Lyell Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lyell’s Principles of Geology launched a fundamental change in the science of geology by rejecting catastrophic geological change and helping to free the discipline from the restrictions of religion, thereby drastically expanding the earth’s age and making Darwinian evolution conceptually possible.

Summary of Event

Charles Lyell developed the theory of uniformitarianism as a determined effort to separate geology from the biblical view of creation and place it on the same footing as the general sciences. His theory was part of a tradition dating back to the seventeenth century French mathematician René Descartes Descartes, René , who tried to detach astronomy from religion Astronomy;and religion[Religion] by arguing that existence was composed of thinking substance (spirit) and extended substance (matter), and that theology was only concerned with the spirit and should be excluded from investigations of nature. Uniformitarianism also reflected the Cartesian view that physical change was the result of law-bound matter in motion. Lyell, Sir Charles Principles of Geology (Lyell) Geology;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] Geology Uniformitarianism, theory of Science;geology Fossils [kw]Lyell Publishes Principles of Geology (July, 1830) [kw]Publishes Principles of Geology, Lyell (July, 1830) [kw]Principles of Geology, Lyell Publishes (July, 1830) [kw]Geology, Lyell Publishes Principles of (July, 1830) Lyell, Sir Charles Principles of Geology (Lyell) Geology;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] Geology Uniformitarianism, theory of Science;geology Fossils [g]Great Britain;July, 1830: Lyell Publishes Principles of Geology[1590] [c]Geology;July, 1830: Lyell Publishes Principles of Geology[1590] [c]Earth science;July, 1830: Lyell Publishes Principles of Geology[1590] [c]Science and technology;July, 1830: Lyell Publishes Principles of Geology[1590] Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] Hutton, James Buffon, comte de

The claim that matter was law-bound and outside the proper area of theologians worked its way from cosmology into geology in the works of a noted French naturalist, the comte de Buffon Buffon, comte de . A believer in the Enlightenment and a great admirer of the early eighteenth century English physicist Isaac Newton, who had convincingly demonstrated that matter was indeed law-bound, Buffon sharply criticized the mixing of science with religion. Theologians, he insisted, should confine themselves to Scripture, while naturalists should rely on accurate observations of natural occurrences.

Sir Charles Lyell.

(Library of Congress)

Buffon’s arguments, advanced in the first volume of his Natural History, General and Particular (1749), were largely rejected by his contemporaries and immediate successors. Over the next half century, geological speculation was dominated by such late eighteenth and early nineteenth century catastrophists as Jean-Étienne Guettard Guettard, Jean-Étienne , Nicolas Desmarest Desmarest, Nicolas , Abraham Gottlob Werner Werner, Abraham Gottlob , and Georges Cuvier Cuvier, Georges . All these naturalists accepted intellectual limits imposed upon them by the Bible, Bible;and science[Science] although they might disagree about the importance of the various upheavals that shaped the features of the earth. Guettard and Desmarest were vulcanists, convinced that underground fires Fires;underground and the volcanoes Volcanoes they produced played an important and previously underappreciated role in earth history. Werner and Cuvier, on the other hand, were neptunists, convinced that a primeval earth-spanning ocean (followed, after the rise of continents, by catastrophic floods) Floods largely determined the shape of the physical environment.

Buffon’s Buffon, comte de challenge to a biblical view of creation was renewed in a more effective way by the Scottish physician and naturalist James Hutton Hutton, James , whose Theory of the Earth (1795) contained key uniformitarian principles. Hutton was not a consistent uniformitarian and did not try to separate science from religion, for he viewed continental uplift as a cataclysmic event and saw geological processes as proof of the workings of Divine Providence. The earth’s ecosystem, he claimed, floated on an enormous sea of magma and was meant to be self-maintaining through constant renewal; it was part of God’s plan for humankind.

However, if Hutton incorporated Deist elements into his theory, he also rejected biblical creationism. He insisted that the present was the key to an understanding of the past, that geological change could, and should, be explained in terms of the ordinary actions of natural forces acting normally. That view, which emphasized the slow actions of temperature, wind, and water on land forms, automatically required an extension of the earth’s age that seemed to contradict the account of Earth’s creation in the Bible’s Bible;and science[Science] Book of Genesis.

A full-blown uniformitarianism finally appeared in July of 1830, when the English geologist Charles Lyell produced the first volume of his Principles of Geology. With impressive consistency, Lyell insisted on explaining geological change strictly in terms of known physical agents operating at current levels of force. The earth had been sculpted by the interplay of water and heat—as he expressed it, by aqueous and igneous phenomena. Through the erosion cycle, the action of water tended to level the earth. The raising or depressing of the earth’s surface was caused by volcanoes Volcanoes and earthquakes, Earthquakes which were themselves products of the earth’s enormous internal heat. Furthermore, the cycles of raising and lowering, of construction and destruction, tended to proceed at the same approximate rates. Even volcanoes, the most violent natural force considered by Lyell, produced about the same amount of lava from eruption to eruption. This meant that the surface of the earth—or, more exactly, the successive surfaces of the earth—remained in roughly the same general condition throughout its enormously long history.

