Lyell, Sir Charles


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Lyell, Sir Charles

(lī`əl), 1797–1875, British geologist. After studying and briefly practicing law, he spent most of his life in travel and in popularizing scientific ideas. He championed and won general acceptance of the theory of uniformity of causes, which was first proposed by James HuttonHutton, James,
1726–97, Scottish geologist, chemist, and naturalist. He was initially attracted to chemistry; he entered the legal profession at the Univ. of Edinburgh; turned to medicine, as it closely resembled chemistry; and then became a farmer to allow him to study
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 (as opposed to the theory of catastrophismcatastrophism
, in geology, the doctrine that at intervals in the earth's history all living things have been destroyed by cataclysms (e.g., floods or earthquakes) and replaced by an entirely different population.
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) in his Principles of Geology (3 vol., 1830–33), which went into 12 editions in his lifetime. Lyell furthered the idea central to uniformitarianismuniformitarianism,
in geology, doctrine holding that changes in the earth's surface that occurred in past geologic time are referable to the same causes as changes now being produced upon the earth's surface.
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, that the present processes acted on the earth in the same way all the way through time and at about the same intensity. He also brought up the idea that all processes (i.e., biological and geological) were delicately balanced. In addition to Elements of Geology (1838) and The Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863), he wrote two books on his travels in North America. Lyell's work was influential in shaping 19th-century ideas not only in geology specifically, but in scientific fields as a whole; he facilitated later acceptance of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Among Lyell's other important contributions was the division of the Tertiary period into the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene epochs.

Bibliography

See his Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. by his sister-in-law, K. M. Lyell (2 vol., 1881); study by L. G. Wilson (3 vol., 1972).