Teaching Evolution: Charles Lyell: The principles of geology

by Greg Mayer

Our fourth installment of Teaching Evolution is an extract from Principles of Geology, by Charles Lyell. Lyell was an enormously influential scientist, and a leading figure in scientific circles in 19th century Britain. His influence on Darwin was profound: in Janet Browne’s authoritative biography of Darwin, the entry for Lyell in the index of volume one goes on for 28 lines, and for 27 lines in the second volume!

In the first half of the 19th century, the links between biology and geology were much closer that they are now. Both were branches of natural history, and Darwin first made his name as a geologist, before his more biological contributions came to dominate his reputation. Lyell’s Principles were required reading for anyone involved in discussions of organic evolution. The current divorce between the academic disciplines is regrettable.

When I was helping plan a major in ecology, evolution, and conservation a few years ago, a survey of a broad range of the best undergraduate majors across the United States showed that none required any geology (though many required years of chemistry and/or physics). A notable innovation of our new major was that it required foundational work in geology for students in the biological sciences. (The major, unfortunately, was nixed by our dean before it got implemented.)

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) is perhaps the greatest geologist of all time. As the American paleontologist David Raup once remarked, “Lyell is to geology what Darwin is to biology.” Lyell’s signal achievement was to turn geologists to the study of observable physical, chemical, and biological processes, and to make these processes the first choice when seeking explanations for the events of Earth history. His method may be epitomized by the phrase “the present is the key to the past”. Born in Scotland and trained as a lawyer, for most of his life he supported himself and his family by the sales of his books. A close friend of Darwin’s, he helped arrange the first publication of Darwin’s views on natural selection, alongside Wallace’s independent discovery of the same principle. Despite this, Lyell did not accept evolution until several years after the publication of the Origin. Lyell’s masterwork, Principles of Geology (1st ed. 1830-1833), which went through 11 editions in his lifetime, was informed by his wide field experience in Europe and North America. He is buried, like Darwin, in Westminster Abbey.

Lyell, C. 1830-1833. Principles of Geology, Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation. Three volumes. John Murray, London. Vol. 3, Chaps. I, IV.

Study Questions:
1. What does Lyell identify as the chief impediment to the first geologists achieving a sound theory of the Earth’s history?

2. What types of studies have led to progress in geology?

3. How may the relative ages of rocks be determined? What sort of evidence does Lyell consider the most useful in this regard?

4. What does Lyell mean by a “zoological province”? How does he use this concept to help establish chronology?

[The other installments of Teaching Evolution can be found by clicking ‘MOOC’, under “filed under” or “tags”, just below.]


  1. Rik Smith
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Greg, Yes! I was surprised that Geology wasn’t a prerequisite at UC Davis when I entered the Ecology Program there twenty-some years ago. I have drawn on Geology far more than I have Physics (basically never in any direct sense) in my research. Thanks for the reminder of Lyell’s contribution and importance.

  2. Posted April 19, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    I wish I had the time to take a course in geology – it has always sort of interested me, but it has never worked out with everything else.

    And I would think that it would be important to biogeographers, evolutionary biologists, etc. to the point of being on the curriculum,

  3. Posted April 19, 2018 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I also regret that I lack any geology background.

  4. nicky
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Do biologist not ‘do’ geology anymore? Or only the Paleontologists? Is not geology linked more to biology than ever before? Sad.

  5. CarbonBasedChris@gmail.com
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    When I was at UMKC, the biology degree was heavily biased in favor of medical students, as I guess was the main point of their program; funnel kids into the med field rather than into biology. I ran out of money to continue my degree, so I could be wrong, but as I recall it was chemistry and physics but no geology, or at least very little.

  6. Posted April 19, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  7. Posted April 19, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Good to see. I’ve always seen geologists like Hutton and Lyell as leaders breaking down the dogma of the church and of natural theology. I’m not sure we can appreciate what they did by saying “I know what your book says but this is what I keep seeing everywhere I look.”

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink


    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink



  9. Liz
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    1. Lyell writes in the first chapter about how the first geologists started incorrectly guessing about things that happened in the past without referencing anything that might assist from the present. The best way to have approached the study would have been to focus on the present time to then correctly draw conclusions about the past. “It appeared to them more philosophical to speculate on the possibilities of the past, than patiently to explore the realities of the present, and having invented theories under the influence of such maxims, they were consistently unwilling to test their validity by the criterion of their accordance with the ordinary operations of nature.” It sounds like it was difficult to reverse to looking at the evidence first and then speculating second instead. I think Geology is a great example that shows why the scientific method is so important and how far off track we can get without it. Although he is referencing an example of this speculation that needed to be figured out, it was nice to see, “…of the refrigeration of the globe.”

