Principles of Geology

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The frontispiece showing the Temple of Serapis was "carefully reduced from that given by the Canonico Andrea de Jorio in his Ricerche sul Tempio di Serapide, in Puzzuoli. Napoli, 1820,[1] which was based on a drawing by John Izard Middleton.[2]

Principles of Geology: being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surface, by reference to causes now in operation is a book by the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, first published in 3 volumes in 1830–1833.

Lyell used geology throughout as a basis to strengthen his argument for Uniformitarianism. He used geological proof to determine that the Earth was older than 6,000 years, as had been previously contested. The book shows that the processes that are occurring in the present are the same processes that occurred in the past.[3]

The book was influential, not least on the young graduate Charles Darwin.


Published in three volumes in 1830–33, the book established Lyell's credentials as an important geological theorist and popularised the doctrine of uniformitarianism (first suggested by James Hutton). The central argument in Principles was that "the present is the key to the past": that geological remains from the distant past could, and should, be explained by reference to geological processes now in operation and thus directly observable.

The book is notable for being one of the first to use the term "evolution" in the context of biological speciation.[4][5]


Lyell's interpretation of geologic change as the steady accumulation of minute changes over enormously long spans of time was also a central theme in the Principles, and a powerful influence on the 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who was given Volume 1 of the first edition by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, just before they set out on the voyage of the Beagle. On their first stop ashore at St Jago, Darwin found rock formations which -seen "through Lyell's eyes"- gave him a revolutionary insight into the geological history of the island, an insight he applied throughout his travels. While in South America, Darwin received Volume 2, which rejected the idea of organic evolution, proposing "Centres of Creation" to explain diversity and territory of species. Darwin's ideas gradually moved beyond this, but in geology he was very much Lyell's disciple and sent home extensive evidence and theorising supporting Lyell's uniformitarianism, including Darwin's ideas about the formation of atolls.


  • 1st edition, London: John Murray. Vol 1, Jan. 1830 - Vol 2, Jan. 1832 - Vol 3, May 1833
  • 2nd edition, London: John Murray. Vol 1, 1832 - Vol 2, Jan. 1833
  • 3rd edition, 4 vols. London: John Murray. May 1834
  • 4th edition, 3 vols. London: John Murray, 1835. Vol 1 - Vol 2 - Vol 3
  • 5th edition, 4 vols. London: John Murray, 1837. Vol 1 - Vol 2 - Vol 3 - Vol 4
  • 6th edition, 3 vols. June 1840
  • 7th edition, 1 vol. Feb. 1847
  • 8th edition, 1 vol. May 1850
  • 9th edition, 1 vol. 1853
  • 10th edition, 2 vols. 1866–68
  • 11th edition, 2 vols. 1872
  • 12th edition, 2 vols. 1875. Vol 1 - Vol 2 (published posthumously)


  1. ^ Lyell 1830, pp. ii,xiv
  2. ^ Rudwick, M. J. S. (2010). Worlds before Adam : the reconstruction of geohistory in the age of reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 106–113, 117. ISBN 0-226-73129-4. 
  3. ^ Lyell, Charles. The Principles of Ecology, London: 1833.
  4. ^ Bower, Peter J. (1975). The Changing Meaning of “Evolution”. Journal of the History of Ideas 36: 95-114.
  5. ^ Richards, R. J. (1992). Evolution. In Evelyn Fox Keller, Elisabeth Lloyd. Keywords in Evolutionary Biology. Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp. 95-105. ISBN 978-0674503137

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