Charles Lyell Theory of Evolution Explained


When discussing the theory of evolution, it is Charles Darwin who often comes to mind first. Darwinism is often promoted as the primary evolutionary theory, but it isn’t the only theory of evolution that exists.

Charles Lyell also offered a theory of evolution, some of which was based on his friend Darwin’s observations. What made Lyell’s theory unique was the fact that he is recognized as one of the first to believe that Earth could be more than 300 million years old. He made this decision based on geological anomalies that he observed.

How Lyell Became Introduced to the Theory of Evolution

In 1827, Lyell receive a copy of a publication from Jean Baptiste Lamarck, an early proposer of evolutionary theory. Although he agreed with Lamarck that the planet was probably older than anyone had previously thought, he disagreed with the idea that mutations were one of the main causes of evolutionism.

These thoughts led Lyell to write Principles. In it, he proposed that there were new species that had been created on our planet through natural methods.

When Darwin embarked on his famous Beagle survey expedition, one of the items that he took along was Lyell’s publication. Some of Lyell’s ideas about the geological composition of the planet and how that related to its actual age were supported by Darwin’s findings. This drew the two men together, especially since there was a desire to square up their religious beliefs with their religious findings.

For Lyell in particular, the idea that natural selection was the primary evolutionary force at work was a difficult idea to accept. Nevertheless, he became instrumental in arranging for the publication of the theory of natural selection. For Darwin’s theory, he relied on Lyell’s observations regarding stratigraphy so that the concept of “geologic time” was supported.

Lyell and His Equivocal Acceptance of Natural Selection

It is the tenth edition of Principles that is often looked at when examining Lyell’s theory of evolution. In this edition, entitled “The Antiquity of Man,” Lyell suggested that Darwin’s theories were a modification of Larmarck’s ideas about evolution. He also suggested that the “gulf” between men and animals remained a “profound mystery.”

Darwin disagreed with the observations, yet the impact on the field of science through Lyell’s observations could not be discounted.

Through his geological surveys, Lyell helped to form the concepts of how a society could identify natural resources. His work to understand earthquakes went beyond their destructive power to look at the actual cause of them and the evidence of fissures of faults.

Lyell also focused on volcanoes and theorized that there was an up-building process at work instead of a general upheaval action, which at the time was supported by most geologists.

It was his work in the field of stratigraphy that would help him influence evolution, however, as he looked at how fossils and shells were placed within the rock layers, or strata, in the ground. Lyell concluded that by categorizing the number of marine shells within a specific layer of rock, a picture of the planet at the time of formation could be created.

Lyell was the first to suggest that the Tertiary period should be divided into three parts instead of being taken as a whole. He also renamed the periods, which we now call eras, to the names that are generally accepted today in all of science: Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic.

Glaciers and Their Impact on the Theory of Evolution

Lyell proposed the idea that an iceberg could be the cause of transporting “erratics.” An erratic is a rock that differs in shape and size from other surrounding rocks. In times of global warming, Lyell theorized, ice would come from the poles and float across submerged lands, carrying debris with it.

Then, as the waters recede and lands emerge, the erratics would provide evidence of drift.

Although some of Lyell’s theories have been disproven, especially in terms of glacier movement, the framework that he was able to create is still in use today. Many of his observational methods are still used as foundational principles in the field of geology.

And as for his theory of evolution, it is Lyell’s work that is included with Darwin’s theories that has more influence today rather than his own theories. For many years, Lyell refused to consider evolution as it was being proposed as a valid theory. He eventually offered what could be considered a “compromise” between religion and science, which was reflective more of his internal conflicts than his actual scientific observations.