James Hutton transformed our concepts of the earth and the universe by deciphering the message carried by common rocks.
He discovered that our planet is enormously older than people believed. He gathered evidence with his own eyes rather than relying on what ‘everyone knows’ or the written word. Prior to his work it was generally accepted in the West that the earth was about 6,000 years old, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible’s timescale.
Hutton devised one of geology’s fundamental principles – uniformitarianism – which says that the same natural processes we see operating today are the ones that have always operated, and that these everyday natural processes have shaped our world.
Other theories that require an immense amount of time – such as evolution by natural selection and continental drift – would not have been credible without Hutton’s work.
James Hutton was born into a prosperous family in 1726 in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. His birthday was June 3 (old calendar) or June 14 (modern calendar).
His father, William Hutton, was a merchant and the city’s treasurer; he died when James was just three years old.
James’s mother, Sarah Balfour, a merchant’s daughter, was a housewife. Following the death of her husband she managed the family home, taking a keen interest in the education of James and his three sisters. (James had an older brother who died at a young age.)
At age 10 James started classes at Edinburgh High School.
In November 1740, age 14, he enrolled to study humanities (Greek and Latin) with philosophy and mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.
In one lecture the professor of logic attempted to illustrate a philosophical theory to the class. He did this by describing how gold can be dissolved by aqua regia, an acid made by mixing nitric acid with hydrochloric acid. Neither of these acids alone can dissolve gold; only the mixture can.
To Hutton the description was fascinating, not because it supported the professor’s logic, but because it revealed the power of the science of chemistry.
He began reading about chemistry and performing his own experiments. He and his friend James Davie tried to find the best way to extract ammonium chloride – a rare and valuable chemical compound used in metalworking, dyeing, and medicines – from Edinburgh’s plentiful supplies of soot. These experiments laid the foundations of what would later become a profitable business.
Law, Chemistry, and Medicine
In 1743, after graduating, Hutton was apprenticed to a lawyer, but devoted more time to chemistry than legal matters.
Deciding that a career in medicine would be more interesting than law, he enrolled again at the university. In the years 1744-1747 he studied science and medicine. He also worked as a physician’s assistant. Edinburgh did not offer medical degrees, so to complete his education he spent two years studying in Paris, France before qualifying as a doctor of medicine at Leiden University in Holland in 1749.
Hutton, now age 23, moved to the United Kingdom’s capital city, London, where he hoped to establish a medical practice. However, business failed to boom for the young doctor.
Hutton was delighted when his old friend James Davie contacted him and told him that as a result of their earlier chemical investigations they would be able to manufacture ammonium chloride in Edinburgh.
He returned to Edinburgh in summer 1750 and began receiving substantial profits from the chemicals manufacturing partnership.
Farming and Geology
Hutton purchased a number of houses in Edinburgh with his business profits and rented them out.
Confident of an ongoing healthy income, he turned his attention to farming. At age three he inherited two farms from his father. These were operated by local managers.
After doing some research he traveled to England in 1752 to investigate the best farming practices there, which he did for two years in various locations. During his travels he found he greatly enjoyed the rural way of life.
Hutton quickly realized that knowledgeable farmers place great value on their soil’s health and its productivity. During his travels he began paying close attention to farming soils.
He saw a large range of different soils and became increasingly interested in the rocks he saw.
He noticed many rocks seemed to have started as deposits of sand or mud in water. He noticed rocks far inland, high above sea level, contained the shells of marine life.
In spring 1754 he spent a few months traveling through Holland, Flanders, and northern France observing farming practices. He spent much of his time looking at the land and rocks, because he was now as interested in geology as farming.
At late summer 1754 Hutton returned to Sligh Houses, one of the Scottish farms his father had left him. For the next ten years or so he managed the farm while continuing to pursue his interest in geology.
Eventually, with his farm performing highly efficiently, he got itchy feet: he needed a new challenge. He began spending increasing amounts of time in Edinburgh.
In 1768, age 42, he rented out his farm and returned permanently to Edinburgh, where he was welcomed into the home shared by his three sisters.
A Remarkable Club
In Edinburgh, Hutton enjoyed a life of intellectual inquiry and science. He started getting together every week in a tavern with two friends. Their names were Adam Smith – the founder of modern economics, and Joseph Black – the great chemist, discoverer of magnesium, carbon dioxide, and the principles of latent heat and specific heat. Hutton also became great friends with James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine triggered the industrial revolution. This was the era of the Scottish Enlightenment.
