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Principles of Geology (Penguin Classics)
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 1 December 2008
It was on reading Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle that I became aware of Charles Lyell. Darwin went to the trouble (in the 1830's) of having the volumes of this work sent out to him in South America as they appeared. His importance was hammered home when Darwin in The Origin Of Species, could only advance his ideas thanks to Charles Lyell's insights.

In this volume we are treated to Lyell's razor-sharp intellect cutting through prevailing humbug to construct an amazingly accurate picture of the history of the earth's crust. Above all he challenged (with all due respect) religious orthodoxy of a Creation in recent times.

Lyell also takes up and successively demolishes many of the erroneous, flabby-thinking, and sometimes cranky theories put forward by various researchers in the field.

Lyell's argument for the immense antiquity of the earth is persuasive and provided the foundation for Darwin's argument for evolution, which required immense periods of time to work.

He points out how, as rocks get more ancient, so the proportion of extinct marine creatures increases. This was the second insight to inspire Darwin: that in the history of the earth, most species that have ever lived have become extinct. Lyell struggled with the notion that species could die off and others "be called into existence", yet he had the courage to follow his logic to the correct conclusion. He even said that: "In the universal struggle for existence, the right of the strongest eventually prevails...", a phrase that Darwin picks up and paraphrases 20 years later in his Origin of Species.

Lyell successfully argues the amazing idea that some rocks now found at the tops of mountains were originally laid down in the oceans. He works out how, through analysis of earthquakes and volcanoes, how this could have happened. The Lisbon earthquake showed how land could sink too - 600 feet below the waves. Of course he had no idea of the help given by plate tectonics - a notion that took another 130 years to be evidenced let alone accepted.

This edition is in fact an abridged version of the original. However, by cutting out heavily detailed supporting evidence which, in today's world we do not need to convince us, is a boon for the general reader. The editor puts in an explanation of what he has cut out in the appropriate point in the text.

Lyell writes with erudite elegance and illustrates his points with quotations from the classics. He expected the reader of the time to know them but our editor here has helpfully supplied the citations. All the way Lyell anticipates objections to his theories and carefully and accountably meets them and disposes of them. In this, Lyell shows the way for Darwin to do the same thing in the Origin 25 years later. Today we are taken aback by some of the prejudices he has to dispel. For example the prevailing belief in Noah's flood and the believers' obsessive searching for proof of it in the geological record. Lyell firmly (and courageously) says that there is no evidence for the Biblical Flood.

As a nutritional anthropologist and writer Deadly Harvest I was enthralled by this extraordinary tour de force: I just wish my publisher would allow me to write like that today!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Like others before me, I came to this book via Darwin. Having got heavily into reading Darwin, particularly over the period of his bicentennial, I wanted to go to some of Darwin's own sources: Malthus 'On Population', and the oft-referred to 'Principles of Geology', by Charles Lyell, for example.

Not quite as easily readable as Darwin at his best (both Darwin and Lyell do at times exhibit that rather stodgy and verbose style so characteristic of their time), this is nonetheless fascinating and informative stuff. The Penguin Classics version I read is heftily abridged, so I guess I'll miss out on quite a bit of the detail that someone like Darwin no doubt ploughed through conscientiously! But even so I learned a lot, albeit that some of the ideas and information are now almost certainly out of date (this was written before the discovery of plate tectonics, and even Darwin's 'Origin' would add to, augment, and modify some of Lyell's ideas).

But in principle - pardon the pun - the book remains sound. How and why? Because it's built on the bedrock of the scientific process: reasoning, theorising, and testing for evidence. And Lyell, averse initially to the conclusions Darwin was to reach in 'The Origin', in no small part thanks to some of Lyell's pointers, had, unlike another of Darwin's near contemporaries and mentors, Adam Sedgwick, the capacity for intellectual robustness and honesty that allowed him to modify his views as new evidence and better fitting theories emerged. So, in the long run, having started as a mentor, he became a friend and supporter of Darwin (in fact one of my only criticisms of Darwin's 'Origin' is that his references to Lyell veer towards the cloyingly reverential and ingratiating).

One of the ways in which even the abridged version most resembles Darwin's 'Origin' (itself only intended as the 'abstract' of a never completed multi-volume version, doubtless inspired by Lyell's multi-instalment work) is the thoroughness of the research, and the copiousness of the cited examples, used to back up theories and arguments.
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