  10. Liz
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    2. I believe he mentioned studying shells and fossils to figure out if they were organic or inorganic. He also writes, “…the operation of aqueous and igneous causes, the geographical distribution of animals and plants, the real existence of species, their successive extinction, and so forth…”

    3. Superposition. Observation of older rocks within the layers. Looking at mineral characteristics and organic remains. I don’t know the answer to the second part.

    4. I’m not sure exactly what this is. He might be saying that similar but different species are observed at the same time in different places. I’m wondering now. He’s definitely comparing two different places to help establish the chronology. I think.

    This is very interesting and thank you for these.

    • Posted April 20, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      Note that “successive extinction” for many years would have been anathema – Aristotle held that species were (like the Earth itself, according to him) eternal.

      This was congenial as a few to the Church, so it became dogma. The sort of dogma that in a way is harder to eradicate, because they can say: “look, a great pagan philosopher agrees with us, it must be true!” Doubly silly, as there were presocratic philosophers (and perhaps Epicurus?) who may have had evolutionary views.

  11. rickflick
    Posted April 20, 2018 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Lyell was probably the most important influence on Darwin’s thinking – emphasizing deep history in the evolution of the mineral and biological worlds. He had a copy of Lyell’s books on his famous voyage. Darwin studied and wrote on the formation of geological formations such as atolls.

  12. Posted April 20, 2018 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    Is there a link to these readings, which are surely out of copyright?

    There is room (though perhaps not in so highly compressed a course) for criticism of Lyell for his extreme uniformitaranism (see eg Rudwick, earth’s Deep History). Creationists, of course, conveniently forget that the conflict between uniformitarianism and catastrophism was pronounced dead by TH Huxley in his 1869 address to the Geological Society, https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/SM3/GeoAd69.html

    • Posted April 20, 2018 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Hi Paul. I haven’t read Rudwick though I’m putting it on order this weekend. Can you expand on ‘extreme uniformitarianism’ as opposed to plain old uni? It seems to me that natural laws are either universal or they aren’t. Unless we’re talking about the constraints of particular and narrowly described systems.


      • Posted April 20, 2018 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        There are several levels of uniformitarianism. The weakest, that the laws of nature were the same in the past as they are now. Then, central to both Lyell and Hutton, that the processes at work in the past are the same as the processes at work in the present. Then the assumption that the rate of processes has also been constant, as opposed to catastrophism. And according to Rudwick, Lyell’s view (Stephen J Gould has an essay on this as well) that it is a mistake to think of the passage of time as directional progress. This was parodied at the time by a cartoon which if I recall correctly showed future re-evolved dinosaur scientists anatomising human fossils.

    • Posted April 20, 2018 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      There’s a link to the readings in the post– click on “Vol. 3, Chaps. I, IV.” at the end of the citation.


    • Posted April 20, 2018 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I was wondering if the whole thing is available in a convenient Dover (say) edition. (I have lots of Dover “science classics”. Prometheus Books also tried to do this, but some of their editions, like that of _Radioactive Substances_ by Marie Curie, are bad.)

      • Posted April 21, 2018 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        There was a University of Chicago Press reprint some years ago (ca. $16 per volume), but the prices have been raised to $38-$52 per volume, likely because they now issue it as print-on-demand. The high list price has driven up used prices, but you can still find some inexpensive copies, as well as used copies selling between the original list and raised list prices.


  13. djwcaw
    Posted April 20, 2018 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Interestingly Lyell was a staunch Christian who got flack from many of his brethren at the time for his old-earth geology, rejection of catastrophism and views on a non-global flood. Sadly he still is vilified by many a young earth creationist today.

    • Posted April 21, 2018 at 4:58 am | Permalink

      Lyell was in no way exceptional in combining Christian belief with the acceptance of an ancient Earth. Buckland, Sedgwick …

      From what I have read, in England at least the clergy who continued to adhere to a young Earth and a biblical flood were the outliers. Genesis Flood geology is essentially a 20th-century heresy, out of Seventh-day Adventistm through George McCready Price to Henry Morris

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