Charles Lyell

May 3, 2012 | | Comments Off on Charles Lyell

Charles Lyell was the son of a wealthy gentleman who had inherited a large estate in Scotland. Lyell went to university at Exeter College, Oxford. Later he moved to London where he planned to become a barrister. However his poor eyesight made this profession impossible and so Lyell turned to his real interest- science. Geology soon became his forte and as member of the Geological Society, he took part in the lively debates in the 1820s about how to reconcile the biblical account of the Flood with geological findings. Lyell, as well as Roderick Murchison and George Poulett Scrope became an outspoken opponent of the diluvial position. Lyell is most famous for his great geological opus:The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes now in Operation (3 vols 1830-33).
Lyell advocated what William Whewell later dubbed a uniformitarian view of geology. This assumed first of all the constancy of natural laws (except as regarded the origin of new species which was left rather vague). The kinds of causes which affected the earth in the past must be assumed to have been exactly those we see in operation today (such as erosion, sediment deposition, volcanic action, earthquakes etc.) Furthermore, these causes must be assumed to have been of the same intensity in the past as we observe them today. To demonstrate that gradual processes could be responsible for great changes, Lyell used an engraving of the temple at Serapis as his frontispiece. The temple had, during the course of human history, been above sea level, then for a long period partially submerged, and again was above sea level as attested by the dark bands of damage caused by waterborne life across the columns.

Lyell was obsessed with the implications of the evolutionary theory of J.B. Lamarck. In Lyell’s view, if Lamarck was right then religion was a fable, Man was just a better beast, and the moral fabric of society would crumble to dust. A concerted refutation of Lamarck’s theories of progress and evolution became a central part of the Principles. However, by devoting such extensive treatment to Lamarck, Lyell paradoxically made Lamarck’s views better known in the English-speaking world than they ever had been. (Lamarck’s evolutionary work was not translated into English until 1914.) For example, the oft heard remark that Lamarck believed that a giraffe’s neck was long because each generation stretched its neck to reach higher branches and passed on its stretched neck to its offspring is a mocking example from Lyell, not from Lamarck himself.

Lyell’s methods and style greatly influenced a number of important men of science in Victorian Britain, perhaps most famously the young Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle. The best overview of Lyell and the Principles is Jim Secord’s introduction to his Penguin (abridged) reprint of the Principles

Walter McMichael


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