Science & People

Charles Lyell | His life, theories, and quotes

Today, Charles Lyell is best known as the geologist who Charles Darwin read his books during his famous voyage with Beagle when he was young, and took guidance in his studies on the theory of evolution. Charles Lyell is one of the pioneers of the development of geology, but he is also an important personality on his own. His most important work, Principles of Geology, was first printed in three volumes between 1830 and 1833, but he continued to revise it until his death. In fact, most of these revisions were the result of an ongoing dialogue with other geologists who appreciate and adopt certain parts of his work, but also strongly criticize some aspects. In some important respects, the earth sciences have emerged as a result of this fruitful interaction.

Who is Charles Lyell?

A lithograph of Charles Lyell made by Thomas Herbert Maguire in 1849, who was known for making portraits of eminent people, including a series that includes 60 scientists.

Lyell was from a senior family of Scottish landowners but grew up in the south of England and remained Londoner throughout his adult life; He went to the family home on the shores of Northern Scotland only on holidays. After his student years in Oxford, he completed her law internship in London; He acted as a deputy for a short period of time until it turned out that he could earn a decent income from authorship. He married Mary Horner, the highly educated daughter of Leonard Horner, the chancellor of University College London; they had no children. During a visit from his young friend Darwin, he found Lyell neglecting his wife while passionately talking about geology, he wrote to his fiancé with a sarcasm that he wants to practice on neglecting. His wife, who worked as a research assistant at home and on the extensive trips in Europe and later in the United States, was actually invaluable to Lyell.

He was a liberal constitutionalist in British politics, but culturally cosmopolitan; The French language was accepted as the language of science and culture at that time and she was fluent and felt at home next to the intellectuals of all nations. She was raised with the Anglican faith, but she decided to go to the Unitarian church in London when grown up.

To rebuild the hidden history of the globe

Lyell's ideal cross section of the earth's crust, from the inner cover of the 1838 Elements of Geology.
Lyell's ideal cross section of the earth's crust, from the inner cover of the 1838 Elements of Geology. He argued that all bedrock species continue to form today, as in the distant past, because the earth is in stable dynamic equilibrium.

Charles Lyell united two opposite intellectual facts that shaped the earth sciences before him. He embraced the first one when he attended the classes of charismatic geology professor William Buckland when he was a student at Oxford. Buckland was adopted the approach advocated by the great Parisian zoologist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier called on geologists to "remove the limits of time". He called on geologists not to expand the time scale, which has long been considered far beyond the imagination of man, but to rebuild this long history with reliable details.

Similar to historians' use of documents to reconstruct human history, geologists had to clue fossils and other traces of the long past. Lyell adopted Cuvier's approach as the correct principle for his chosen discipline like his teacher Buckland; geologists should have been the historian of the earth, rebuilding the earth's history from any traces of the past that reached today.

However, Lyell was deeply influenced by James Hutton's geology model, which sees the earth as unchanged and therefore a mass governed by the ahistorical laws. Hutton previously portrayed the earth as a physical system that maintained a continuous dynamic balance, similar to the Solar System of planets orbiting the Sun. Mathematician and astronomer John Playfair made this model available to Lyell's generation. Thanks to Playfair, Lyell focused his attention on what would later be known as "modern causes."

The modern causes

British Geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche's 1830 caricature that made fun of the assumptions presented by Lyell's Principles of Geology.
British Geologist and paleontologist Henry De la Beche's 1830 caricature that made fun of the assumptions presented by Lyell's Principles of Geology.

According to the theory, today there are geological processes that their effectiveness could be directly observed–such as volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and sedimentation–and can be used directly to interpret the traces of activities in unobservable pre-human history. Other geologists had already said "the present is the key to the past", but Charles Lyell was convinced that modern causes were appropriate for describing all but not some of the traces of the distant past. He claimed that it was not necessary to assume that there were unprecedented disasters in human experience.

At the center of the geological discussions was a disaster assumption of this magnitude. Maybe Buckland and many other geologists were at the dawn of human history, but at a very late time in the history of the earth, in many places they saw the physical traces of what they call the "geological flood", which was envisioned as mega-tsunami, which hit most of the world, if not all over the world. Buckland used it to identify the "Noah's Flood" very early in the history of written humanity, thereby confirming the historical validity of the Bible and, in particular, to ensure the acceptance of newly established geology science in Oxford.

Buckland and many other geologists were seeing the physical traces of what they call the "global deluge" or "flood geology" imagined as a mega-tsunami that struck most of Europe if not all Earth at the dawn of human history, but also at extremely late Earth history.

Lyell, who was very critical of the cultural sovereignty of the Church of England, opposed it, arguing that all the evidence of very early similar disasters in the history of the Earth, like the flood in question, could be explained by ordinary processes.

Reading the fossil records

The illustrated frontispiece of Lyell's Principles of Geology, 1830-1833
The illustrated frontispiece of Lyell's Principles of Geology, 1830-1833, is the most notable picture in the book. Roman ruins and columns near Naples still that halfway covered with sea mussels and shells

The confidence that Lyell nurtured in the explanatory power of these modern causes strengthened with extensive trips to France and Italy in 1828-1829. He saw with his own eyes the magnitude of the effects of volcanoes such as Etna and Vezuv. Field studies showed evidence that the crust of the earth was at least as dynamic as the early history of the planet throughout human history. He found a new chain of evidence in Sicily that connects human history with geological history and gives an idea of ​​the size of the earth. Other geologists (including many who considered themselves religious) said they had already accepted it. But Charles Lyell believed that they could not accept it in practice. According to him, the assumption that any disaster was extraordinary was made unnecessary by correctly understanding the power of modern causes and by realizing the length of time these forces were in effect. He suggested that all the evidence presented was Earth's slow and imposing cycles of change. These were events that did not follow a prominent direction in the long term and were in dynamic balance.

