Charles Lyell. Principles of Geology: Being an Attempt to Explain the Former Changes in the Earth’s Surface, by Reference to Causes Now in Operation.London: J. Murray, 1832-1833. Gift of Helen Kingsbury Zirkle ’20.

Richard Owen. A History of British Fossil Mammals, and Birds. London: J. Van Voorst, 1846.






Darwin’s thinking about the evolution of species was deeply influenced by a number of contemporary scientists and writers. The most important was the geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875), whose Principles of Geology had excited Darwin on the Beagle expedition. In Principles, Lyell argued that all of the past changes in the Earth’s surface, even dramatic changes such as the uplifting of mountains, could be explained by the same processes currently at work, but operating over millions of years. Principles of Geology went through twelve editions during Lyell’s lifetime, and established him as the foremost British geologist. His long and close friendship with Darwin played a critical role in the intellectual development of the young scientist. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote of him: 

I saw more of Lyell than of any other man both before and after my marriage. His mind was characterized, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before.

Richard Owen (1804-1892) was the leading paleontologist in England when Darwin returned from the Beagle expedition with crates of fossils collected in South America.  Owen agreed to work on them and determined that some of the extinct giant creatures were related to rodents and sloths still living in the region, an insight that would be important in the development of Darwin’s thinking about evolution. Owen devoted most of his career to the study of fossils from extinct animals, including the giant reptiles for which he coined the term Dinosauria, from the Greek for “terrible lizard.”   He was one of the most prominent figures in British scientific life in the mid-nineteenth century, both because of his ground-breaking works, such as A History of British Fossil Mammals, and Birds, and because of his formal position as Superintendant of the Natural History Department in the British Museum. Although sympathetic to the idea that species changed over time, he nonetheless wrote a harsh, sneering review of Origin of Species that was published anonymously in the Edinburgh Review, and he engaged in an open feud with Darwin and his supporters for the rest of his life. In his autobiography, Darwin wrote of Owen:

I often saw Owen, whilst living in London, and admired him greatly, but was never able to understand his character and never became intimate with him. After the publication of the ‘Origin of Species’ he became my bitter enemy, not owing to any quarrel between us, but as far as I could judge out of jealousy at its success.




Bryn Mawr College Special Collections