Hutton James

Many historians credit the eighteenth-century Scottish geologist James Hutton with introducing the concepts of actualism and deep time to geology. Actualism is the assumption that the earth's past can be explained in terms of natural processes observable in the present. Deep time—stretches of hundreds of millions of years—pushed the geological time frame radically beyond the 6,000 years that theologians had allotted. Almost half a century after Hutton published the first edition of his Theory of the Earth (1788), another Scot, Sir Charles Lyell, made actualism the keystone in his cluster of ideas later known as Uniformitarian-ism—the foundation of modern geology. Lyell, in turn, became a major influence on Charles Darwin, who applied the notion of small, steady changes acting over immense periods of time to the evolution of life.

Born in 1726 in Edinburgh, James Hutton was apprenticed to a lawyer while in his teens, but he was constantly disrupting the law office with amateur chemistry experiments. His strong bent for science led him to medicine, which was the only scientific profession recognized at the time. After earning an M.D. from the University of Edinburgh, he then pursued studies in chemistry and medicine in Paris and Leyden. After returning to his home city, Hutton's efforts to establish a practice were thwarted by a clique of older physicians, and he decided to earn his living as a "scientific" farmer and chemical manufacturer instead. He also became known as a leading light among Edinburgh's brilliant natural philosophers.

Studying rocks on his own farmland and in the volcanic hills around Edinburgh inspired Hutton to tour Europe and northern Scotland to study granite formations and mines. Since his three sisters ran his household like clockwork, he had time to write, conduct experiments, and spend long evenings with his cronies, who included the geologist and mathematician John Playfair (1748-1819) and Joseph Black (1728-1799), a physician who was one of the founders of modern chemistry.

Hutton's two-volume version of his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation into the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe, published by the new Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1795, blasted the catastrophist tradition, which held that the earth's history was a series of cataclysms or upheavals unlike anything known today, caused by drastically different processes.

As far as Hutton was concerned, geologists should not attempt to theorize about "the origin of things," since we can only attempt to understand processes that we can observe (Lyell, 1854). Field geologists could see for themselves that the earth was in a constant state of change. Floods eroded hillsides, weather cracked and crumbled rocks, and avalanches changed the shape of mountains. A history of past depositions, upheavals, and erosions could be read in so-called unconfor

mities—fossil surfaces of erosion, gaps in time separating two episodes in rock formations. Some sequences of strata or deposited layers, he recognized, had been tilted or upended by later earth movements. Hutton was also the first to correctly understand how metamorphic rocks were formed from sedimentary ones by compression. He did not, however, believe that all these processes acted to evolve the world or modify it in any particular direction. Instead, he saw the building and wearing down of geological features through such processes as deposition of sediments, intrusion of lava, and erosion by wind and water as part of the steady maintenance of a planet that has "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end" (cited in Gould, 1987). He believed that time and geological events moved in great cycles, and that the "purpose" of it all was to sustain life—with human dominion over all other forms of life.

Hutton was a poor writer, whose key ideas were often lost among his meanderings and repetitions. He was lucky, however, in his choice of friends. John Playfair interpreted and summarized Hutton's discoveries in Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, a small and very readable book published in 1802, five years after Hutton's death. Play-fair's successful popularization kept his friend's ideas alive; a few decades later, they inspired Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin to revolutionize the natural sciences.

—Richard Milner

See also: Deposition; Geological Time Scale; Lyell, Charles


Craig, G. Y., and J. H. Hall, eds., 1999. James Hutton: Present and Future. London: Geological Society; Gould, Stephen Jay. 1987. Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Greene, John C. 1961. The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought. New York: Mentor; Lyell, Charles, 1854. Principles of Geology, 9th ed. New York: Appleton; Playfair, J. 1973 [1805]. "Biographical Account of the Late Dr. James Hutton." In James Hutton's System of the Earth, edited by V. A. Eyles and G. W. White, pp. 143-203. New York: Hafner.

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