Sir Charles Lyell: Theory & Biography

Instructor: Suzanne Rebert

Suzanne has taught college economics, geography, and statistics, and has master's degrees in agricultural economics and marine affairs (marine resource management).

Read about Sir Charles Lyell, a lawyer and geologist who learned to read the evidence hidden in rocks. Learn about uniformitarianism and take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Introduction

The great Scottish-born geologist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) grew up exploring the woods and hills near his family's home, and although he studied law, he later returned to his true passion. He is best known for his fieldwork and writing on uniformitarianism, the idea that the laws of science worked the same way in the past as they do now and that geological change is a very slow process. During his travels in Europe and North America, Lyell observed geology in action -- such as lava erupting from Mount Etna, or rivers depositing sediment -- and understood that these same processes explained the existence of mountains, valleys, and other landforms.

Frontispiece of Principles of Geology, the most important book written by Lyell
Frontispiece of Principles of Geology, the most important book written by Lyell

The Theory of Uniformitarianism

In the late 18th century, an earlier Scottish geologist, James Hutton, had noticed that layers of sedimentary rock looked exactly like the sand and other small particles being laid down by modern oceans and lakes. Hutton went on to find much evidence that rocks had been melting, recrystallizing, eroding, and getting redeposited again and again for a long time -- maybe even forever.

In Hutton's and Lyell's day, however, most people believed that the Earth was young and had been created by incredibly powerful forces no longer at work by the time human civilization came along. For example, when they looked at layers of rock containing the fossils of marine animals, they believed these had all been deposited in a relatively short time after Noah's flood as described in the Book of Genesis. Volcanoes, they thought, must have grown all at once from gigantic eruptions -- megadisasters that no humans or other advanced animals could have survived. The scientists who held this view, which came to be known as catastrophism, believed this partly because of their interpretation of religious texts, but also because it's difficult for people to understand time scales much longer than a human life. For instance, if the Grand Canyon was formed by the same processes that cause small cracks in the sidewalk on your street, it must have taken millions of years, and this is a hard concept for humans to get comfortable with.

Thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, like Hutton and Lyell, believed that people can understand their environment by studying the laws of nature and carefully observing the world. They also believed that since natural laws don't change, understanding the present helps us understand what happened in the past. Lyell, and Hutton before him, found extensive evidence that even the largest landforms had been shaped slowly over very long periods of time. This theory was given the name uniformitarianism by William Whewell, a reviewer of Lyell's most important book, Principles of Geology.

Portrait of Sir Charles Lyell
Portrait of Sir Charles Lyell

Life of Sir Charles Lyell

Although Lyell was born in Scotland, he moved with his family to the New Forest area of England as a young child. His father was a lawyer and botanist who taught Charles and his many siblings how to appreciate and study nature. The young Lyell studied classics at Oxford, but also attended the geology lectures of William Buckland. Although he practiced law for a few years after Oxford, Lyell soon turned to geology full-time.

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