Hutton, James

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Hutton, James (1726-1797): English Scientist.

Born in Edinburgh, James Hutton went to university in 1740 to study chemistry and medicine. He spent two years in Paris and graduated M.D. in Leyden in 1749. In 1750, he returned to Britain and began to study practical agriculture and geology. In 1754 Hutton settled on a Berwickshire farm and divided his time between agricultural and geological pursuits. In 1768 he moved to Edinburgh and resumed his scientific studies in collaboration with Black, Joseph, Ferguson, Adam, among others. His chemical experiments revealed the existence of soda in zeolite. In 1785, he contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh a “Theory of the Earth, or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe”, a short presentation of the plutonic theory of geology he later expanded in his famous book The Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations (2 vols. Edinburgh, 1795). Little reaction followed the publication, and the theory only came to be known and discussed through Playfair’s “Illustration of the Huttonian Theory” (Edinburgh, 1802). Hutton considers didn’t distinguish between sedimentary rocks (like limestone) and metamorphic rocks (like schist). According to him, they were both formed by the combined influences of an increasing pressure and the heat of a central fire at the centre of the Earth. These rocks occupy their present position after having been raised and folded by the expansive power of the central fire. Eruptive rocks (like granite or basalt) are mineral substances molten by the central fire and which rose toward the surface. The metallic veins are posterior to the rocks through which they cut, and also originated and rose from the deeper regions. This doctrine was in complete opposition to Werner’s Neptunisme but was gradually accepted by all the geologists, first in Scotland, then in Britain and later in the rest of Europe. It still received some strong criticism during the whole of the nineteenth century for its incompatibility with the Biblical explanations, as it dispenses from any reliance on cataclysmic events and suggested instead a constant and regular evolution which had been going on not for a mere 6000 thousand years, as was usually believed, but for an immensely long time. A theory, which Lyell later established as the principle of his own uniformitarian theory. To confirm his hypothesis, Hutton visited Scotland and Ireland and found several instances of perfect correspondences between his views and the features of the land. In 1794 he published his Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge in three volumes. He spent his last years preparing the Elements of Agriculture. These were closely linked to his geological research: his vision of the earth was one of ever-renewed fertility, a model which had to be studied and whose varied and scattered perfection had to be imitated and united in scientific farming. He devotes an important part of the manuscript to the analysis of soils, their formation, their physical and chemical properties, their mineralogical composition. Some of his pages on animal and plant selection suggest a theory of constant evolution and adaptation of the various species from a single original model somehow similar to Darwin’s theory of Natural selection.

Further Reading:

Jack Repcheck, The man who found time: James Hutton and the discovery of the earth’s antiquity, 2003.

Baudry Samuel

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