Lyell’s work was more impressive than that of Hutton Hutton, James for several reasons. Unlike Hutton’s work, it was thoroughly documented and tightly argued. Moreover, its unrelieved insistence on uniformity and regularity within the bounds of familiar phenomena was solidly within the Newtonian tradition and, therefore, fit the current model of good science. Finally, Lyell went beyond Hutton by incorporating organic and well as inorganic change into his theory. He flatly rejected progressiveness in the fossil record. However, he did believe that organic remains were vital evidence of fluctuating geologic and climatic conditions, for ecological change would be marked by shifting species distributions, mass extinctions, and a certain amount of species mutability.

The Principles of Geology immediately touched off a dispute over the rate of geological change known as the Uniformitarian-Catastrophist Debate. That dispute soon flowed into the question of whether change was progressive or whether the earth remained in structural equilibrium, in a sort of Lyellian steady state. In both cases, the controversy promoted further research, especially in potentially revealing areas such as mountain-building.

Lyell’s views were partly invalidated by later research, which found that intermittent cataclysmic episodes did, in fact, interrupt the normal flow of uniform forces and that the fossil record was, indeed, progressive. However, if he represented a philosophic extreme, he still occupied a prominent place in the development of modern geology. In undermining the legitimacy of a linkage between earth history and scriptural belief, in careful, extensive documentation of generalizations, and in searching for regularity in geological processes, his theory helped push that emerging discipline toward maturation.

Lyell’s work was also crucial to the development of Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] theory of evolution Evolution;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] . Darwin was deeply impressed by Principles of Geology, which he read carefully during his famous voyage around the world on HMS Beagle Beagle, HMS Royal Navy;Beagle expedition during the early 1830’s. As he later noted, Lyell’s insights allowed him to see the natural world through different lenses. Uniformitarianism prepared the ground for Darwin’s later work in several ways. First, any notion of evolution in small increments required freedom from rapid, catastrophic change and a vast time span within which to operate. Lyell’s theory provided Darwin with both of these conditions.

Darwin also found that his observations of the fossil record supported Lyell’s conclusions about the correlation between species distribution, climate, and geography. That increased awareness of paleoecology Paleoecology deepened his understanding of the ways living plants and animals were distributed and allowed him to make connections between the living conditions of past and present life forms. Finally, Lyell’s geologic uniformitarianism provided a model for Darwin’s Darwin, Charles [p]Darwin, Charles;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] vision of the gradual modification of species. Darwin was unaware of the breakthrough in genetics Genetics achieved by the Austrian monk and botanist Gregor Mendel Mendel, Gregor and could not accurately describe the way characteristics were transmitted from parents to offspring. Nevertheless, he conceived of biological change in a Lyellian, uniformitarian manner. It was gradual, steady, and cumulative, reacting to known forces operating in known ways.


Lyell’s work is significant primarily because of the way it furthered Cartesian values in two emerging disciplines. In geology, his uniformitarianism further distanced science from theology and promoted the fundamental notion of René Descartes that the natural world was formed by law-bound matter in motion. In biology, it advanced the Cartesian definition of life as highly organized law-bound matter in motion by freeing geological time from scriptural bonds. In both cases, Lyell’s uniformitarianism accelerated the rise of modern scientific disciplines.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999. Lively narrative of how naturalist Louis Agassiz, Charles Lyell, and poet Elisha Kent Kane collaborated to create public acceptance for the existence of an ice age.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalrymple, G. Brent. The Age of the Earth. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Places Lyell’s concerns about the antiquity of the earth in fullest possible context, stretching from ancient beliefs to radiometric dating
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Provides an extensive treatment of Lyell’s ideas and carefully analyzes the different ideas subsumed under the general umbrella of uniformitarianism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, John C. The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1959. Places Lyell’s influence on nineteenth century science in perspective and traces the connections between Lyell’s and Darwin’s thoughts on species migration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Mott T. Geology in the Nineteenth Century: Changing Views of a Changing World. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. Taking a broad perspective, Greene evaluates Lyell’s contributions and offers the view that Hutton’s work laid the foundations of modern geology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klaver, J. M. I. Geology and Religious Sentiment: The Effect of Geological Discoveries on English Society and Literature Between 1829 and 1859. New York: Brill, 1997. Study of Lyell’s scientific and religious views about world antiquity and how they were received by theologians, philosophers, poets, and novelists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyell, Charles. 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. London: John Murray, 1830-1833. First of many editions of Lyell’s landmark work, which is remarkably easy to read, as it is written in an open and accessible style.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudwick, Martin J. S. George Cuvier: Fossil Bones and Geological Catastrophes—New Translations and Interpretations of the Primary Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Study of the French naturalist Cuvier, whose writings on animal fossils and natural catastrophes anticipated modern research into mass extinctions and the study of fossils as records of plant and animal life that help to date the age of the earth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Leonard G. Charles Lyell. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972. This sizable biography places Lyell in the scientific context of his times and provides a detailed account of his work and personal life.

Lamarck Publishes Zoological Philosophy

Tambora Volcano Begins Violent Eruption

Buckland Presents the First Public Dinosaur Description

Wallace’s Expeditions Give Rise to Biogeography

Neanderthal Skull Is Found in Germany

Darwin Publishes On the Origin of Species

Darwin Publishes The Descent of Man

Krakatoa Volcano Erupts

Bjerknes Founds Scientific Weather Forecasting

Wiechert Invents the Inverted Pendulum Seismograph

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Georges Cuvier; Charles Darwin; Sir Charles Lyell. Lyell, Sir Charles Principles of Geology (Lyell) Geology;and Charles Lyell[Lyell] Geology Uniformitarianism, theory of Science;geology Fossils

Categories: History