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LYELL, CHARLES (b. Kinnordy, Kirriemuir, Angus,
Scotland, 14 November 1797; d. London, England,
22 February 1875), geology, evolutionary biology.
In addition to his knighthood and baronetcy Lyell
received many honors. The Royal Society awarded
him the Copley Medal and the Royal Medal; the
Geological Society, the Wollaston Medal. He was
elected a member of the American Philosophical
Society and a corresponding member of the Institut
de France and of the Royal Academy of Sciences at
Berlin, in addition to membership in many other
scientific and learned societies.
Lyell established geology as a science. He applied
to the subject the strictest discipline of rigorous
reasoning and expunged it of all that was merely
fanciful and speculative. His criteria for admissible
causes in geology stand today more strongly than
ever; and the kind of detailed analogy which he drew
between ancient and modern conditions in oceans,
lakes, streams, and estuaries foreshadowed the modern
development of paleoecology. In certain theoretical
interpretations Lyell was clearly wrong. Until 1857
he defended the view that erratic boulders had been
transported by icebergs, whereas for the most part
they had been transported by continental glaciation.
Lyell also exaggerated the role of the sea in shaping
the form of the land and did not fully appreciate the
immense scale of subaerial denudation in determining
landforms. For many years he mistakenly upheld the
fixity of species. Yet Lyell's theoretical positions, even
when wrong, were always carefully reasoned; and he
showed an extraordinary capacity even into old age
to understand the meaning of new evidence and to
change his mind.
After Lyell's death his reputation, together with
that of Darwin, suffered a serious decline--principally
because, in the controversy over the age of the earth
initiated in 1865 by Lord Kelvin, Kelvin and other
physicists had asserted that the earth could not be
older than 10 to 25 million years. Within these time
limits geologists could not account for the long series
of geological changes which had occurred, in terms
of the uniform action of natural causes. Consequently
there was a tendency for geologists to revert to
catastrophic interpretations of past geological changes.
Lord Kelvin's estimate of the age of the earth was
based on calculations of the rate of heat loss by the
earth, assuming that it had begun as an incandescent
molten mass, approximately at the temperature of
the sun, and had gradually cooled according to the
laws of radiation. Kelvin had admitted that his calculations
would be invalidated if any steady source of
heat were to be discovered within the earth.
As early as 1830 Lyell had concluded that the
occurrence of volcanic activity throughout all periods
of geological history required a steady source of heat
within the earth, and he had rejected the concept of
a gradually cooling earth. In 1904 Ernest Rutherford
pointed out that a steady source of heat within the
earth had been found in the discovery of radioactivity.
Estimates of the age of the earth were rapidly revised
upward and the modern estimates, which are in excess
of 4,000 million years, are great enough to allow the
uniform action of gradual causes to produce all the
geological changes that have occurred, just as they
are also adequate to allow the gradual action of
natural selection to produce all the results of evolution
in biology. Lyell's faith in geological explanation in
terms of the uniform action of observable natural
processes has been vindicated by the progress of his
1. C. Prévost, “De l'importance de l'étude des corps
vivants pour la géologie positive,” in Mémoires de la
d'histoire naturelle de Paris, 1 (1823), 259-268, see 262.
2. “On a Dike of Serpentine, Cutting Through Sandstone, in
the County of Forfar,” in Edinburgh Journal of Science,
(1825), 112, 126.
3. “On the Structure of Lavas Which Have Consolidated on
Steep Slopes; With Remarks on the Mode of Origin of
Mount Etna, and on the Theory of ‘Craters of Elevation,’”
in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 148
703-786, see 761.
4. The Antiquity of Man, 2nd ed. (London, 1863), p. 393.
5. Darwin to Lyell, 6 Mar. 1863, in The Life and Letters of
Charles Darwin (London, 1888), III, 11-13.
6. Lyell to Darwin, 11 Mar. 1863, in Life, Letters and Journals
of Sir Charles Lyell Bart. (London, 1881), II, 363-364.
I. ORIGINAL WORKS.
There is a fairly complete list of
Lyell's scientific papers in the Royal Society's Catalogue
of Scientific Papers and of all his writings in appendix E to
Life, Letters and Journals of Sir Charles Lyell Bart.,
Katherine M. Lyell, ed., 2 vols. (London, 1881). For
Lyell's publications up to 1841, the bibliography in
Leonard G. Wilson, Charles Lyell, the Years to 1841: The
Revolution in Geology (New Haven-London, 1972), contains
some items omitted from the other two lists and
complete references to his early articles in the Quarterly
Selected papers are “On a Recent Formation of Freshwater
Limestone in Forfarshire, and on Some Recent
Deposits of Freshwater Marl; With a Comparison of
Recent With Ancient Freshwater Formations; and an
Appendix on the Gyrogonite or Seed Vessel of the Chara”
(1824), in Transactions of the Geological Society of London,
2nd ser., 2 (1829), 73-96; “The Bakerian Lecture. On the
Proofs of a Gradual Rising of the Land in Certain Parts
of Sweden,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal
Society, 125 (1835), 1-38; “On the Relative Ages of the
Tertiary Deposits Commonly Called ‘Crag’ in the Counties
of Norfolk and Suffolk,” in Magazine of Natural History,
n.s. 3 (1839), 313-330; “On the Upright Fossil Trees
Found at Different Levels in the Coal Strata of Cumberland,