LYELL, Charles.

Principles of Geology,


Principles of Geology,
being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation.
London, John Murray, 1830-1833.

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Principles of Geology,

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“A classic by the “father of modern geology”, presenting the doctrine of uniformitarianism, namely, that the processes of the past must be judged by those of the present. This was important in the development of the Darwinian theory of evolution.” (Grolier).

Lyell (1797–1875), although he trained as a lawyer and was called to the Bar, always had a keen interest in geology and had attended lectures by William Buckland.

“The first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology was published by Murray in July 1830. Its ambitions were clear from the title— Principles still recalled Isaac Newton’s Principia—and the subtitle stated clearly that it was ‘an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation’. Surprisingly for a work on geology, the volume was devoted not to the remote past but wholly to the present world. Lyell gave a systematic description of modern causes such as volcanoes and earthquakes, sedimentation and erosion, culled from a wide range of sources, including many accounts of voyages and expeditions to remote parts of the globe; however, his main source was the great compilation of the physical and topographical changes recorded within human history, published in 1822–4 by Karl von Hoff (1771–1837) He used Hoff’s data to illustrate his own view of the earth as a system of balanced antagonistic processes: erosion balanced by sedimentation, for example, and crustal elevation by crustal subsidence. A preliminary section of the book presented a ‘grand new theory of climate’ (Lyell, Life, 1.261), which interpreted long-term climatic changes as the products of an ever-changing physical geography: this neatly undercut what Lyell himself had earlier regarded as conclusive evidence for a slowly cooling earth.

The second volume of the Principles appeared in 1832; it dealt with modern causes in the organic realm, and particularly with the relation between organisms and their environments. Lyell rejected Lamarck’s theory of the incessant mutability of species, arguing instead that they were real stable entities, and that they appeared and became extinct in a piecemeal manner in time and space. Extinctions were attributed not to sudden catastrophes but to gradual changes in the environment, as expounded in the first volume; the origins of species were attributed implicitly to some equally natural process as yet unknown.

Lyell’s concept of the stability of individual species validated his timescale for the Tertiary era, which formed a cornerstone of the third and culminating volume of the Principles (1833). His review of modern causes, both inorganic and organic, had merely provided the ‘alphabet and grammar’ of geology (Principles of Geology, 3.7); they were the means by which nature’s historical records could be deciphered, in order to reconstruct the course of earth history.” (ODNB).

Charles Darwin read the Principles whilst aboard the Beagle. The work influenced Darwin so deeply that Darwin envisioned evolution as a sort of biological uniformitarianism. Evolution took place from one generation to the next before our very eyes, he argued, but it worked too slowly for us to perceive.

The work is scarce. Only 1500 copies of the first edition were printed.


First edition. 3 volumes, 8vo., 3 frontispiece (2 hand-coloured), 2 hand-coloured maps (1 folding), 1 uncoloured folding map, 5 uncoloured plates (foxed), illustrations in text, modern half calf gilt, red morocco labels.


Challinor 125; Grolier, 100 Books Famous in Science, 70; Norman 1398.


Stock ID: 93657