1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Charles Lyell

Sir Charles Lyell
Scottish geologist
(1797-1875)




SIR CHARLES LYELL (1797-1875), one of the greatest of geological thinkers, was the eldest son of Charles Lyell of Kiunordy, Forfarshire, and was born November 14, 1797, on the family estate in Scotland. His father was a man of literary and scientific tastes, known both as a botanist and as the translator of the Vita Nuova and the Convito of Dante. From his boyhood Lyell had a strong inclination for natural history, especially entomology, a taste which he was able to cultivate in the New Forest, to which his family had removed soon after his birth. He was educated chiefly at Midhurst, and then at Exeter College, Oxford, where the lectures of Dr Buckland first opened out to him that field of geological study which became the passion of his life. After taking his degree in 1821, he entered Lincoln's Inn, and in 1825, after a delay caused by chronic weakness of the eyes, he was called to the bar, and went on the western circuit for two years. During the whole of this time, though not neglecting his profession, he was slowly gravitating towards the life of a student of science. In 1819 he had been elected a member of the Linnean and Geological Societies, communicating his first paper, " On the Marls of Forfarshire," to the latter society in 1822, and acting as one of the honorary secretaries in 1823. In that year he went to France, with introductions to Cuvier, Humboldt, and other men of science, and in 1824 made a geological tour in Scotland in company with Dr Buckland. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, from which in later years he received both the Copley and Royal medals ; and in 1827 he finally abandoned the legal profession, and devoted himself to geology.

Long prior to this, however, he had already begun the sketch of his principal work, The Principles of Geology. The subsidiary title, " An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation," gives the keynote of the task to which Lyell devoted his life, and in pursuance of which he made geological tours over large portions of the Continent, and in later years to Madeira and to the United States and Canada. The journey undertaken with Murchison in 1828 was especially fruitful in results, for not only did it give rise to two joint papers on the volcanic district of Auvergne and the Tertiary formations of Aix-en-Provence, but it was apparently while examining Signor Bonelli's collection of Tertiary shells at Turin, and subsequently when (after parting with Murchison) he studied the marine remains of the Tertiary rocks of Ischia and Sicily, that Lyell conceived the idea of dividing the Tertiaries into three or four principal groups, characterized by the proportion of recent to extinct species of shells. To these groups, after consulting Dr Whewoll as to the best nomenclature, he gave the names now universally adopted—Eocene (dawn of recent), Miocene (less of recent), and Pliocene (more of recent) Upper and Lower; and with the assistance of M. Deshayes, who had arrived by independent researches at very similar views, he drew up a table of shells in illustration of this classification. The first volume of the Principles of Geology appeared in 1830, and the second in January 1832. Received at first with considerable opposition, at least so far as its leading theory was concerned, the work had ultimately a great success, and it had already reached a second edition in 1833 when the third volume, dealing with the successive formations of the earth's crust, was added.

In August 1838 Lyell published the Elements of Geology, which, from being originally an expansion of the fourth book of the Principles, became a standard work of reference in stratigraphical and palaeontologies 1 geology. This book went through six editions in Lyell's lifetime (some intermediate ones being styled Manual of Elementary Geology), and in 1871 a smaller work, the Student's Elements of Geology, was based upon it. His third great work, The Antiquity of Man, appeared in 1863, and ran through three editions in one year. In this he laid before the world a general survey of the arguments for man's early appearance on the earth, derived from the discoveries of worked flint implements in Post-Pliocene strata in the Sonime valley and elsewhere, and in it also he first gave in his adhesion to Darwin's theory of the origin of species. A fourth edition appeared in 1873.

