Charles Lyell: biography of this influential British geologist

Charles Lyell was a British geologist, lawyer and paleontologist, considered one of the founders of modern geology and stratigraphy, a study of the layers of the Earth’s surface.

Despite studying law and practicing as a lawyer for a while, he ended up opting for the field of natural sciences, geology, his real passion. In this way, he made several trips to different places in Europe and North America to verify and write the different theories and works.

In this brief Charles Lyell biography we will mention the most relevant events and facts from the life of this scientist, as well as his studies, theories and contributions he made to geology.

    Brief biography of Charles Lyell

    Charles Lyell was born on November 14, 1797 in Kinnordy, now Angus, Scotland.. He had nine brothers, being the oldest, and grew up in England. His parents were Frances Smith and Charles Lyell, who was a botanist.

    From an early age he showed an interest in science and biology, as he loved to collect insects; during his childhood he was a pupil of various private schools.

    Years of study at university

    At the age of 19, Lyell began his training by taking various courses, including geology classes taught by geologist William Buckland. Finally, after graduating from high school in arts, he decided to study law. In 1821, he obtained his first diploma, obtained his law degree and thus became a member of the bar in 1825.

    Although he chose the legal career, he always loved science, especially natural history, so in 1816 he took courses at Exeter College, Oxford, being a pupil of geologist and paleontologist W. Buckland. Attendance at these classes, multiple geological excursions and membership in different scientific associations have been decisive in continuing to increase and reaffirm their interest and preference for the study of geology.

    After registering at Lincoln’s Inn, considered one of the most prestigious professional bodies of judges and lawyers in the world, he became a member of the Linnaean Geological Society in 1819, one of the leading scientific societies in the study of taxonomy, a science that attempts to classify organisms based on the characteristics they have in common.

    It was not until three years after making his debut as a member of the Geological Society in 1822 that he succeeded in presenting his first scientific statement.

    To continue to learn and gain knowledge, he went on a journey in which he meets Georges Curvier, French naturalist and paleontologist, and Alexander von Humboldt, who was a German explorer, naturalist and geologist. After his stay in France, he decided to embark on a geological-focused journey through his native Scotland, with Professor William Buckland.

      Professional life

      It was in 1827 that he finally decided to quit his profession as a lawyer and devote himself fully to geology, by becoming a member of the Royal Society.. During this period he began to develop what would be his most important novel, based on the publication of James Hutton (geologist, physician, chemist and naturalist) on the formation of the Earth, but offering a different perspective. and a more enlightening presentation. .

      As for his private life, he married in 1832 Mary Horner, English conquiliologist and geologist. In this way, her knowledge of geology also enabled her to collaborate in her husband’s scientific research, becoming more involved in the recognition given to her.

      His travels in Europe did not cease, and between 1828 and 1829 he visited France again with the Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison and traveled through Italy with the British philosopher, theologian and scientist William Whewell, whose studies he authorized. name three geological times (concepts that have made it possible to classify different rocks): Eocene, Miocene and Pliocene.

      It was also with the realization of these trips that he was able to find evidence that pointed out and supported that the geology of the Earth was due to natural causes.

      As for the three geological times to which it gave its name, Hyell also he is considered one of the founders of stratigraphy which studies the different layers of the Earth’s surface. Thus, he studied the old marine strata of Europe to classify the existing strata.

        Main scientific contributions

        Between 1830 and 1833, he published what was to be his most remarkable and important work, “Principles of Geology”, divided into three volumes. As mentioned above, for the drafting of this work, he took into account the contributions made by J. Hutton to his uniformist thesis developed in his book “Theory of the Earth”. Hutton believed that the process of development of the planet had been much slower than presented in the catastrophism theory, which instead presented the constitution of the Earth as a much faster process and caused by great catastrophes.

        In his work “Principles of geology”, the author denotes the gradualist current which presents and attempts to explain biological and geological modifications using the successive processes of extinction and creation. Lyell synthesized this work and used his own observations he made during his travels to give more force and support to the contributions and statements he presented.

        This famous Lyell publication consists of three dimensions. First of all that of actualism, where he tries to explain the facts and events of the past taking into account the same causes that present themselves today.

        Secondly, uniformitarianism, where also contrary to the theory of catastrophism, it is claimed that the geological phenomena of the past are uniform without any catastrophic phenomena.

        And finally, dynamic balance, as already mentioned, it has been pointed out that changes on Earth have occurred through cycles, shifts, periods of creation and destruction, so the geological periods are believed to be the same.

        Such was the importance of his early work in the field of geology that he was considered the most influential in this field in the 19th century, obtaining a high number of sales and publishing several editions. It was so important that even Charles Darwin himself served as the inspiration for his well-known book “The Origin of Species”. In Spain, it was published in 1847 and translated into Spanish by the geologist Joaquín Ezquerra del Bayo.

        One of the dimensions of the work “Principles of Geology” was based on the theory of dynamic equilibrium, in which the author realizes the distinction of two processes which constituted the shape of the Earth (geological morphogenesis) by means of the mutual compensation of the two: on the one hand it would be the aqueous phenomena (as they would be erosion and sedimentation) and on the other hand the igneous phenomena would act (such as volcanic and seismic activity).

        Likewise, Charles Lyell believed that in the history of the Earth the movements of the continents had generated climatic changes, thus affecting the survival and, consequently, the extinction of certain species.

        In 1838, the author published his second book, entitled “The elements of geology”, also selling different editions of it.

        Then, in 1845 and 1849, he published two books in which he recounted his travels in North America, more specifically in the United States and in Canada.

        Later, in 1863, his work entitled “The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man” was published. He did not show a clear acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution until two years later, in 1865, with the publication of a new edition of “Principles of Geology”, when it was linked to the theory. presented by Darwin. .

        It is also worth mentioning that throughout his career he has received many awards, such as the Royal Medal, and was a member of various institutions. Likewise, in 1848 he was appointed sir, knight and in 1864 baron in England. In addition, in recognition and in his memory, a lunar crater and a Martian crater bear his name.

        Charles Lyell died in London on February 22, 1875.

        Bibliographical references

        • Moreno, V., Ramírez, MªE., De l’Oliva, C. and Moreno, E. (2011) Biography of Charles Lyell. Buscabiografies.
        • Fernandez, T. and Tamaro, E. (2004) Biography of Charles Lyell. In biographies and lives. The online biographical encyclopedia.

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