The Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface, by Reference to Causes now in Operation. Three vols.

London: John Murray, 1830-1832-1833.

First edition of this “classic by ‘the father of modern geology’” (Grolier/Horblit), famous for “establishing a new era in geology” (DSB), presenting the doctrine of uniformitarianism, namely, that the processes of the past must be judged by those of the present. “One of the key works in the nineteenth century encounters between science and Scripture, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33) sought to explain the geological state of the modern Earth by considering the long-term effects of observable natural phenomena. Written with clarity and a dazzling intellectual passion, it is both a seminal work of modern geology and a compelling precursor to Darwinism, speculating on radical changes in climate and geography across the ages, and exploring the evidence for the progressive development of life” (Secord). “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’ … [Lyell’s] 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, I, p. 261), which interpreted long-term climatic changes as the products of an ever-changing physical geography” (ODNB). This was the work that, more than any other, prepared the way for Darwin's Origin. Darwin acknowledged that Lyell’s explanation of geological features by causes operating over immense periods of time was part of the key to his development of the theory of natural selection. “When the Beagle expedition sailed in 1831 [John] Henslow [Darwin’s mentor] presented Darwin with the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology … The second volume of Lyell’s book reached Darwin in Montevideo and his constant references to the enormous influence on his thinking of this great work are typified by a letter from him to Leonard Horner saying ‘I always feel as if my books came half out of Lyell’s brain’” (PMM). When Alfred Russel Wallace sent Darwin a letter in 1858 outlining an almost identical theory to his own, it was Lyell, together with Joseph Hooker, who engineered the simultaneous publication of papers by both men, and secured Darwin’s claim to the theory of ‘natural selection.’ Only two other copes in the original boards have appeared at auction, both of which were rebacked with new spine labels.

Many geologists of his day, including Cuvier and others, believed that the Earth had been shaped by cataclysmic events in the past unparalleled in modern times. Lyell argued, on the contrary, that the order of nature in the past was uniform with that in the present, and that therefore all geological phenomena should be attributed to the gradual action, over sufficient time, of modern geological processes. This hypothesis led to one of the most revolutionary scientific ideas of the nineteenth century - that the age of the earth was enormously greater than had previously been supposed. To demonstrate that gradual processes could be responsible for great changes, Lyell used an engraving of the temple at Serapis as his frontispiece. The temple had, during the course of human history, been above sea level, then for a long period partially submerged, and again was above sea level as attested by the dark bands of damage caused by waterborne life across the columns.

“’The great merit of the Principles,’ Charles Darwin once said, ‘was that it altered the whole of one’s mind, & therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet partially saw it through his eyes,’ Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology shaped Darwin’s vision of nature as he circumnavigated the globe on the Beagle and as he later created his theory of evolution … Darwin became his most enthusiastic advocate, and found the Principles immensely liberating from the moment of landing on his first tropical island during the Beagle voyage. The young naturalist used the book to develop his own causally-oriented style of interpretation, comparing the uplifted but scarcely disrupted rocks in the mid-Atlantic Cape Verde Islands with the Temple of Serapis. Later in the voyage he reinterpreted the origin of coral reefs, overturning the model that Lyell had advocated; but the style of reasoning was that of the master, who altered his next edition accordingly. When Darwin began to consider the possibility of species evolution after his return home, he did so in private dialogues with the Principles” (Secord, pp. ix & xxxvi).