While thus occupied with his writings, Lyell lost no opportunity of carrying out original investigations, and whenever absent from his literary work in London was always to be heard of in the field either in England or on the Continent. In 1831 he held for a short time the post of professor of geology at King's College, London, and delivered while there a highly appreciated course of lectures, which became the foundation of the Elements of Geology. In 1832 he married Mary, eldest daughter of Leonard Horner, who became thenceforward associated with him in all his literary and scientific labours, aiding him substantially with her ready intellect, and by her pre-eminent social qualities making his home a centre of attraction to all men of talent. In 1834 he made an excursion to Denmark and Sweden, the result of which was his celebrated paper to the Royal Society, " On the Proofs of the Gradual Rising of Land in Certain Parts of Sweden," and another to the Geological Society, " On the Cretaceous and Tertiary Strata of Seeland and Moen." In 1837 he was again in Norway and Denmark, and in 1841 he spent a year in travelling through the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia. This last journey, together with a second one to America in 1845, when he visited Boston, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the alluvial plain of the Mississippi, gave rise, not only to numerous original papers, but also to the publication of two works not exclusively geological, Travels in North America (1845) and A Second Visit to the United States (1849). In the second work especially he did much to promote good feeling between England and America, by showing a just appreciation of American society and institutions. It was in the course of these journeys that he estimated the rate of recession of the falls of Niagara, and of the annual average accumulation of alluvial matter in the delta of the Mississippi, and studied those vegetable accumulations in the " Great Dismal Swamp " of Virginia, which he afterwards used in illustrating the formation of beds of coal. He also studied with great care the coal-formations in Nova Scotia, and discovered in company with Dr Dawson of Montreal the earliest known land shell, Pupa vetusta, in the hollow stem of a Sigillaria. But it was chiefly in bringing a thorough knowledge of European geology to bear upon the more widely extended and massive formations of the North American continent that Lyell rendered immense service to geologists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Besides these Transatlantic journeys Lyell undertook geological excursions at different times to all parts of the British Isles, to Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Madeira, and Teneriffe, in which latter islands, which he visited in company with G. Hartung, he accumulated much valuable evidence on the age and deposition of lava-beds and the formation of volcanic cones. He also revisited Sicily in 1858, when he made such observations upon the structure of Etna as entirely refuted the theory of " craters of elevation" upheld by Von Buch and LTie de Beaumont (see Roy. Soc. Proc, 1859).

Lyell received the honour of knighthood in 1848, and was created a baronet in 1864, in which year he was president of the British Association, meeting at Bath. His services to the science of geology were now universally recognized both at home and abroad, and he was a member of almost every Continental and American Society. He was elected corresponding member of the French Institute and of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, and was created a knight of the Prussian Order of Merit.

During the latter years of his life his sight, always weak, failed him altogether, and he became very feeble. He died on February 22, 1875, in his seventy-eighth year, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His funeral was attended by an immense concourse of public men, all his personal friends ; for by young and old the veteran master of geology was deeply loved and revered. His gentle nature, his intense love of truth, his anxiety to help and encourage those who cultivated his favourite science, endeared him to all who approached him; while the extreme freshness of his mind kept him free from that dogmatism which is so often the accompaniment of old age, and i enabled him to accept and appreciate heartily the work of younger men.





In order to appreciate justly the influence of Lyefl's works upon the geology of the 19th century, it is necessary to bear in mind what was the state of knowledge upon this subject at the time when he entered the field in 1822. The rival schools of Werner and Hutton were then at the height of their famous contest, and, while the vehement discussions between the Neptunists and Vulcanists gave an impetus to the study of rock-masses, the one true principle upon which Hutton himself had so strongly insisted had dropped into oblivion, namely, that " in examining things present we have data from which to reason with regard to what has been," and that therefore we have no need to imagine other causes than those now in action to account for the past. Meanwhile a reaction against the speculative discussions which had so long occupied the world inclined many of the leaders of geological study to confine themselves to the collection of facts, and the science became for a time a mere branch of mineralogy, which, though most valuable in laying a true foundation, was quite inadequate to deal with the j earth's history, since it took little or no account of organic remains, and their real significance was not in the least understood. Both in England and France, however, materials were being accumulated which prepared the way for a wider basis. In 1799 William Smith, travelling over England, first grouped the formations according to the fossils contained in them, and in 1815 he published his geological map of England, thus making the first step in stratigraphical geology ; and almost simultaneously, in 1812, Cuvier's restorations of the extinct mammalia of the Paris basin, and Lamarck's classification of recent and fossil shells, gave the first impulse to palaeontology. But the older schools of geologists, hampered by preconceived theories, were not prepared to make full use of the new facts. C'uvier himself, while insisting on the value of fossils in the chronology of the earth, yet retained all the old notions of sudden and violent convulsions, attributing the destruction of the fauna of the Paris basin to the deluge, or to the bursting of lakes caused by a sudden revolution of the globe ; and in like manner Buckland, Sedgwick, and their compeers still explained everything by the diluvial theory, attributing the erratic blocks strewn over the Continent to the universal deluge, and accepting as demonstrated Elie de Beaumont's theory of the sudden elevation of mountain chains. Sedgwick in his address to the Geological Society in 1834 even spoke confidently of the extinct forms in geological strata as "indications of change and of an adjusting power altogether different from what we commonly understand by the laws of nature."

To shake off the influence, of preconceived opinions such as these there was needed afresh impartial mind capable of appreciating the evidence which had been accumulating during the past thirty years, and especially alive to the discoveries of palaeontology. These requisites were found in Lyell. His early study of natural history gave him advantages possessed by few of his contemporaries, while the clear insight and calm judgment for which he was thus early remarkable led him alone of the younger school of geologists to grasp the truth enunciated by Hutton of the power of gradual changes to produce great results if only time enough be allowed. This truth he illustrated with such a wealth of facts, derived from his own observation and that of others, that in the first edition of the Principles we find sketched in broad outline, and demonstrated by actual examples, nearly all those fundamental truths which, though often vehemently opposed at the time, have now become so much the accepted basis of geology that it is difficult to realize how novel they were in 1830.

