1850 – UK
‘An Attempt to explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation’
At the start of the nineteenth century, most people believed that a few major events had shaped the Earth, one of which was Noah’s great biblical flood. In between these catastrophic events the Earth had remained unchanged.
Charles Lyell replaced catastrophe theory with uniformitarianism, which proposed that the Earth changed gradually as constantly present forces acted on it. He attributed ages to rock strata, by looking at the fossils they contained. This introduced a way of studying the Earth and led to modern geology. Lyell started a chain of thought that has now generated a complex understanding of the Earth’s history, allowing it to be divided into discrete eons, eras, periods and epochs.
There is evidence that Darwin was influenced by Lyell, although Lyell was deeply troubled by Darwin’s concept of natural selection. Darwin wrote “The greatest merit of the Principles (of Geology) was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it through his eyes.”
Lyell believed that geological, and therefore biological, history was cyclical. While Lyell destroyed one major dogma, his adherence to other ideas prevented geology moving forward.