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James Hutton

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James Hutton

James Hutton
Hutton as painted by Sir Henry Raeburn in 1776
Born 3 June 1726 (1726-06-03)
Edinburgh, Great Britain
Died Did not recognize date. Try slightly modifying the date in the first parameter. (age 70)
Edinburgh, Great Britain
Citizenship Great Britain
Nationality Scottish
Fields Geology
Known for Plutonic geology
Deep time
Live Earth
Influences John Walker
Influenced Charles Lyell

James Hutton FRSE (; 3 June 1726 OS (14 June 1726 NS) – 26 March 1797) was a Scottish geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist, and experimental agriculturalist.[1] He originated the theory of uniformitarianism—a fundamental principle of geology—which explains the features of the Earth's crust by means of natural processes over geologic time. Hutton's work established geology as a proper science, and thus he is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Geology".[2][3]

Through observation and carefully reasoned geological arguments, Hutton came to believe that the Earth was perpetually being formed; he recognised that the history of the Earth could be determined by understanding how processes such as erosion and sedimentation work in the present day. His theories of geology and geologic time,[4] also called deep time,[5] came to be included in theories which were called plutonism and uniformitarianism. Some of his writings anticipated the Gaia hypothesis.

Early life and career

He was born in WS when he was 17, but took more interest in chemical experiments than legal work. At the age of 18, he became a physician's assistant, and attended lectures in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After three years he went to the University of Paris to continue his studies, taking the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Leiden University in 1749 with a thesis on blood circulation.[6] Around 1747 he had a son by a Miss Edington, and though he gave his child James Smeaton Hutton financial assistance, he had little to do with the boy who went on to become a post-office clerk in London.[7]

After his degree Hutton returned to London, then in mid-1750 went back to Edinburgh and resumed chemical experiments with close friend, James Davie. Their work on production of sal ammoniac from soot led to their partnership in a profitable chemical works,[8] manufacturing the crystalline salt which was used for dyeing, metalworking and as smelling salts and previously was available only from natural sources and had to be imported from Egypt. Hutton owned and rented out properties in Edinburgh, employing a factor to manage this business.[9]

Farming and geology

Hutton inherited from his father the Berwickshire farms of Slighhouses, a lowland farm which had been in the family since 1713, and the hill farm of Nether Monynut.[10] In the early 1750s he moved to Slighhouses and set about making improvements, introducing farming practices from other parts of Britain and experimenting with plant and animal husbandry.[11] He recorded his ideas and innovations in an unpublished treatise on The Elements of Agriculture.[12]

This developed his interest in [13] ancestor of the famous James Clerk Maxwell.[14]

Edinburgh and canal building

In 1768 Hutton returned to Edinburgh, letting his farms to tenants but continuing to take an interest in farm improvements and research which included experiments carried out at Slighhouses. He developed a red dye made from the roots of the madder plant.[15]

He had a house built in 1770 at St John's Hill, Edinburgh, overlooking Salisbury Crags. This later became the Balfour family home and, in 1840, the birthplace of the psychiatrist James Crichton-Browne. Hutton was one of the most influential participants in the Scottish Enlightenment, and fell in with numerous first-class minds in the sciences including John Playfair, philosopher David Hume and economist Adam Smith.[16] Hutton held no position in Edinburgh University and communicated his scientific findings through the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was particularly friendly with Joseph Black, and the two of them together with Adam Smith founded the Oyster Club for weekly meetings, with Hutton and Black finding a venue which turned out to have rather disreputable associations.[17]

Between 1767 and 1774 Hutton had considerable close involvement with the construction of the Forth and Clyde canal, making full use of his geological knowledge, both as a shareholder and as a member of the committee of management, and attended meetings including extended site inspections of all the works. In 1777 he published a pamphlet on Considerations on the Nature, Quality and Distinctions of Coal and Culm which successfully helped to obtain relief from excise duty on carrying small coal.[18]

Theory of rock formations

Hutton hit on a variety of ideas to explain the rock formations he saw around him, but according to Playfair he "was in no haste to publish his theory; for he was one of those who are much more delighted with the contemplation of truth, than with the praise of having discovered it". After some 25 years of work,[19] his Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was read to meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in two parts, the first by his friend Joseph Black on 7 March 1785, and the second by himself on 4 April 1785. Hutton subsequently read an abstract of his dissertation Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration and Stability to Society meeting on 4 July 1785,[20] which he had printed and circulated privately.[21] In it, he outlined his theory as follows;

Search for evidence

Hutton's Section on Edinburgh's Salisbury Crags

At Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains in the Scottish Highlands in 1785, Hutton found granite penetrating metamorphic schists, in a way which indicated that the granite had been molten at the time. This showed to him that granite formed from cooling of molten rock, not precipitation out of water as others at the time believed, and that the granite must be younger than the schists.[22][23]

He went on to find a similar penetration of volcanic rock through sedimentary rock near the centre of Edinburgh, at Salisbury Crags,[3] adjoining Arthur's Seat: this is now known as Hutton's Section.[24][25] He found other examples in Galloway in 1786, and on the Isle of Arran in 1787.

