Charles Lyell Emily Warren

Charles Lyell was one of the most important geologists of the 19th century. He was largely responsible for the development and acceptance of uniformitarianism, the concept that features on the earth's surface developed over a long period of time due to chemical, physical, and biological processes (Macomber)

Charles Lyell was born on November 14th, 1797, in Kinnordy, Forfarshire, Scotland. His family moved to New Forest, England when he was two years old. The son of a naturalist, Charles was the oldest of 10 children and he spent much of his time reading in his father's study (Taylor). This study included many books about geology. He also spent many years of his childhood collecting butterflies and aquatic insects. He attended many private schools in his youth but he much preferred his own intellectual pursuits.
At the age of 19, Lyell attended Oxford University (Taylor). It was here that he began to study geology. His interest in the subject was due in large part to the lectures of William Buckland, a geologist who believed that Noah's flood and other biblical disasters shaped the earth's surface. Lyell spent his breaks traveling and conducting geological studies (Macomber). Lyell went on to practice law, but his true passion was always geology. He continued to research and study geology throughout his adult life.

In 1832, he married Mary Horner, the daughter of a geologist. She shared Lyell's interest in geology and she participated enthusiastically in his work. Lyell spent the remainder of his life publishing books about his research and giving lectures. He still preferred to conduct geological research and he continued to travel and study geology in the field. Lyell died in London on February 22nd, 1875 (Macomber).

Lyell's main conclusion from his research was that the theory or concept of uniformitarianism, first brought up by James Hutton during the 1700's was valid and true. Lyell studied the movement of rocks and he was able to come to the conclusion that the process and pace of changes in the earth's surface have consistently been the same throughout history. Uniformitarianism was idea that features on the earth's surface, such as mountains, oceans, and canyons, developed over long periods of time from chemical, physical, and biological processe. This was contrary to the common belief at the time that the earth's surface were shaped by monumental natural disasters such as ones depicted in the bible. With his research and this idea of uniformitarianism, Lyell was able to prove that the earth was much older than originally thought. He was the first to argue that the world was older than 300 million years (Macomber).

Lyell published his first edition of Principles of Geology in 1830. In this book he describes uniformitarianism and brings Hutton's ideas about the earth's surface to light. Lyell ended up writing 12 editions for his collection Principles of Geology. He experienced much success from these books. Many people read his books and he was able to make uniformitarianism a widely accepted idea. His books brought him to be recognized as one of the leading geologists of the time and in 1848, he was knighted and made a baronet (Taylor).

Although Lyell's theory was generally accepted, he did face opposition. Catastrophism was the common theory at the time. It was the belief that the earth's surface was shaped by catastrophes, hence the name catastrophism. People supported this theory because it was able to incorporate aspects of the bible. Many catastrophists argued that the catastrophes noted in the bible, such as Noah's flood, were the ones that shaped the earth's surface. Lyell's theory went against this theory and many people saw this as a contradiction to the bible. Also, Lyell was the first to argue that the earth was older than 300 million years (Macomber). This was seen by many as impossible and unimaginable.
Charles Lyell was able to change the world's view on geology and science in general. Because of him, uniformitarianism became widely accepted. The age of the earth was originally based on the bible, but Lyell challenged this idea. Although his estimate was wrong, it opened the idea that the age of the earth is much older than previously thought. He also greatly influenced some of the other great scientists of his time. One of his closest friends was Charles Darwin. Darwin spent much of his time reading Lyell's books and his theory of evolution stemmed much from Lyell's ideas (Macomber). Lyell's research is the one of the factors that has helped shape our understanding of the world. Much of what we know about how features on the earth's surface were formed comes from uniformitarianism and the ideas of Lyell.
“The very first place which I examined . . . showed me clearly the wonderful superiority of Lyell’s manner of treating geology, compared with that of any other author, whose work I had with me or ever afterwards read.” - Charles Darwin

Macomber, Richard W. "Sir Charles Lyell, Baronet." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 15 Feb. 2007. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

The Foundation of Modern Geology. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

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