When he returned to England, Lyell used the persuasive language that he acquired in his short career as a lawyer to reinterpret Buckland-style geology in Hutton's terms in his comprehensive Principles of Geology work. The readers of the book in Britain were particularly impressed by the reconstruction of the highly expanded, immense history of the globe by Lyell. Because it was containing contrasts to the generally accepted views in the scriptures. In the rest of Europe, the public had begun to become conscious of the methods of interpretation of the scriptures by scholars. For a long time, the Earth's time scale magnitude was to be inured, and Lyell's approach did not seem so unusual.

Oldest rocks

Uniformitarianism used one phrase to explain the principle of uniformity or invariance: The Present is the Key to the Past

Charles Lyell devoted much of his work to what he called "the alphabet and grammar of geology". Lyell enriched his observations with numerous printed sources and first-hand reports to demonstrate the impact of modern causes, which would result in enormous effects–when given enough time–, such as the rise of new mountain ranges. All of these were sincerely embraced by other geologists, increasingly embracing Lyell's emphasis on modern causes in their own work. However, they also questioned whether all traces of the past could be explained in this way.

However, there were no satisfactory scientific answers to some events in the holy book. For example, the flood geology could have caused such a shock and disaster only with the "extraordinary" intensity of ordinary processes. Their avoidant approach was justified in a short time, in the 1840s, the great flood hypothesis was replaced by a geologically recent ice age interpretation. Buckland was one of the first to adopt this new idea, while Lyell was reluctant to accept the reality of such a major disaster.

In the last volume of the Principles of Geology, Lyell used the "alphabet and grammar" of geology to decipher the traces of the Earth's past and reconstruct the nearest periods that are basically very similar to the world today. He argued that the oldest rocks had undergone a major change in the depths of the Earth as a result of their "transformation" processes, so that they could not provide any evidence of the origin of the planet. He thus concluded that the Earth is indeed a system of dynamic equilibrium in the endless cycle of slow and regular change, as Hutton had long suggested.

Charles Lyell, Hutton, and Darwin

Darwin's follow-up to Charles Lyell helped us find answers to hundreds of questions about vitality.

The Huttonian Earth model approach brought by Lyell was criticized violently by geologists for its inconvenience to the approach when compared to the modern causes; It was this approach, not modern causes, that would later be called "pro-uniformity." Lyell was now the only example of uniformitarian geologists. Above all, other geologists pointed to increasingly clear evidence in the fossil record that there was a certain direction in the history of life on Earth. The most striking evidence was the appearance of fish, then reptiles, later mammals, and eventually humans among vertebrates.

Of course, Lyell was aware of all this, but not necessarily convincingly, he had to explain it with the disorder in the fossil record. He associated the cyclical structure of the physical phases of the Earth with similar events in the history of life. As a result, geologists have found that Lyell's theorizing method is far from reliable.

Charles Lyell had been very helpful in creating a productive synthesis between the highly historical model of the geological science referred to with Buckland and Hutton, and its highly physical model. It turned out that the Earth had an uncertain and unexpected history just like human history. But at the same time, all these events could be attributed to the non-historical geological processes based on the immutable laws of nature. Lyell's student, Darwin, who would first introduce himself as a geologist, had effectively transferred this synthesis to biology. But Charles Lyell's success deserves to be recognized on his own, as the methods of reasoning used on Earth are still the basis of modern geology today.

Charles Lyell quotes

  • “Amidst the vicissitudes of the earth's surface, species cannot be immortal, but must perish, one after another, like the individuals which compose them. There is no possibility of escaping from this conclusion.”
  • “The present is the key to the past”
  • “Hitherto, no rival hypothesis has been proposed as a substitute for the doctrine of transmutation; for 'independent creation,' as it is often termed, or the direct intervention of the Supreme Cause, must simply be considered as an avowal that we deem the question to lie beyond the domain of science.”
  • “Thus, although we are mere sojourners on the surface of the planet, chained to a mere point in space, enduring but for a moment of time, the human mind is not only enabled to number worlds beyond the unassisted ken of mortal eye, but to trace the events of indefinite ages before the creation of our race, and is not even withheld from penetrating into the dark secrets of the ocean, or the solid globe.”
  • “I may conclude this chapter by quoting a saying of Professor Agassiz, that whenever a new and startling fact is brought to light in science, people first say, 'it is not true,' then that 'it is contrary to religion,' and lastly, 'that everybody knew it before.”
  • “It must have appeared almost as improbable to the earlier geologists, that the laws of earthquakes should one day throw light on the origin of mountains, as it must to the first astronomers, that the fall of an apple should assist in explaining the motions of the moon.”
  • “Geology is intimately related to almost all the physical sciences, as history is to the moral. An”
  • “Each species may have had its origin in a single pair, or individual, where an individual was sufficient, and species may have been created in succession at such times and in such places as to enable them to multiply and endure for an appointed period, and occupy an appointed space on the globe.”