The meetings became known as the Oyster Club. Soon several other intellectuals such as David Hume – often cited as the greatest philosopher to write in English – joined the three original members for lively discussions over a plate of oysters and a glass or two of wine, ale, or whisky.
James Hutton’s Contributions to Science
Hutton embarked on expeditions to catalogue the rocks around Scotland’s coasts, islands and mountains. He also undertook a painstaking survey of many of the rocks of England and Wales, with the result that his knowledge of Great Britain’s rock formations was unparalleled.
In spring 1785 the 58-year-old Hutton gathered his evidence and presented the story of our planet revealed by its rocks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh: Theory of the Earth. His presentation later became a two-volume book.
Prior to Hutton’s work Western cultures had generally accepted that the earth was about 6,000 years old and would continue for only about 1,000 more years. People explained layers in rocks by referring to the biblical flood a few thousand years earlier.
Hutton said the world was enormously older than 6,000 years. In fact, rather than a short past and and even shorter future, he put forward the view that the world was unimaginably old and there was no reason to predict its end:
Hutton’s Rock Cycle
Hutton pictured a cycle in which rocks were eroded into small particles and carried eventually to the sea. There they would gradually be buried ever more deeply under more eroded material. The heat of the earth would fuse the small particles back into solid rock and later lift the rock back to the surface. Then the cycle would begin again.
Hutton concluded that:
- Earth’s interior has a very high temperature.
- Earth’s heat provides the energy to create new rocks.
- Erosion of land by water and air creates materials such as silt, soil, and small rock particles which are carried into the sea, where layers of these materials are deposited over long time scales.
- As the layers gather, the earliest layers become buried ever more deeply in the earth, where they are turned into stone by the earth’s heat.
- Stone is eventually uplifted to form new land.
- The new land is eroded over a long period of time, beginning the cycle again.
The cycle Hutton envisaged could only take place over an immense number of years. This was, he pointed out, because the processes of erosion, sedimentation, and uplift take place exceedingly slowly.
In June 1788 he took his friend John Playfair, a mathematics professor, to look at rock layers showing evidence of the earth’s great antiquity. Playfair said:
Hutton’s Uniformitarianism – Not an Overnight Success
In fact Playfair did more than Hutton to popularize Hutton’s ideas, which were either ignored or attacked when people realized what he proposed.
Hutton’s ideas were unpopular with the church because they challenged the biblical timescale of the world. In fact, Hutton supported the view that God created the earth, but he disagreed with literal interpretations of the Bible at odds with scientific evidence.
Hutton’s ideas were also unpopular with scientists, many of whom supported Abraham Werner’s theory of Neptunism which said, incorrectly, that rocks in Earth’s crust were formed by crystallization of minerals on the seabed.
Hutton’s theory, which opposed Neptunism, was named Plutonism.
Hutton’s Uniformitarianism – In Time it was Accepted
In 1802, five years after Hutton’s death, Playfair published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, a book which finally gathered significant support for Hutton’s ideas.
Between 1830 and 1833 Charles Lyell – who was born in the year Hutton died – published Principles of Geology in three volumes, which won over the majority of scientists to Hutton’s uniformitarian idea: the idea that the same natural processes we see operating today are the ones that have always operated, and over an immense amount of time these have shaped our world.
There was still some scientific opposition to the idea of an incredibly ancient Earth: physicists said the earth’s interior could not continue to be hot if the earth was billions of years old – it would be cold by now. They were wrong, because they did not know our planet’s interior is heated by the long-term decay of radioactive elements: these were yet to be discovered.
Evolution by Natural Selection
In 1794 Hutton stated the principle of natural selection. Many years spent studying farms and running his own farm may have given him a clearer insight than most intellectuals into the principles of selection:
Some Personal Details and the End
Hutton never married. In 1747, age 21, he fathered a son, James Smeaton Hutton. Although Hutton financially supported his son and his son’s mother, whose surname was Edington, they saw very little of one another. In fact, when Hutton left Edinburgh in 1747 to study in Paris and Leiden and then work in London, it is possible he did this as a way of distancing himself from Miss Edington and his son.
James Hutton died in Edinburgh on March 26, 1797, age 70, after suffering poor health and pain for a number of years caused by bladder stones. He was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Churchyard. He had made no will and his estate passed to his surviving sister. On her death she left Hutton’s largest farm to his grandchildren, the children of his only son.
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