Charles Lyell

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Lyell, Charles


Born Nov. 14, 1797, in Kinnordy, Scotland; died Feb. 22, 1875, in London. British naturalist.

Lyell studied ancient languages, law, and geology at Oxford. In 1827 he abandoned the practice of law and devoted himself entirely to geology. His chief work, The Principles of Geology, came out in 1830–33 (in three volumes, republished many times) and was a milestone in the history of natural science. In this work Lyell countered the then prevailing theory of catastrophism with a theory of slow, continuous change in the earth’s surface owing to the action of constant geological factors that are still operating today (atmospheric precipitation, flowing water, volcanic eruptions, and the like). Although Lyell’s evolutionary theory (actualism) was a major step toward a materialist understanding of nature, it had weaknesses, namely, that Lyell considered the forces acting on the earth to be constant in quality and intensity and did not see changes in them with time and the development of the earth associated with these changes (uniformitarianism).

After a study of Tertiary strata in Italy, Lyell proposed dividing the Tertiary system into three groups (Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene) on the basis of paleontological evidence. In his book The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man (1863; Russian translation, 1864), Lyell presented arguments in defense of C. Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the origin of species. During visits to the Canary Islands and Sicily he collected data on the age of lavas and the formation of volcanic cones. A study of Etna enabled Lyell to refute the theory of craters of elevation advanced by the German geologist L. Buch and the Frenchman L. Elie de Beaumont. Lyell offered a hypothesis on the nature of metamorphic processes and suggested a division of rocks into sedimentary, volcanic, plutonic, and metamorphic.

Lyell was a member of the Linnean and Geological societies (1819), becoming president of the latter in 1835, and a fellow of the Royal Society (1826). A medal named in honor of Lyell is awarded each year by the Geological Society of London for outstanding work in geology.


In Russian translation:
Osnovnye nachala geologii ili noveishie izmeneniia Zemli i ee obitatelei, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1866.
Rukovodstvo k geologii, ili drevnie izmeneniia Zemli i ee obitatelei po svidetel’stvu geologicheskikh pamiatnikov, vols. 1–2. St. Petersburg, 1866–78.


Engels, F. “Dialektika prirody.” In K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed. vol. 20.
Ravikovich, A. I. Razvitie osnovnykh teoreticheskikh napravlenii ν geologii XIX veka. Moscow, 1969. (Trudy Geologicheskogo in-ta AN SSSR, no. 189.)
Bailey, E. Charles Lyell. London, 1962. (British Men of Science.)
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