Hutton's Unconformity on Arran
Hutton Unconformity at Jedburgh. Photograph (2003) below Clerk of Eldin illustration (1787).

The existence of angular unconformities had been noted by Nicolas Steno and by French geologists including Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, who interpreted them in terms of Neptunism as "primary formations". Hutton wanted to examine such formations himself to see "particular marks" of the relationship between the rock layers. On the 1787 trip to the Isle of Arran he found his first example of Hutton's Unconformity to the north of Newton Point near Lochranza,[26][27] but the limited view meant that the condition of the underlying strata was not clear enough for him,[28] and he incorrectly thought that the strata were conformable at a depth below the exposed outcrop.[29]

Later in 1787 Hutton noted what is now known as the Hutton or "Great" Unconformity at Inchbonny,[4] Jedburgh, in layers of sedimentary rock.[30] As shown in the illustrations to the right, layers of greywacke in the lower layers of the cliff face are tilted almost vertically, and above an intervening layer of conglomerate lie horizontal layers of Old Red Sandstone. He later wrote of how he "rejoiced at my good fortune in stumbling upon an object so interesting in the natural history of the earth, and which I had been long looking for in vain." That year, he found the same sequence in Teviotdale.[28]

An eroded outcrop at Siccar Point showing sloping red sandstone above vertical greywacke was sketched by Sir James Hall in 1788.

In the Spring of 1788 he set off with John Playfair to the Berwickshire coast and found more examples of this sequence in the valleys of the Tour and Pease Burns near Cockburnspath.[28] They then took a boat trip from Dunglass Burn east along the coast with the geologist Sir James Hall of Dunglass. They found the sequence in the cliff below St. Helens, then just to the east at Siccar Point found what Hutton called "a beautiful picture of this junction washed bare by the sea".[31][32] Playfair later commented about the experience, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time".[33] Continuing along the coast, they made more discoveries including sections of the vertical beds showing strong ripple marks which gave Hutton "great satisfaction" as a confirmation of his supposition that these beds had been laid horizontally in water. He also found conglomerate at altitudes that demonstrated the extent of erosion of the strata, and said of this that "we never should have dreamed of meeting with what we now perceived".[28]

Hutton reasoned that there must have been innumerable cycles, each involving deposition on the seabed, uplift with tilting and erosion then undersea again for further layers to be deposited. On the belief that this was due to the same geological forces operating in the past as the very slow geological forces seen operating at the present day, the thicknesses of exposed rock layers implied to him enormous stretches of time.[4]


Though Hutton circulated privately a printed version of the abstract of his Theory (Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability) which he read at a meeting of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 4 July 1785;[21] the full account of his theory as read at 7 March 1785 and 4 April 1785 meetings did not appear in print until 1788. It was titled Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe and appeared in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. I, Part II, pp. 209–304, plates I and II, published 1788.[20] He put forward the view that "from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen thereafter." This restated the Scottish Enlightenment concept which David Hume had put in 1777 as "all inferences from experience suppose ... that the future will resemble the past", and Charles Lyell memorably rephrased in the 1830s as "the present is the key to the past".[34] Hutton's 1788 paper concludes; "The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end."[20] His memorably phrased closing statement has long been celebrated.[4][35] (It was quoted in the 1989 song “No Control" by songwriter and professor Greg Graffin.[36])

Following criticism, especially the arguments from Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.

The whole was entitled An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy when the third volume was completed in 1794.[39] Its 2,138 pages prompted Playfair to remark that "The great size of the book, and the obscurity which may justly be objected to many parts of it, have probably prevented it from being received as it deserves.”

Opposing theories

His new theories placed him into opposition with the then-popular Neptunist theories of Abraham Gottlob Werner, that all rocks had precipitated out of a single enormous flood. Hutton proposed that the interior of the Earth was hot, and that this heat was the engine which drove the creation of new rock: land was eroded by air and water and deposited as layers in the sea; heat then consolidated the sediment into stone, and uplifted it into new lands. This theory was dubbed "Plutonist" in contrast to the flood-oriented theory.

