Charles Lyell

Born November 14, 1797 – Died February 22, 1875

He was a Scottish geologist largely responsible for the general acceptance of the view that all features of the Earth’s surface are produced by physical, chemical, and biological processes through long periods of geological time. Lyell’s achievements laid the foundations for evolutionary biology as well as for an understanding of the Earth’s development.


Charles Lyell was the son of a wealthy gentleman who had inherited a large estate in Scotland. Lyell went to university at Exeter College, Oxford. Later he moved to London where he planned to become a barrister. However his poor eyesight made this profession impossible and so Lyell turned to his real interest- science. Geology soon became his forte and as member of the Geological Society, he took part in the lively debates in the 1820s about how to reconcile the biblical account of the Flood with geological findings. Lyell is most famous for his great geological opus: The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes now in Operation (3 vols 1830-33).

Charles Darwin was greatly influenced by Lyell’s ideas of a slow, natural change of geological formations. However, Lyell was not a firm believer in evolution. It wasn’t until Darwin published On the Origin of Species that Lyell began to adopt the idea that species change over time. In 1863, Lyell wrote and published The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man which combined Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection and his own ideas rooted in Geology. Lyell’s staunch Christianity was apparent in his treatment of the Theory of Evolution as a possibility, but not a certainty.

Only during completion of a major revision of the Principles of Geology in 1865 did he fully adopt Darwin’s conclusions, however, adding powerful arguments of his own that won new adherents to Darwin’s theory. Why Lyell was hesitant in accepting Darwinism is best explained by Darwin himself: “Considering his age, his former views, and position in society, I think his action has been heroic.”

After 1865 Lyell’s activities became more restricted as his strength waned, although he never entirely gave up outdoor geology. His wife, 12 years his junior, died unexpectedly in 1873 after a short illness, leaving Lyell to write, “I endeavour by daily work at my favourite science, to forget as far as possible the dreadful change which this has made in my existence.” He died in 1875, while revising his Principles of Geology for its 12th edition, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


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