The observations which led Lyell to his new geological theories were made in Sicily in 1828, towards the end of a trip to France and Italy he had begun with Roderick Murchison. “His first doubts about the necessary recentness of strata containing living species of fossils may have arisen from a bed of clay above Catania that contained many modern Mediterranean shells … Astonished at what he was finding, and doubting whether he had observed correctly, Lyell explored the interior of Sicily until at Castrogiovanni (now Enna) he found all the Tertiary strata of the Sicilian formation, from the white limestone of Lentini down through sandstones and marls to the blue clay of Syracuse, containing living species of shells with their original colors, all exposed in order in one immense escarpment. For Lyell the discovery that the white limestone, containing only casts and impressions of shells, was a very recent formation, had the force of revelation. It meant that the characteristics of a rock stratum were determined not by its geological age but by the conditions under which it was laid down, and these conditions had recurred again and again in successive geological periods. In Sicily, Lyell saw too that volcanic activity had gone on gradually and uniformly, interspersed with periods of rest, through an immense extent of time. Finally, he saw that the assemblage of shell species now living in the Mediterranean constituted a very old fauna, which had changed very little during the immense time required to deposit he stratified rocks of Sicily and to elevate them into hills of rounded and worn outline.

“Because Lyell saw in Sicily a continuity between the fauna living in the Mediterranean and its fossil ancestors preserved in the rocks, he realized that the conditions under which both lived must be analogous. Therefore conditions during past geological ages must have been essentially similar to modern conditions on the earth’s surface, and the forces which brought about geologic changes must have been the result of processes similar to those going on at the present time. Fired with such new ideas, Lyell set out for England in January 1829, determined to rewrite his book to see how far he could ‘explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by causes now in operation’ …

“Lyell returned to London on 24 February 1829, and from then until the beginning of June 1830 he wrote and saw through the press the first volume of his Principles of Geology. It was published by John Murray in July 1830 (not January, as stated in later editions of the Principles) and created an immediate sensation. In it Lyell first discussed the historical development of geology and then treated the principles of geological reasoning. He argued that the order of nature in the past was uniform with that in the present and, therefore, that the geologist should always try to explain geological phenomena by analogy with modern conditions. The greatest difficulty he had to overcome was the clear evidence for a warmer climate during past geological epochs even in high northern latitudes, such as those of Great Britain. To account for the changes in climate which had occurred between past geological epochs and the present, Lyell studied the factors which determine climate in different parts of the world at the present time. He showed how not only local climate, but even worldwide climate conditions, depend on the pattern of distribution of land and sea and would, therefore, be altered by changes in their distribution. An increase in the proportion of land near the equator, and of ocean area toward the poles, would tend to create a warmer world climate and vice versa.

“Lyell surveyed the full range of processes which at present are altering the Earth’s surface — the eroding effects of running water in streams and rivers and of waves along the sea coast, the accumulation of sediments in deltas and on the sea bottom, and the cumulative effects of earthquakes and volcanoes in elevating the land. He showed that even the largest volcanoes, such as Vesuvius and Etna, were the product of a long series of eruptions distributed through immense periods of time, and the eruptions were never greater nor more frequent than in historic times. Lyell emphasized repeatedly that the magnitude of the geological changes which had occurred during the past was not a reason to postulate extraordinary convulsions or catastrophes. The greatest changes could be accomplished by ordinary geological processes acting gradually, if they were given sufficient time …

“During 1831 he wrote the second volume, which was published in January 1832. In this volume Lyell considered the changes which had occurred in the living world through geological time. His studies on Tertiary shells had already shown him that as one proceeded from older to younger strata, the proportion of fossils belonging to extinct species declined gradually while that of living species increased. Thus, throughout the Tertiary period species of shells had become extinct, one by one, to be replaced, one by one, by new species. The continuity thus revealed in the living world, accompanied by gradual change, was in sharp distinction to the apparently abrupt changes in the forms of animal life observed in the secondary strata of France and England. Lyell pointed out that all the species of mammals living when the present assemblage of marine mollusks had become established in the sea had since become extinct. Thus the land mammals, which were subject to many more vicissitudes than marine forms, became extinct more rapidly.

