Publication: Charles Lyell and scientific thinking in geology
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Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam
Charles Lyell (1797–1875) was born at Kinnordy, Scotland. His father, an amateur botanist, and his grandfather, a navigator, gave him very soon a taste for the observation of the Nature. He went to the Oxford University to study classical literature, but he also followed the geological course ofWilliam Buckland. After having been employed as jurist for some years, in 1827 he decided on a career of geologist and held the chair of geology of the King’s College of London, from 1831 on. He was a contemporary of Cuvier, Darwin, von Humboldt, Hutton, Lavoisier, and was elected ‘membre correspondant’ of the ‘Académie des sciences, France’, in January 1862. Charles Lyell is one of the eminent geologists who initiated the scientific thinking in geology, in which his famous volumes of the Principles of Geology were taken as the authority. These reference volumes are based on multiple observations and field works collected during numerous fieldtrips in western Europe (principally Spain, France, and Italy) and North America. To his name are attached, among others: (i) the concept of uniformitarism (or actualism), which was opposed to the famous catastrophism, in vogue at that time, and which may be summarized by the expression ‘‘The present is the key to the past’’; (ii) the division of the Tertiary in three series denominated Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene, due to the study of the age of strata by fossil faunas; (iii) the theory according to which the orogenesis of a mountain chain, as the Pyrenees, results from different pulsations on very long time scales and was not induced by a unique pulsation during a short and intense period. The uniformity of the laws of Nature is undeniably a principle Charles Lyell was the first to state clearly and to apply to the study of the whole Earth’s crust, which opened a new era in geology.