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This is Charles Lyell

Why should we talk about Charls Lyell? Well he was one of the most important scientists that drew attention to his discipline as well as a great thinker of his time. Unfortunately, most of the time we are told that he influenced Charles Darwin, A. R. Wallace, T. H. Huxley and R. I. Murchison, but how and why?

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One thing Lyell (1797 – 1875) is known for is that he wrote the book that really founded modern Geology: “Principles of Geology“. But how did he get to be interested in Geology in the first place?
He studied in Oxford, graduated around 1820 and started working as lawyer. During this time he travelled around England, thus being able to observe geological formations. He was so fascinated by geology that even during his honeymoon in Switzerland and Italy, he and his wife (daughter of a member of the Geological Society of London) did a geological tour of the area.

His best known work is the book “Principles of Geology” which is itself known not only because it is important, but also for inspiring Darwin in his work.

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First Edition of the “Principles of Geology”

He had the vision and the ability to think a bit beyond a simple landscape, and, having in mind the works of James Hutton, was able to find an explanation for the deposition of geological layers. The central argument of the Principles is that of uniformitarism, and in his own words he made “an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation”. And this is what makes his works and way of thinking absolutely modern.
Another important part of his work was in Stratigraphy – I believe this is his most important contribution to Geology. He travelled through Europe, studied and described many formations and he kept updating his Principles with the latest works until the 12th edition of 1875.

His interest and work on Evolution is also something we should remember: he endorsed both Darwin and Wallace in their works, as he was already a well respected scientist in the United Kingdom.

He died two years after his wife, in 1875, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

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Understanding the history of the earth before the discovery of tectonics

While reading S.J. Gould’s “Time’s arrow, time’s cycle  – Myth and metaphore in the Discovery of Geological Time“, I noticed a few things.

In the first part of the book, Gould describes the ideas on the -brief- history of the earth as seen by Thomas Burnett (late 17th century). It gets far more interesting, as far as the modern thought is concerned, in the second part of the book. There, we find the work of James Hutton, a scottish geologist of the 18th century. He had made very accurate and original observations in his homeland (discordances, discontinuities…). He tried to explain them but in vain. How would it be possible to understand a discontinuity, sediment orientation, etc. without having any knowledge of a mechanism that would allow change of the surface of the earth? How is it possible to study and understand the history of the earth without using tectonics?

The third part of the book is dedicated to the work of Charles Lyell (19th century). There again, we see that he observes faults and other landscape results of earthquakes. As much as Lyell’s work is significant to Geology, the mechanism responsible for some of his observations was still unknown; raising the same problems of the changes of the surface of the earth. All the theories preceding the discovery of tectonics were speculative even if the scientists tried to be realistic.

If we want to do a parallel with evolutionary biology, I remember the famous quote of Theodosius Dobzhansky: “Nothing makes sense in Biology except in the light of Evolution”. Well, I think that something similar can be said about tectonics: “Nothing makes sense in Geology, except in the light of Tectonics”. Therefore, Tectonics is to Geology what Evolution is to Biology.

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