Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell. Principles of Geology. 3 vols. 1830&endash;1833; reprinted University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Lyell's book ranks 1st in a recent survey of geologists' favorite books by D. M. Triplehorn and J. H. Triplehorn as reported in the Journal of Geological Education (1993, 41: 260-261).


  1. Volume 1 of Principles of Geology contains a very polemical and one-sided account of the history of geology, followed by an analysis of present inorganic processes of change on the Earth.
  2. Presently-acting organic agents of change on the Earth are analyzed in volume 2, along with Lamarck's theory of evolution (which Lyell refutes).
  3. In the final volume, Lyell demonstrates synthetically the power of inorganic and organic processes of change by using them to explain the phenomena of the recent Tertiary period.

Outline of Volume 1

  1. The Directionalist Synthesis Refuted
    • History of Geology as an Anti-Directionalist Polemic, Chapters 1&endash;5
    • Non-Directionalist Theory of Climate, Chapters 6&endash;8
    • Organic Directionalism Refuted, Chapter 9
    • Note: On "directionalism," see Lyell's cyclical view of time, below.


  2. Present Inorganic Processes
    • Aqueous
    • Igneous


Charles Lyell's Cyclical View of Time

The accomplished but impoverished geologist Henry de la Beche caricatured the geological theorizing of Charles Lyell in this 1830 drawing. Note the gentlemanly overcoat worn by the lecturing Ichthyosaur, in contrast to an empirical geologist's work clothes which, with pick and hammer, would have given Lyell a more complimentary attire. Despite being the premier geologist of his generation, Lyell's "ahistorical" theoretical views were often out of step with the mainstream of 19th century historical geology.

"We might expect, therefore, in the summer of the `great year,' which we are now considering, that there would be a great predominance of tree-ferns and plants allied to palms and arborescent grasses in the isles of the wide ocean, while the dicotyledonous plants and other forms now most common in temperate regions would almost disappear from the earth. Then might those genera of animals return, of which the memorials are preserved in the ancient rocks of our continents. The huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyle might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns...."
Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, vol. 1 (1830)

For a description of the "directionalist" sensibility of geologists in Lyell's day, which underlies the caricature above, see Martin J. S. Rudwick, "Uniformity and Progression: Reflections on the Structure of Geological Theory in the Age of Lyell," in Duane H. D. Roller, ed., Perspectives in the History of Science and Technology (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), 209-227.


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