James Hutton

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"We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end." [1]

James Hutton (3 June 1726 - 26 March 1797) was born in Edinburgh and educated at the high school and University there. He first chose medicine as a career, completed his medical education in France and the Netherlands, taking his degree of doctor of medicine at Leiden in 1749. After inheriting a farm in Berwickshire from his father, he went to Norfolk to learn the practical work of farming, and subsequently travelled in Holland, Belgium and France. In 1754 he returned to his farm in Berwickshire, where he stayed for fourteen years. In 1768, with the farm established and successful, he let it and moved back to Edinburgh, where he lived for the rest of his life, unmarried, with his three sisters.

In Edinburgh, Hutton became a prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, a friend of the chemist Joseph Black, the political economist Adam Smith, the philosopher and historian Adam Ferguson, the inventor James Watt, and the mathematician John Playfair. A deist in religion, he believed that the universe was established by a powerful and benevolent deity, while dismissing the Biblical miracles as fables. Hutton took the Newtonian laws of mechanics as the basis of a system of the earth, supplemented by Black's principles of heat and chemistry.

In 1783, a philosophical society to which Hutton belonged was reconstituted as the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Two years later, he outlined his theory of the earth in a paper to that Society entitled ‘Theory of the Earth, or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe’. “This globe of the earth,” he declared, “is evidently made for man…. It is a habitable world; and on its fitness for this purpose, our sense of mission in its formation must depend.” So that the globe would remain indefinitely habitable, the deity had designed a cycle of continuous decay and renewal. The surface of the earth was continually eroded by the actions of wind and rain, and these formed the soil that plants needed. Over time, the soil was washed away by streams into rivers and thence into the oceans. At the bottom, under the immense pressure of the overlying sea, it became consolidated into rock. This narrative of continuous degradation of the land and mountains was balanced by other forces; subterranean heat heat disrupted and uplifted the sediments formed beneath the sea to form new land; during these convulsions, veins and masses of molten rock were injected into the rents of the dislocated strata.

Hutton’s ideas were not easily accepted. Many argued that the soil, far from constantly disappearing, was a mantle that protected the earth. While others agreed that fossils in calcareous rocks indicated that these strata had once been underwater, they ridiculed the idea that rocks had been consolidated and elevated by heat. Five years after Hutton's death John Playfair published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth; this work, regarded as one of the classical contributions to the geological literature, established Hutton’s reputation. Charles Lyell made Hutton the hero of the introduction to his Principles of Geology (1830) and Archibald Geikie, in his Founders of Geology (1901), treated Hutton as a founding father of the discipline.