As well as combating the Neptunists, he also opened up the concept of deep time for scientific purposes, in opposition to Catastrophism. Rather than accepting that the earth was no more than a few thousand years old, he maintained that the Earth must be much older, with a history extending indefinitely into the distant past.[22] His main line of argument was that the tremendous displacements and changes he was seeing did not happen in a short period of time by means of catastrophe, but that processes still happening on the Earth in the present day had caused them. As these processes were very gradual, the Earth needed to be ancient, to allow time for the changes. Before long, scientific inquiries provoked by his claims had pushed back the age of the earth into the millions of years – still too short when compared with the accepted 4.6 billion year age in the 21st century, but a distinct improvement.

Acceptance of geological theories

It has been claimed that the prose of Principles of Knowledge was so obscure that it also impeded the acceptance of Hutton's geological theories.[40] Restatements of his geological ideas (though not his thoughts on evolution) by John Playfair in 1802 and then Charles Lyell in the 1830s popularised the concept of an infinitely repeating cycle, though Lyell tended to dismiss Hutton's views as giving too much credence to catastrophic changes.

Lyell's books had widespread influence, not least on the up-and-coming young geologist Charles Darwin who read them with enthusiasm during his voyage on the Beagle, and has been described as Lyell's first disciple. In a comment on the arguments of the 1830s, William Whewell coined the term uniformitarianism to describe Lyell's version of the ideas, contrasted with the catastrophism of those who supported the early 19th century concept that geological ages recorded a series of catastrophes followed by repopulation by a new range of species. Over time there was a convergence in views, but Lyell's description of the development of geological ideas led to wide belief that uniformitarianism had triumphed.

Other contributions


It was not merely the earth to which Hutton directed his attention. He had long studied the changes of the atmosphere. The same volume in which his Theory of the Earth appeared contained also a Theory of Rain. He contended that the amount of moisture which the air can retain in solution increases with temperature, and, therefore, that on the mixture of two masses of air of different temperatures a portion of the moisture must be condensed and appear in visible form. He investigated the available data regarding rainfall and climate in different regions of the globe, and came to the conclusion that the rainfall is regulated by the humidity of the air on the one hand, and mixing of different air currents in the higher atmosphere on the other.

Earth as a living entity

The idea that the Earth is alive is found in philosophy and religion, but the first scientific discussion was by James Hutton. In 1785, he stated that the Earth was a reductionism of the 19th century.[41]


Hutton also advocated uniformitarianism for living creatures  – evolution, in a sense – and even suggested natural selection as a possible mechanism affecting them:

"...if an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race." – Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, volume 2.[39]

Hutton gave the example that where dogs survived through "swiftness of foot and quickness of sight... the most defective in respect of those necessary qualities, would be the most subject to perish, and that those who employed them in greatest perfection... would be those who would remain, to preserve themselves, and to continue the race". Equally, if an acute sense of smell became "more necessary to the sustenance of the animal... the same principle [would] change the qualities of the animal, and.. produce a race of well scented hounds, instead of those who catch their prey by swiftness". The same "principle of variation" would influence "every species of plant, whether growing in a forest or a meadow". He came to his ideas as the result of experiments in plant and animal breeding, some of which he outlined in an unpublished manuscript, the Elements of Agriculture. He distinguished between heritable variation as the result of breeding, and non-heritable variations caused by environmental differences such as soil and climate.[39]

Though he saw his "principle of variation" as explaining the development of varieties, Hutton rejected the idea that evolution might originate species as a "romantic fantasy", according to William Charles Wells and Patrick Matthew who had both been associated with the city before publishing their ideas on the topic early in the 19th century.[39]


  • 1785. Abstract of a dissertation read in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, upon the seventh of March, and fourth of April, MDCCLXXXV, Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability. Edinburgh. 30pp.
  • 1788. The theory of rain. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 1, Part 2, pp. 41–86.
  • 1788. Theory of the Earth; or an investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the Globe. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 1, Part 2, pp. 209–304.
  • 1792. Dissertations on different subjects in natural philosophy. Edinburgh & London: Strahan & Cadell.
  • 1794. Observations on granite. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 3, pp. 77–81.
  • 1794. A dissertation upon the philosophy of light, heat, and fire. Edinburgh: Cadell, Junior, Davies.
  • 1794. An investigation of the principles of knowledge and of the progress of reason, from sense to science and philosophy. Edinburgh: Strahan & Cadell.
  • 1795. Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations. Edinburgh: Creech. 2 vols.
  • 1797. Elements of Agriculture. Unpublished manuscript.
  • , Edited by Sir Archibald Geikie. Geological Society, Burlington House, London.Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations, vol III1899. at Internet Archive