Even the opening historical chapters cut boldly at the root of catastrophic geology by showing how the prejudices concerning the short duration of past time on the globe had led men to the mistaken conclusion that "centuries were implied where the characters imported thousands, and thousands where the language of nature signified millions"; and the arguments for the uniform action of nature followed with overwhelming force, as Lyell proceeded to lay under contribution all countries of the world to show how the face of the earth is now being altered by rivers, torrents, springs, currents and tides, volcanoes and earthquakes.

In the second volume the changes in the organic world were used to teach the same lesson. The proofs of extinction of specific forms in historical times were accumulated to explain that the presence of extinct forms in geological formations was the effect of gradual causes and not of sudden and violent catastrophes, while the tranquil imbedding of organic remains now in progress was used to strengthen the previous argument derived from inorganic causes for the slow and gradual accumulation of fossiliferous strata. It was in this volume that Lyell made in 1830 his celebrated attack upon Lamarck's theory of the transmutation of species, and, though this has often been held as a want of appreciation on his part of the arguments of the great naturalist, yet, as we shall see presently, it was really a curious illustration of the impartiality of Lyell's mind (though acting under what he himself would have called the influence of "inherited belief") that this theory, so eminently calculated to harmonize with his own views of the power of minute causes to work appreciable change, was rejected by him because it rested upon an assumption of a law of innate progressive development, which could not be shown to be in accordance with natural facts.

The third volume of the Principles, which did not appear till two years later, completed the task which Lyell had set himself, by interpreting the fragmentary record which remains to us of the successive geological formations of the earth's crust witli their imbedded remains and the associated volcanic rocks, and thus restoring as far as possible the past history of the earth. Through all its successive editions this volume has remained the standard text-book of geological history, as its two predecessors have of the philosophical principles of the science.

So immediate was the effect of this remarkable work that from the time of its publication the earlier cosmogonies disappeared from the field, and even Cuvier's Theory of the Earth never reached another edition. Yet, although geologists began insensibly to follow the lines which Lyell had marked out, they were long in receiving the principles upon which these were founded. Sedgwick, in the address already quoted, while pronouncing a eulogy on the book as a whole, regretted that "from the very title-page of bis work Mr Lyell seems to stand forward as the champion of a great leading doctrine of the Huttonian hypothesis," i.e., the explanation of former changes by reference to causes now in operation; and Lyell's oldest friend and fellow-labourer Murchison remained to the last the exponent of the converse truth, that we have no evidence forbidding the possibility of a greater intensity of the forces in action during past periods. This form of catastrophic geology has indeed always prevailed upon the Continent, and still does so in a great degree. There is, how ever, nothing necessarily antagonistic in the two theories ; and, if Lyell in his earlier years accentuated perhaps somewhat too strongly the necessity for making unlimited drafts upon the "bank of time," as he often called it, to the exclusion of intensified volcanic or aqueous action, it was because he had to combat the opposite and deeply rooted error.

Between the year 1853, when the 9th edition of the Principles was published, and 1863, when he " read his recantation," as he himself would sometimes express it, in the Antiquity of Man, the discovery of the flint implements associated with bones of extinct mammalia at Abbeville, and subsequently in the valley of the Thames and elsewhere, threw an entirely new light upon the data of human existence upon the earth, allowing far more time for the development of the numerous varieties of mankind than had hitherto been supposed possible. In conjunction with these discoveries came also the evidence adduced by Darwin and Wallace of the action of natural causes in producing modifications in living forms,—thus applying the very same principle to organic life which Hutton and Lyell had used to explain the grpdual modification of the earth's surface. Then it was that Lyell, who had rejected Lamarck's theory because it rested on a purely imaginary law of innate progressive development, at once accepted "natural selection" as a vera causa helping to explain those evidences of the gradual change in organic forms presented in successive geological formations. By recognizing the value of the new principle, and incorporating its results in his Principles, Lyell completed in 1872 in a fuller sense than he had contemplated in 1850 the task of" explaining former changes of the earth's surface (including the history of its living inhabitants) by reference to causes now in action " ; while at the same time he gave to his original conception that element of expansion and pliability which was alone needed to ensure its continued influence and the permanent celebrity of its author.

Besides his books, Lyell contributed seventy-six geological papers to various societies. The only authorities yet published lor his life arc Life and Letters of Sir Charles Lyell, 1881, edited by Mrs Lyell, and the obituary notices in 1875 at the Royal and other Societies. (A. B. B.)






The above article was written by Arabella B. Buckley (Mrs. A. B. Fisher).



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