SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

SJG Archive

Biographical Sketch

Sir Charles Lyell 

"I really think my books come half out of Lyell's brain," said Charles Darwin, "I see through his eyes." But Sir Charles Lyell, the great naturalist's friend and mentor, had a hard time returning the compliment. Although he privately encouraged Darwin's evolutionary work for years, Lyell could not bring himself to endorse his friend's theories in his own popular geology books. Much to Darwin's disgust, Lyell was a past master of the art of coming down squarely on both sides of an issue.

Lyell's father, Charles Lyell of Kinnordy, was a Scots laird who was torn between scientific and liteary interests. He was a keen amateur botanist, but also managed to produce a well-known English translation of Dante's Inferno.

The younger Charles is also divided between two professions; he started out as a lawyer, but his strong interest in geology finally won out. He had admired the works of James Hutton and was instructed by the geologist William Buckland, with whom he examined volcanic layers on field trips to Italy.

Just before Darwin was to leave on his five-year voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle, his Cambridge professor Reverend John Henslow recommended he take along the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830), which had recently been published. "By all means read it for the facts," Henslow instructed, "but on no account believe the wild theories."

On this founding document of modern geology, Lyell had argued: (1) that the geologic past can best be understood in terms of natural processes we can actually observe today, such as rivers depositing layers of silt, wind and water eroding landscapes, glacers advancing or retreating (actualism); (2) that change is slow and steady (gradualism), rather than quick and sudden; (3) that natural laws are constant and eternal, operating at about the same intensity in the past as they do today. (Sometimes slower or faster, but averaging about the same overall rate of change.)

Darwin devoured the book, which was brilliantly thoroughly grounded in fieldwork and seemed to place the study of geology on a new and sensible footing. Although Lyell believed living species were fixed and not related by common descent, he gave Darwin the means of seeing what wonders could be wrought in geology by slow, small forces operating over immense spans of time. "I am tempted to extend Lyell's methods even farther than he does" Darwin wrote.

Although he inspired Darwin and became his life-long friend and mentor, Lyell had great difficulty accepting "the descent of man from the brutes," because, he confessed, "it takes away much of the charm from my speculations on the past relating to such matters." Nevertheless, later in life he had to grudgingly acknowledge the growing evidence. Darwin was frustrated and angry with Lyell's refusal to support him wholeheartedly in print, though he did so in private conversations. He simply could not, as he put it, "go the whole Orang."

What was really peculiar to Lyell are two ideas rarely associated with his Principles of Geology: the older ideas that earth and water trade substances and shape each other, maintaining some kind of long-range balance (the steady-state Earth), and that time and life proceed in cycles. It was conceivable to Lyell that man and our familiar animals could all become extinct, only to be replaced by dinosaurs again in a subsequent creation, followed, in some distant age, by a "new creation" of man. Aside from historians of science, Lyell's belief in cyclic time has been all but forgotten.

Lyell wrote that only a few extinctions occurred at a time, which "gradually" added up, rather than wholesale extinctions. New species were "called into being" to replace them. Somewhat cynically, he refused to specify how or what he meant, leaving the interpretation open, so as not to ruffle the feathers of the theologians.

Caution about antagonizing anyone and an extreme desire for social acceptance curbed Lyell's adventurousness in the realm of ideas. Darwin thought it ridiculous how Charles and Lady Lyell would spend hours poring over dinner invitations, making it a matter of great importance which to accept and which to decline. It was no accident that Lyell's determination to offend no one of importance resulted in his receiving a knighthood, and later, being named baronet. Darwin received no national honors during his lifetime.

Lyell saw his Principles of Geology, which first appeared during 1830-1833, through 13 revised editions. It had started out as a long, connected argument, but later became a jumble of bits and pieces added to include newer research. Finally, the book itself became a career and produced substantial revenues for its author.

Charles Darwin had Lyell in mind when he wryly remarked that scientific men should be put to death at the age of 60, so their inflexible habits of mind could not interfere with the progress of the newer generations. After discussing Darwin's theories at length in his "Geological Evidences As to the Antiquity of Man" (1863), Lyell asked Darwin if "now he might be allowed to live." However, he always hedged his presentations of his friend's evolutionary ideas and never explicitly embraced them in his public writings.

[ Richard Milner, The Encyclopedia of Evolution, New York: Facts on File, 1990, p. 286. ]

Further Reading

Home Page  |  Further Reading  |  Site Map  |  Send Feedback