See also


  1. ^ Waterston, Charles D; Macmillan Shearer, A (2006). Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002: Biographical Index I. Edinburgh:  
  2. ^  
  3. ^ a b David Denby (11 October 2004). "Northern Lights: How modern life emerged from eighteenth-century Edinburgh".  
  4. ^ a b c d  
  5. ^ Kenneth L. Taylor (September 2006). "Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time".  
  6. ^ "Early Years". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  7. ^ "Settled and Unsettled". James Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  8. ^ "Thoughts of Settling in the World". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  9. ^ "Business and Related Interests". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  10. ^ "James Hutton the Farmer". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  11. ^ a b "Return to Slighhouses and Farm Improvement". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  12. ^ "The Elements of Agriculture". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  13. ^ "Farming and Hutton the Geologist". James Retrieved 3 October 2010. , Playfair
  14. ^ Campbell, Lewis; Garnett, William (1882). The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. London: Macmillan and Company. p. 18. 
  15. ^ "Return to Edinburgh". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  16. ^ "Hutton's Contemporaries and The Scottish Enlightenment". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  17. ^ "The Oyster Club". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  18. ^ "The Forth and Clyde Canal". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  19. ^ "The Theory of the Earth". James Retrieved 11 April 2008. 
  20. ^ a b c d Theory of the Earth full text (1788 version)
  21. ^ a b Concerning the System of the Earth abstract
  22. ^ a b Robert Macfarlane (13 September 2003). "Glimpses into the abyss of time".  
  23. ^ "Glen Tilt". Scottish Geology. Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  24. ^ Scottish Geology – Hutton's Section at Salisbury Crags
    Scottish Geology – Hutton's Rock at Salisbury Crags
  25. ^ Cliff Ford (1 September 2003). "Hutton's Section at Hoyrood Park". Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  26. ^ "Hutton's Unconformity".  
  27. ^ "Hutton's Unconformity - Lochranza, Isle of Arran, UK - Places of Geologic Significance on". Retrieved 20 October 2008. 
  28. ^ a b c d Keith Montgomery (2003). "Siccar Point and Teaching the History of Geology" (PDF). University of Wisconsin. Retrieved 26 March 2008. 
  29. ^ Hugh Rance (1999). "Hutton's unconformities" (PDF). Historical Geology: The Present is the Key to the Past. QCC Press. Retrieved 20 October 2008. 
  30. ^ "Jedburgh: Hutton's Unconformity". Jedburgh online. Whilst visiting Allar's Mill on the Jed Water, Hutton was delighted to see horizontal bands of red sandstone lying 'unconformably' on top of near vertical and folded bands of rock. 
  31. ^ "Hutton's Journeys to Prove his Theory". Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  32. ^ "Hutton's Unconformity". Retrieved 3 May 2011. 
  33. ^  
  34. ^ Elizabeth Lincoln Mathieson (13 May 2002). "The Present is the Key to the Past is the Key to the Future". The Geological Society of America. Retrieved 28 September 2010. 
  35. ^ Keith Stewart Thomson. "Vestiges of James Hutton".  
  36. ^  
  37. ^ Theory of the Earth, Volume 1 at Project Gutenberg
  38. ^ Theory of the Earth, Volume 2 at Project Gutenberg
  39. ^ a b c d Paul N. Pearson (16 October 2003). "In Retrospect".  
  40. ^ Geikie, Archibald (1897). The Founders of Geology. London: Macmillan and Company. p. 166. 
  41. ^ a b Lovelock, James (1979). GAIA – A new look at life on Earth. Oxford University Press. pp. viii, 10.  
  42. ^ Lovelock, J. E. (1965). "A physical basis for life detection experiments".  
  43. ^ Connor, Steve (16 October 2003). "The original theory of evolution... were it not for the farmer who came up with it, 60 years before Darwin". The Independent. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  44. ^ Dean, Dennis R. (1992). James Hutton and the History of Geology. Cornell University Press. p. 265. 

Further reading

  • Baxter, Stephen (2003). Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time. New York: Tor Books, 2004. ISBN 0-7653-1238-7. Published in the UK as Revolutions in the Earth: James Hutton and the True Age of the World. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-82975-0
  • Dean, Dennis R. (1992). James Hutton and the History of Geology. Cornell University Press. p. 265. 
  • Playfair, John (1822). "Biographical Account of the late James Hutton, M.D.". The Works of John Playfair, Esq.. vol. IV. Edinburgh: Constable. 
  • Repcheck, Jack (2003). The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity. London and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-3189-9 (UK), ISBN 0-7382-0692-X (US)

External links

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