Although born to the Laird of Kinnordy in the county of Angus, Lyell was actually raised in Hampshire, England. He was educated at Oxford University, studying Classics, before spending his early career as a lawyer. However, he had always been interested in the natural sciences, and his interest in geology had been triggered at university whilst attending lectures given by William Buckland (1784 – 1856). Although a lawyer until 1827, Lyell had spent the previous few years immersing himself in the world of science (including his election into the Royal Society in 1826) and upon leaving the legal profession he devoted his life to geology.
Following a trip to Italy in 1828 where he studied Tertiary rocks at Mount Etna, he used the proportion of recent to extinct species of fossil shells to divide up geological time into groups: Eocene (dawn of recent), Miocene (less of recent) and Pliocene (more of recent) – time zones (‘epochs’) still used today, though much refined.
Lyell agreed with James Hutton’s theory that the landscape had evolved over millions of years of (a theory named ‘Uniformitarianism’ at the time). Lyell’s argument was that the processes observed today such as the action of wind, rain, volcanoes and earthquakes, could be used to explain the geological history of our landscapes. In essence, he believed that “the present is the key to the past”.
From 1830 to 1833 he produced his most important piece of writing – ‘The Principles of Geology’ (in three volumes). Further works included ‘Elements of Geology’ in 1838 and ‘The Antiquity of Man’ in 1863. He continued to republish his books throughout his life, each edition being written to take new developments into account.
Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’ was read by Charles Darwin as he travelled on the HMS Beagle. Lyell had proposed that all species remained unchanged since their creation, but that new species were occasionally created and others became extinct. This ‘non-progressionist’ theory was in fact the basis upon which Darwin formed his Theory of Evolution by natural selection. On his return from his travels, Darwin and Lyell became great friends and Lyell later came to accept Darwin’s theory.
Lyell became Professor of Geology at King’s College, London in 1831 and President of the Geological Society in 1835. In 1848 he was knighted by Queen Victoria and made a Baron in 1864. On his death he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Bailey, Sir Edward. 1962. Charles Lyell. London, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd.