Charles Lyell (1797-1875)

Sir Charles Lyell was a geologist and influential friend of Charles Darwin. His work led to the acceptance of uniformitarianism in geology.

Lyell was born in Kinnordy in Forfarshire, Scotland, the eldest of ten children. His father was a wealthy lawyer and botanist who first introduced his son to the study of nature. The place of his birth must have also been influential, situated as it was in the valley of the Highland Boundary Fault, a particularly famous Scottish geological feature.

He studied classics at Exeter College, Oxford, graduating with a master’s degree in 1821. By 1827 his deteriorating eyesight had forced him to abandon his initial profession as a lawyer, which enabled him to take up his real interest, geology, as a full-time career. Having already been elected joint Secretary of the Geological Society in 1823, Lyell took up the position of Professor of Geology at King’s College London in the 1830s.

Lyell produced three major books that he continually revised over his lifetime in the light of new evidence. Principles of Geology (1830-33) is the most influential, arguing that observable geological processes in the present could and should be used to explain finds from the past. This was a uniformitarian view of geology that assumed the constancy of natural laws from far in the past to the present; Lyell contributed much to this becoming accepted.

Charles Darwin was very much influenced by Lyell’s concept of tiny geological changes adding up over time to significant change; Darwin’s copy of Principles on the Beagle enabled him to uncover geological history on his travels through studying rock formations. Lyell had written an extensive refutation in this first book of J B Lamarck’s evolutionary theory, which actually did more to spread his views than counter them; the famous explanation for the length of a giraffe’s neck commonly believed to be given by Lamarck, for example, is actually a derisive illustration by Lyell. Although he and Darwin were close friends following the Beagle’s return in 1836, Lyell as a devout Christian continued to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution until the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, after which, in the tenth edition of Principles, he did eventually offer some support for the idea.

Lyell’s other contributions include an explanation for the cause of earthquakes, the endorsement of geological surveys, and the categorisation of strata or rock layers by the proportion of marine shells contained in each.

Lyell was knighted, made a baronet and in 1858 received the Copley Medal. He died in 1875 in London while revising the 12th edition of the Principles of Geology, and is buried in Westminster Abbey.