James Hutton (1726-1797), a Scottish geologist considered to be the founder of modern geology. In the rocks of Scotland, Hutton found fingers of granite reaching well into sedimentary rocks and saw this as evidence of subterranean fire and heat. He also found neatly deposited layers of sedimentary rocks overlaying rock layers that were almost vertical. The lower layers of rock, he concluded, must have been deposited eons before, and then later upturned. Based on these findings, Hutton was the first to describe the vast expanses of time in Earth's history. These finding were reported in 1785 in a paper entitled Theory of the Earth, often cited as one of the seminal foundations of geological theory.
Hutton is often called the “Father of Modern Geology” for two closely related reasons. He played a prominent role in showing that slow and steady processes like uplift and erosion are responsible for the shape of Earth’s surface and, following from this idea, that Earth must be very old. Hutton did not live long enough to see these concepts dominate the earth sciences, but his scholarship helped set the stage for them to happen. Hutton also was a chemical inventor, an innovative farmer, a scholar who advanced our understanding of rainfall and soils and a member of a remarkable group of intellectuals who transformed many areas of scholarship. (That he may not deserve sole credit for founding modern geology will be discussed later in this essay.)
Hutton was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to a reasonably prosperous family. His father was a businessman who died when James was very young. He had three sisters and a brother, though his brother died in childhood. His mother raised them, living off the monies collected from properties they owned. James attended the University of Edinburgh, starting at age fourteen which was typical at the time. At the University, he became fascinated with chemistry, though no courses in the subject were offered on the topic. He was strongly influenced by Professor Colin Maclaurin, who had known Isaac Newton and instilled in Hutton Newton’s ideas of universal laws and scientific methods for studying nature. Upon graduation, he became an apprentice in a law office, but his heart wasn’t in the law and he soon returned to his alma mater to study medicine. Hutton moved to the University of Paris to continue his medical studies and then to the University of Leyden in the Low Countries, where he obtained his medical degree in 1749.
Hutton, though, never practiced medicine. It is likely that he simply wanted freedom to study chemistry and other pursuits and working as a doctor would have taken up too much time. He had his family investments to support him and, as luck would have it, he gained another source of income. An old school friend, James Davie, shared Hutton’s love of chemistry and the two had experimented on the production of sal ammoniac, a mineral used in metalworking. While Hutton was studying medicine, Davie continued these experiments and found a profitable way to produce it from coal soot. Davie manufactured the sal ammoniac and, while Hutton had little if any involvement with the business, he was a lifelong partner and received an income from the venture. While never a wealthy man, he lived comfortably for the rest of his life.
Hutton owned a farm about forty miles outside of Edinburgh and in 1750 he turned to farming. Agricultural innovation was thriving in England, but Scottish farming had changed little over the centuries. So, Hutton spent two years living on farms in southern England, learning how to be a modern farmer.
During this time, he took long tours of England, often on foot, and he found himself fascinated by the geology he saw. It was obvious to him that many of the rocks he encountered were formed underwater–they had marine fossils–of soft sediments that became hard rock and then lifted above sea level. Some included fragments that clearly had been part of another rock. He was not the first to come to these conclusions, but the processes he inferred were not widely appreciated. It is not clear how, but at this time Hutton also began to see the role of heat from within the earth as fundamentally important to these processes.
At his farm in Scotland, Hutton used many of the agricultural innovations he had learned and, by example, he convinced many of his neighbors to do the same. He conducted experiments on many aspects of farming. Living on the land, he saw soil erosion and began to appreciate its role in landscape change. He stopped farming sometime in the 1760s and moved to Edinburgh, but his fascination with agriculture continued. He never finished his book, Principles of Agriculture, but the manuscript shows keen insight into such topics as the formation of soils, soil fertility, the role of climate on crop yields, and selective breeding of crops and animals. He stated that the goal of the book was “…to make philosophers of husbandmen and husbandmen of philosophers.”
By the time of Hutton’s return, Edinburgh had a remarkable group of intellectuals, most of whom became Hutton’s close friends. The “Scottish Enlightenment” included such luminaries as David Hume, the philosopher and historian, Adam Smith, who founded the study of economics, Joseph Black, who discovered carbon dioxide and helped found modern chemistry, James Watt, who perfected the steam engine design that powered the Industrial Revolution, and John Playfair, a mathematician who played a major role in promoting Hutton’s ideas.
In 1783, the Royal Society of Edinburgh was established and became the formal organization for Scottish intellectuals. Hutton, of course, was a founding member. In 1784, He presented his “Theory of Rain,” in which he proposed the now accepted idea that warmer air holds more water vapor and, therefore, the cooling of air can lead to precipitation. It is not clear if Hutton or Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather) first developed the idea that air cools with height due to expansion from lowered air pressure. He did, though, study the decrease in temperature with height by measuring the temperature of water in springs at different elevations. Ever the experimenter, he created his own wet-bulb thermometer to measure humidity, though a “Mr. Leslie” independently came up with the same technique and developed it into the widely used instrument.
Hutton is best known for his geological work. He was asked to present his theories on Earth’s history to the Society and this forced him to formalize his ideas on the subject. Two lectures were given in 1785. Joseph Black read the first, as Hutton, most likely, was either sick or nervous. Hutton gave the second one month later. These papers were published in the Society’s Transactions in 1788. He then set to work to expand his ideas and put them into a book.
