Artifacts & Documents: Printed Material

Principles of Geology, Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell published his 3-volume Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surface, by reference to causes now in operation, in 1830-1833. Lyell was an excellent stylist who could write clearly and with verve about geological processes and theories. He built a case for uniformitarianism, the idea that natural forces observed in operation today have worked continuously over long periods of time and are responsible for changes to the Earth's surface.

The columns of the Temple at Serapis at Puzzuoli appear on the frontispiece (see plate). Lyell chose this image because it showed evidence of uplift and changes in sea level that had occurred in historical time. The bottom 12 feet of the columns were smooth, but the next 12 feet were full of holes made by a marine bivalve that obviously had not climbed the columns on dry land to drill into them. The upper halves of the columns had ordinary weathering. Lyell interpreted this to mean that the bottom had been buried and protected, while the next section had been in sea water, and the top had projected above the water. "But as the temple could not have been built originally at the bottom of the sea, it must have first sunk down below the waves, and afterwards been elevated," reasoned Lyell. If such changes could occur incrementally in a comparatively short time, imagine what could happen over millions of years.

Charles Darwin read this book while on his 5-year voyage around the world as naturalist on a ship called the Beagle, and made a point of befriending Lyell on his return to England. Edward Hitchcock and Benjamin Silliman took an interest in Lyell's book as soon as it came out. In a letter to Silliman dated November 1, 1830, Hitchcock wrote, "Have you seen Lyell's Geology? An attempt to explain Geological phenomena by the operation of causes now in action. I have received it but have not yet had time to examine it."

Charles Lyell
Courtesy of:
Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library