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Charles Lyell

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Charles Lyell
Born 1795 England
Died 1875
Religious affiliation Deism

Charles Lyell (1795-1875) was born to a wealthy family in England. He followed an interest in geology when a career as a barrister became impossible due to his bad eyesight. He was best known for his book Principles of Geology which popularized James Hutton's concept of uniformitarianism, rejecting evidence for a global flood.



Uniformitarianism holds that the current state of geological formations is mostly due to the same slow, constant processes that can be observed today such as erosion and deposition. This view is opposed to catastrophism, which holds that the main features of geology are due to catastrophic events like the biblical great flood. Modern mainstream geologists have moved away from strict adherence to Lyell's uniformitarianism, because of the overwhelming evidence for rare regional catastrophes and even a few global catastrophes. An example of such a catastrophe cited by mainstream geologists is the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event (formerly known as the K-T event), marked by the K–T boundary in the stratigraphic record, including a pronounced iridium layer. Fossils of a great number of life forms that can be found below this layer have not been found in higher strata, which is seen as an indication of global extinction event, probably due to the impact of an asteroid.

Lyell published his influential Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man in 1863, in which he discussed geological evidence for the antiquity of mankind from the Paleolithic Age to modern times, endorsed Darwin's theory of evolution (Darwin was a close friend), and discussed ice ages in our current geologic age.

Anti-Christian views

Lyell, who was a Deist, publicly and privately expressed that he wished to "free the science from Moses".[1] He attempted to do this by presenting geological arguments that the Earth is much older than the biblical timescale. For example, in 1841 Lyell visited Niagara Falls and decided to calculate how old it was. He was told by a long-time resident and son of an eminent geologists that the falls—which gradually move upstream due to the effects of erosion—had receded about 150 feet45.72 metres
50 yards
100 cubits
2.273 chains
in 45 years, which is about three feet91.441 cm
36 inches
per year. As the gorge was 35,000 feet10,668 metres
11,666.631 yards
23,333.369 cubits
530.306 chains
long, a simple calculation[note 1] gives the age of the gorge as around 12,000 years. However, Lyell chose instead to use a smaller figure of 1 foot0.305 metres
0.333 yards
0.667 cubits
0.0152 chains
per year, which he referred to as a "speculation". With this figure, he was able to claim that the gorge was 35,000 years old, much older than a biblical timescale would allow.[2] The modern mainstream interpretation of the geological evidence[3] (still rejecting any involvement by the global flood) is that Niagara Falls is about 12,000 years old, but that the rate of erosion has varied greatly, so that most of the erosion has occurred in the last 5,500 years.

Lyell misrepresented his opponents in ways that anti-creationists still do today. Historian of science Stephen Jay Gould records that Lyell accused his opponents of basing their arguments on the Bible, and persuaded his readers that to reject his uniformitarian views was to reject science.[4]

In fact, the catastrophists were much more empirically minded than Lyell. The geologic record does seem to require catastrophes: rocks are fractured and contorted; whole faunas are wiped out. To circumvent this literal appearance, Lyell imposed his imagination upon the evidence. The geologic record, he argued, is extremely imperfect and we must interpolate into it what we can reasonably infer but cannot see. The catastrophists were the hard-nosed empiricists of their day, not the blinded theological apologists.[5]


  1. This calculation does not allowing for higher erosion in the past, such as could have occurred in the tail end of the global flood.


  1. Catchpoole, David and Walker, Tas, Charles Lyell’s hidden agenda—to free science “from Moses”, Wed. 19th August, 2009Wed. August 19th, 2009.
  2. Larry Pierce, Niagara Falls and the Bible, Creation 22(4):8–13 September 2000.
  3. Niagara Parks Commission, Niagara Falls Geology Facts & Figures
  4. Statham, Dominic, Darwin, Lyell and Origin of Species, Thu. 5th November, 2009Thu. November 5th, 2009.
  5. Gould, Stephen J., Catastrophes and steady state earth, Natural History February 1975. pp. 16–17, cited by Dominic Statham, 2009.
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