In 1795, Hutton published his most enduring work Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land Upon the Globe. The work is in four parts, highly simplified and selectively reported here. Part 1 deals with the idea that God created Earth to be a habitable world for all living things. (Hutton was a deist, believing that God set up the world but no longer intervenes in its operation.) He explains that soil is necessary for plants to grow, so breakdown and erosion of solid rock into soil is necessary. Because soil fertility decreases over time, old soil must be eroded and replaced by new soil. This process is extremely slow on a human timescale and began long before humans existed. The loose material eroded from the continents accumulates on the sea floor and becomes solid rock again. In Part 2, he explains that loose material consolidates into rock in two ways. One is by water dissolving it and the other is by heat fusing the material together. Part 3 deals with elevating rock above sea level, which is driven by subterranean heat. Earthquakes and, to a lesser extent, volcanoes are primarily responsible for this uplift. Part 4 refutes the idea that Earth is generally unchanging and was spoiled by an immense natural disaster. Here he not only refutes the Great Flood described in Genesis as not supported by the evidence, but also the non-biblical catastrophes discussed by many scholars of the time, such as a massive tsunami that swept over the continents profoundly affecting the landscape. Hutton argued that God created an ever-changing world well suited for human habitation but the causes of this continuing change are unchanging. Fossils, for example, show that the past was the same as the present. (The extinction of species was not appreciated at the time.) Because erosion of the land is so slow, immense periods of time are required to wear away continents and create new ones. This process of creating land masses and wearing them away has gone through many cycles, suggesting a very old Earth. Hutton summed up this conclusion in his most famous line: “…we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”
In Theory of the Earth, Hutton set out a detailed and lengthy argument on the major themes of geology. His critics were many, but they all acknowledged that Hutton had written an important work of science. A major problem with the book, however, was Hutton’s writing style, which made it difficult for many readers to understand what he was trying to convey. In a biographical sketch of Hutton’s life, John Playfair commented on his difficult writing style:
The reasoning is sometimes embarrassed by the care taken to render it strictly logical; and the transitions, from the author’s peculiar notions of arrangement, are often unexpected and abrupt. These defects run more or less through all of Dr. Hutton’s writings, and produce a degree of obscurity astonishing to those who knew him, and who heard him every day converse with no less clearness and precision than animation and force. From whatever causes the want of perspicuity in his writings proceeded, perplexity of thought was not among the number; and the confusion of his ideas can neither be urged as an apology for himself, nor as a consolation to his readers.” (Playfair, 1803, p.61-62)
In 1793, Hutton became ill, possibly of kidney failure, and he remained sick until he died in 1797. In 1802, Playfair published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth in which he presented Hutton’s geological ideas much more clearly than in Hutton’s original work. It is through Playfair’s book that Hutton’s ideas gained widespread attention.
While Playfair found fault with Hutton’s writing style, he truly admired the man as a thinker:
Dr. Hutton possessed, in an eminent degree, the talents, the acquirements, and the temper, which entitle a man to the name of a philosopher. The direction of his studies, though in some respects irregular and uncommon, had been highly favourable to the development of his natural powers, especially of that quick penetration, and that originality of thought, which strongly marked his intellectual character. From the first outset in science, he had pursued the track of experiment and observation, and it was not till after being long exercised in this school, that he entered on the field of general and abstract speculation. He combined accordingly, through his whole life, the powers of an accurate observer, and of a sagacious theorist, and was as cautious and patient in the former character, as he was bold and rapid in the latter. (Playfair, 1803, p. 88)
Hutton was not the first to suggest that Earth is very old or that the Bible is not the ultimate authority on Earth history; these were ideas whose time had come. The French scholar Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), for example, proposed in 1749 that Earth is slowly and continuously changing, with ocean floor becoming dry land and the dry land wearing down and returning to the ocean. Buffon replaced this steady state theory thirty years later with the idea that Earth started as a hot ball that continues to cool and Earth history can be divided into stages. Religion played a minor role in his theories and he was clear that the ‘six days’ of creation described in Genesis could not be literal days. Others presented similar theories around Hutton’s time.
While Hutton may get more credit than he deserves as the founder of modern geology, he was profoundly influential, especially among English speaking geologists and geographers. His idea that the processes acting on the Earth today are the same as have acted throughout Earth’s history was the basis for uniformitarianism, which came to dominate the earth sciences in the Nineteenth Century and continues to do so today.
Sometimes Hutton is improperly credited with being the primary person responsible for moving science away from a strict biblical interpretation of Earth’s history. At the time, most scholars invoked biblical explanations in their theories to some extent, but no leading thinkers considered Earth to have been created in six literal days and few thought that it is a mere few thousand years old. Some invoked the Great Flood as described in Genesis, but most deviated from that explanation as well.
But this does not diminish Hutton’s importance in the history of geology and geography. In Charles Lyell’s highly influential textbook Principles of Geology (1830, p. 61), he states that Hutton’s work was “… the first in which an attempt was made to dispense entirely with all hypothetical causes, and to explain the former changes of the earth’s crust, by reference exclusively to natural agents. Hutton labored to give fixed principles to geology, as Newton had succeeded in doing to astronomy…”
- American Museum of Natural History. James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology.
- JamesHutton.org homepage
- University of St. Andrews, Scotland, School of Mathematics and Statistics. James Hutton Biography.
- Bailey, Edward Battersy. 1967. James Hutton–The Founder of Modern Geology. Amsterdam: Elsevier Publishing Co.
- Lyell, Charles. 1830. Principles of Geology, v. 1. London: John Murray. (Available at: http://www.esp.org/books/lyell/principles/facsimile/title3.html, accessed 6 March 2008.)
- Playfair, John. 1803. Biographical Account of the Late Dr. James Hutton, F.R.S. Edin., reproduced in White, George, W., ed. 1970. Contributions to the History of Geology, v. 5: System of the earth, 1785. Theory of the earth, 1788. Observations on granite, 1794. Together with Playfair’s Biography of Hutton. Darien, Connecticut: Hafner Publishing Co.
- Repcheck, Jack. 2003. The Man Who Found Time : James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity, Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books Group.
- Rudwich, Martin J.S. 2005. Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.