Evolutionist Charles Darwin found much inspiration in the work of his close friend and colleague, Charles Lyell. In turn, Lyell, a renowned geologist, used Darwin’s theories of evolution to influence his own bold ideas on earth science.
Reading about Charles Lyell provides a richer understanding of how the theory of evolution evolved in tandem with geological discoveries.
Charles Lyell: Early Biography
Charles Lyell was born in Kinnordy, Scotland, in 1797 and moved with his wealthy family to England two years later. He grew up in the New Forest region, where he enjoyed collecting bugs and butterflies while learning about nature from his botanist father.
Lyell attended Exeter College in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1819. He published On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire that same year.
Lyell also studied law and earned a master’s in 1821. He worked as a lawyer for a few years but never abandoned his passion for geology. He became a Royal Society fellow in 1826 and left the law profession in 1827 to advance his scientific career.
He embarked on a trip to Europe researching fossils and rocks.
Professional Biography and Legacy
For a brief time, Charles Lyell taught at King’s College in London. He stirred up controversy by debunking the commonly held belief that the Earth was only 6,000 years old, as calculated by biblical scholars. Lyell’s ideas were so scandalous that women were not allowed to attend his public lectures, presumably to protect the "delicate sensibilities" of ladies in Victorian England.
Later Lyell was befriended by many prominent scientists such as naturalist Charles Darwin and physicist Michael Faraday. Lyell’s work was highly regarded by progressive researchers, and he served as president of the prestigious Geological Society. His wife, geologist Mary Horner, accompanied him on expeditions and supported his ideas.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made Lyell a member in 1866. He died in 1875 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Other notable scientists buried at Westminster Abbey include Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. In 2018, famous physicist and Cambridge professor Stephen Hawking’s ashes were also interred there.
Connection to Theory of Evolution
During the 1800s, the common thought was that everything in heaven and on Earth was made by God and had biblical origins. The Earth was assumed to be relatively young because it was created in seven days, according to literal interpretation of the Old Testament.
Lyell disagreed and proposed that the Earth was ancient and took a very long time to form. Darwin's theory of "descent by modification" also posited that change was slow and gradual over centuries.
Some geologists tried to bridge the gulf between religion and science with so-called gap theories. For instance, fossil expert William Buckland agreed with Lyell that there was geological evidence of the planet’s ancient history, but Buckland did not think such evidence usurped biblical accounts of creation.
Lyell understood that his ideas were radical and heretical, so he filled his books with many facts and data to back up his arguments.
Charles Lyell's Fact Finding Methods
Lyell took a secular approach to conducting empirical research, analyzing data and testing theories. While studying in college, Lyell started to question the ideas of prominent geologists who linked science and religion.
He debated with Buckland, who became his mentor, who believed that geological features on the Earth’s surface like river valleys were created by catastrophes like the great flood depicted in the biblical story of Noah’s Ark.
Lyell thought that erosion gradually caused changes to the Earth’s surface.
Lyell’s attempt to debunk catastrophism went against much of the common thought at the time, especially for those in his generation. Lyell was described as a hero by Darwin for having the courage to speak scientific truths that could be construed as heresy by religious leaders.
As evidence mounted, Lyell’s work became highly regarded. In 1848, he was knighted for scientific contributions and honored with the title of Sir Charles Lyell.
Charles Lyell's Published Facts and Findings
Lyell traveled to Italy and studied Mt. Etna for years. He eventually published Principles of Geology after making revisions consistently until 1833 when the final edition was released. The original book and subsequent volumes are generally considered his best-known publications.
Lyell's work was both revered and reviled because of its polarizing view of changes of the Earth’s layers and surfaces that differed from creationist beliefs.
In 1838, Lyell published the first volume of Elements of Geology, describing European shells, rocks and fossils. Lyell was a religious man and didn't believe in evolution until later, after he read On the Origin of the Species. After that, he accepted it as a possibility, seen in his later 1863 publication of The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man and his 1865 revisions of Principles of Geology.
Charles Lyell’s Discoveries
Charles Lyell was an avid reader and explorer who amassed compelling evidence that the Earth’s mountains and valleys were formed in prehistoric times by ever-present geological forces, not cataclysmic events.
For example, in Italy he discovered that the stone pillars of the Temple of Serapis had been built on land, then submerged in water, and later pushed above ground by forces within the Earth. As noted in Principles of Geology, he determined that the time between volcanic eruptions was substantial, as indicated by the evidence of mollusks and oysters in the strata between lava flows.
Lyell had a strong influence in North America where he was invited to speak. His ideas were well respected in intellectual circles. He also studied new types of geologic formations in the United States and Canada not found in the British Isles.
Charles Lyell’s Definition of Uniformitarianism
The theory of uniformitarianism states that the Earth is shaped by forces like erosion and sedimentation, which are uniform over time. Uniformitarianism was first defined by Scottish geologist James Hutton, and later solidified with Lyell's work, Principles of Geology.
James Hutton proposed that natural laws on Earth and in the universe have always been true since the beginning of creation. He further asserted that changes are slow and happen gradually over very long periods of time.
Hutton’s and Lyell’s views were controversial and shocking when initially proposed. The radical theory of uniformitarianism went against conventional geological and religious views of the time. Lyell argued that geological forces other than unique natural catastrophes like biblical floods and violent storms shaped the Earth. Lyell also thought the process was directionless.
Contribution to Evolutionary Theory
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was heavily influenced by Lyell’s book Principles of Geology – a description of how the Earth was formed by forces that are still at work today.
While traveling aboard a British ship, the HMS Beagle_,_ Darwin applied Lyell’s principles of uniformitarianism to the study of volcanic rocks on the Canary Islands. He noted the different layers and concluded that the islands were millions of years old.
Darwin shared Lyell’s view that the present unlocks the key to the past. Darwin regarded the process of evolution as a form of “biological uniformitarianism.” Darwin, along with Alfred Wallace, pressed the theory that evolution happens gradually through random inherited variations in populations of organisms leading to natural selection and survival of the fittest.
Lyell and Darwin discovered extinct species, but wrongly dismissed the claims of Georges Cuvier from France that animal extinctions were caused by asteroids, volcanoes and sudden sea level changes.
- Famous Scientists: Charles Lyell
- Famous Scientists: Charles Darwin
- UC Berkeley: Understanding Evolution: Uniformitarianism: Charles Lyell
- PBS: Charles Lyell: Principles of Geology
- American Museum of Natural History: James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology
- Oxford University Museum of Natural History: William Buckland
- UC Berkeley: Understanding Evolution: Extinctions: Georges Cuvier
- Impressions from a Lost World: Mary Horner Lyell
- The Guardian: Stephen Hawking's Ashes to be Buried Near Newton at Westminster Abbey
About the Author
Dr. Mary Dowd studied biology in college where she worked as a lab assistant and tutored grateful students who didn't share her love of science. Her work history includes working as a naturalist in Minnesota and Wisconsin and presenting interactive science programs to groups of all ages. She enjoys writing online articles sharing information about science and education. Currently, Dr. Dowd is a dean of students at a mid-sized university.