
the peaceful co-publication of the theory of natural selection
by Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858, after each discovered
it independently. Lyell's own The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity
of Man followed a few years later in 1863.