Biography of Charles Lyell

A portrait of Charles Lyell
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Learn more about famous geologist Charles Lyell's life and his contributions to the Theory of Evolution.

Early Life and Education:

Born November 14, 1797 - Died February 22, 1875

Charles Lyell was born on November 14, 1797, in the Grampian Mountains near Forfarshire, Scotland. When Charles was only two years old, his parents relocated to Southampton, England near where his mother's family lived. Since Charles was the oldest of ten children in Lyell family, his father spent a lot of time helping to educate Charles in the sciences, and particularly nature.

Charles spent many years in and out of expensive private schools but was said to prefer wandering and learning from his father. At the age of 19, Charles went off to Oxford to study mathematics and geology. He spent vacations from school traveling and making astute observations of geological formations. Charles Lyell graduated, with honors, with a Bachelor's of Art in Classics in 1819. He continued his education and received a Master's of Art in 1821.

Personal Life

Instead of pursuing his love of Geology, Lyell moved to London and became a lawyer. However, his eyesight began to worsen as time went on and he eventually turned to Geology as a full-time career. In 1832, he married Mary Horner, the daughter of a colleague in the Geological Society of London.

The couple had no children but instead spent their time traveling all over the world as Charles observed the Geology and wrote his field changing works. Charles Lyell was knighted and later bestowed with the title of Baronet. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Even while practicing law, Charles Lyell was actually doing more Geology than anything. His father's wealth allowed him to travel and write instead of practicing law. He published his first scientific paper in 1825. Lyell was planning to write a book with radical new ideas for Geology. He set out to prove that all geologic processes were due to natural events rather than supernatural events. Up until his time, the formation and processes of the Earth were attributed to God or another higher being. Lyell was one of the first to propose these processes actually happened very slowly, and that the Earth was extremely ancient rather than the few thousand years old most Bible scholars purposed.

Charles Lyell found his evidence when studying Mt. Etna in Italy. He returned to London in 1829 and wrote his most famous work Principles of Geology. The book included a large amount of data and very detailed explanations. He did not finish revisions on the book until 1833 after several more trips to get more data.

Perhaps the most important idea to come out of Principles of Geology is Uniformitarianism. This theory states that all the natural laws of the universe that are in existence now existed at the beginning of time and all changes happened slowly over time and added up to larger changes. This was an idea that Lyell had first gotten from works by James Hutton. It was seen as the opposite of Georges Cuvier's catastrophism.

After finding much success with his book, Lyell headed to the United States to lecture and gather more data from the North American continent. He made many trips to the Eastern United States and Canada throughout the 1840s. The trips resulted in two new books, Travels in North America and A Second Visit to the United States in North America.

Charles Darwin was greatly influenced by Lyell's ideas of a slow, natural change of geological formations. Charles Lyell was an acquaintance of Captain FitzRoy, the captain of the HMS Beagle on Darwin's voyages. FitzRoy gave Darwin a copy of Principles of Geology, which Darwin studied as they traveled and he collected data for his works.

However, Lyell was not a firm believer in evolution. It wasn't until Darwin published On the Origin of Species that Lyell began to adopt the idea that species change over time. In 1863, Lyell wrote and published ​The Geological Evidence of the Antiquity of Man which combined Darwin's Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection and his own ideas rooted in Geology. Lyell's staunch Christianity was apparent in his treatment of the Theory of Evolution as a possibility, but not a certainty.

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Scoville, Heather. "Biography of Charles Lyell." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Scoville, Heather. (2021, February 16). Biography of Charles Lyell. Retrieved from Scoville, Heather. "Biography of Charles Lyell." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).

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