“To account for extinction Lyell showed that the life of each species was dependent upon the continuance of a certain set of physical conditions in its environment. Geological processes, however, were steadily tending to alter these conditions, both locally and over wide regions. Thus the possible habitats for a species were steadily shifting and sometimes were obliterated. Lyell also showed that the life of a species was at the same time dependent upon a multitude of relationships with other species living in the same area. There was severe competition between species for living space, so that sometimes a species might become extinct simply because it could not contend successfully with others. And the extinction of one species would drag in its train the extinction of others which were dependent upon it. Similarly, the increase and spread of a successful species would force many others into extinction. Yet the geographical distribution of species showed that every species had tended to spread outward from its geographical center of origin. Lyell thus showed that the living world of plants and animals was in a state of dynamic balance and that the fluctuations of the balance of nature would themselves steadily tend to produce the extinction of species …

“In the third volume of the Principles, published in [May] 1833, Lyell attempted to answer some of the criticisms of his doctrines provoked by the first two volumes. The opening chapter is a splendid defense of the point of view to which William Whewell had already attached the name ‘uniformitarian’ … The remainder of the volume was an application of the doctrine of uniformity and the use of modern analogies to the problems of Tertiary geology. Lyell introduced his classification of Tertiary formations into four successive epochs and the terms Eocene, Miocene, and the older and newer Pliocene to designate them” (DSB).

Charles Lyell was born in Kinnordy, Forfarshire on the 14th of November 1797, on the family estate in Scotland. His father was a botanist and from his boyhood Lyell had a strong inclination for natural history, especially entomology, a taste which he cultivated at Bartley Lodge in the New Forest, to which his family had moved soon after his birth. In 1816 he entered Exeter College, Oxford, where the lectures of William Buckland first drew his attention to geology. After graduating in classics in 1819 he entered Lincoln’s Inn, and in 1825, after a delay caused by chronic weakness of the eyes, he was called to the bar. During this time he was slowly gravitating towards the life of a student of science. In 1819 he had been elected a fellow of the Linnean and Geological Societies, to which he communicated his first paper, “On a Recent Formation of Freshwater Limestone in Forfarshire”, in 1822. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, from which in later years he received both the Copley and Royal medals; and in 1827 he finally abandoned the legal profession, and devoted himself to geology. In 1831-33 Lyell was professor of geology at King’s College, London, and delivered there a course of lectures, which became the foundation of his Elements of Geology (1838). In 1832 he married Mary, eldest daughter of Leonard Horner; she assisted in his work and became a leading hostess in metropolitan intellectual society. He was elected President of the Geological Society of London in 1835-7 and 1849-51. A great admirer of the United States, Lyell lectured extensively there, and in 1845 and 1849 he published lively descriptions of his travels in North America. Lyell was knighted in 1848, and was created a baronet in 1864. He was elected corresponding member of the French Institute and of the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, and was created a knight of the Prussian Order of Merit. His health deteriorated rapidly after the death of Lady Lyell in 1873, but he continued his researches until his own death in 1875. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. The Lyell Medal, established in 1875 under his will, is cast in bronze and is awarded annually by the Council of the Geological Society.

The first edition of Principles of Geology was published in an edition of 1,500 copies and sold for fifteen shillings a copy. Lyell received 200 guineas for the work. The title page of Vol. 1 indicated that the work was originally intended to be published in two volumes. The first two volumes had already reached a second edition in 1833 when the third was added. Between 1830 and 1872 eleven editions of this work were published; only a few days before his death Lyell finished revising the first volume of the 12th edition.

DSB VIII: 563-576; Dibner Heralds 96; Grolier/Horblit 70; Norman 1398; cf. PMM 344. James Secord, Introduction to Lyell, Principles of Geology, Penguin, 1997.

Three volumes, 8vo, pp. xv, [1], 511; xii, 330, [2]; xxxi, [1], 398, 109, plus 4pp. publisher’s advertisements, 11 plates, including 3 engraved frontispieces (2 hand-coloured), and 3 maps (2 folding, 2 hand-coloured). Uncut in original publisher’s boards with original printed paper spine labels, spines worn and cracked, Occasional light spotting and staining, frontispiece in vol. III detached, but entirely unrestored. Provenance: Culley of Coupland Castle (inscription on flyleaf in vol. II) – Lord Kennet of the Dene (bookplates). Very rare in its original state as here.

Item #5181

Price: $28,500.00