Charles Lyell


July 6, 2022

Charles Lyell (Kinnordy, Forfarshire, November 14, 1797-London, February 22, 1875) was a British geologist,[1] one of the founders of modern geology. Lyell was one of the most prominent representatives of uniformitarianism and geological gradualism.


Principles of geology (Principles of Geology), published between 1830 and 1833 in several volumes, is his most outstanding work. According to the uniformist thesis, already formulated by James Hutton, the father of modern geology, the Earth would have formed slowly over long periods of time and from the same physical forces that govern geological phenomena today (uniformism): erosion , earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, etc. This idea is opposed to catastrophism, the thesis according to which the Earth would have been modeled by a series of great catastrophes in a relatively short time. The work has three dimensions:[2] Actualism: explanation of past phenomena from the same causes that operate today. Uniformity: past geological phenomena are uniform, excluding any catastrophic phenomenon. Dynamic Equilibrium: Earth's history is governed by a constant cycle of creation and destruction.

Dynamic equilibrium theory

Lyell formulates his theory of dynamic equilibrium in the geological context, and then applies it to the world of the organic: In the history of the Earth, Lyell distinguishes two basic processes of geological morphogenesis, two processes that would have occurred periodically, compensating each other: aqueous phenomena (erosion and sedimentation) and igneous phenomena (volcanic and seismic). At the same time, in the history of life, Lyell supposed that there had been successive periods of extinction and creation of species: the random movement of the continents would have caused profound climatic changes and many species, unable to emigrate or compete with other biological groups, they would have become extinct, being replaced by others created by natural laws.


Principles of Geology became the most influential geology work of the 19th century and the good sales of its successive editions was the main source of support for its author. Charles Darwin read the first volume of Lyell's work during his voyage of exploration on the HMS Beagle and wrote that the Principles of Geology had changed his way of looking at the world, being a fundamental inspiration for The Origin of Species. Literary authors such as Herman Melville or Alfred Tennyson also drew inspiration from Lyell's works for his portrayal of the action of the forces of nature. The Spanish geologist Joaquín Ezquerra del Bayo promptly translated it into Spanish (1847).[3] In turn, this book was influenced by another, written 45 years earlier by James Hutton and entitled Theory of the Earth.[4]


Lyell was born in Scotland but spent his childhood in England, being the eldest of his parents' ten children. He was educated in various private schools. His hobby was collecting insects. At nineteen he entered Oxford University, where he took, among others, classes in Geology from the geologist William Buckland. After receiving a bachelor's degree in letters he decided to study law, but spent a lot of time on geological excursions and was a member of several scientific associations.[1] In 1825 he became a lawyer, but his father's money allowed him to continue his geological studies, so that same year he managed to publish his first scientific articles. From May 1828 to February 1829 he made a long journey through France and Italy, where he found evidence that the Earth's geology can be explained by natural causes. When he returned to London he began writing his book Principles of Geology, the first volume of which was published