Decided to update this 2014 post with a nice video I just found. Hope you enjoy it, too!
Scotland’s James Hutton is called the founder of modern geology. How can that be? He was a chemist, after all.
Well, for starters, a lot of geology involves chemistry (as I found out to my sorrow as an undergraduate back in the 1980s).
More importantly, in Hutton’s day there just wasn’t the specialization in science that we see today.
There was science, of course, and lots of it, since it was the Age of Reason. The Scottish Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason, was in full swing.
People just hadn’t yet sorted out Nature all that much.
Science and the Bible
If you want to know what “geology” in the West was like before James Hutton, go into a garden or a field and look around.
All around you are domains that today are staked out by botanists, geologists, dendrologists, meteorologists, environmentalists, chemists, hydrologists, biologists, mathematicians, and physicists.
Back in the 1700s, it was just Nature. If you studied it, you were a naturalist.
And although this may seem strange to minds accustomed to the modern construct of creationism/science dissonance, in the 18th century you always related your observations of Nature back to the Christian Bible.
This happened for a few reasons.
Historically, Christianity had played a big role in stabilizing Europe down through the centuries. Intellectuals were now reaping the benefits of that secure structure.
Socially and politically, church and state were interconnected.
And on religious grounds, it was okay to use your God-given mind to think about God’s creation, as long as you kept it within Biblical guidelines. This wasn’t difficult, as there weren’t any other guides. It also worked out practically, even when the rocks appeared very old and showed ancient life forms that were no longer around.
The prevalent idea, in Hutton’s day, about Earth was that there had been disastrous events, like floods and upheavals of the land, that accounted for everything from mountains to missing fossils. It all fitted together quite nicely…
…until James Hutton suggested that the small processes going on today, like weathering or gradual uplift/subsidence of the land, could have caused big geologic changes in the past, given: (a) enough time; and (b) a force – say, heat deep within the Earth – to make the land move.
Hutton couldn’t be ignored. His reasoning was impeccable and he had carefully documented his research. There was a furor, of course, but also, perhaps, people began to realize, as if for the first time, that the Bible contains no timelines. Specific dates based on this book had been made by human beings who are, by their very nature, fallible.
Who was James Hutton?
James Hutton was born in Edinburgh in 1726, just 19 years after Scotland and England were united.
After unification, Scottish politicians and aristocrats moved to London. Since Scottish law was unaffected, lawyers remained in the country, as did the education system and the Presbyterian Church.
It was the Age of Enlightenment, and in Scotland, those lawyers, ministers, professors, medical men and other intellectuals – the country’s new elite – formed the basis for a Scottish Enlightenment that was based on books and reason.
Young James was born into a wealthy merchant family at a time when he could take advantage of a Scottish educational system that included, at least in the lowlands, a complete network of parish schools and a choice of five universities (compared to England’s two).
One of those institutions of higher learning – the University of Edinburgh – had, in its medical school, one of the leading centers of European science.
Hutton was 2 years old when his father, who was also Edinburgh’s city treasured and owned a couple of rural farms, died. The child’s mother had the financial resources to raise her children and send James to Edinburgh’s High School when he was 10 years old. He studied Latin, Greek and mathematics.
In 1740, James entered the University of Edinburgh to study law. During his three years there, he also took courses in chemistry, math, and metaphysics.
After graduating in 1743, Hutton apprenticed himself to a lawyer but spent more time on chemistry than on legal papers. A year later he decided to take the training that offered the most chemistry and so entered the University of Edinburgh’s medical school.
While he was there, a girlfriend became pregnant (and later gave birth to a son who eventually became a London clerk). Hutton moved to Paris and then the Netherlands, where he got a medical degree from Leiden University in 1749 (his studies had also been interrupted by the Jacobite rising in 1745).
James Hutton, M.D., moved now to London. It’s not certain whether he truly intended to practice medicine or still wanted to avoid Edinburg.
In any event, he and an old college friend in Edinburgh – James Davie – got in touch. While at the university, Davie and Hutton had discovered a useful industrial compound called sal ammoniac. Now Hutton visited Edinburgh, and in 1750, went into the sal ammoniac business with Davie, though he kept his London residence.
It was a success. Sales of sal ammoniac would provide Hutton a steady lifelong income.
Hutton decided to become a gentleman farmer. Before taking over the two rural Scottish farms his father had left him, the ever methodical James decided to first get some practice under his belt.
In 1752, he moved from London and spent two years on a farm in Norfolk. His observations there sparked an interest in geology.
“No vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end”
As a Scot during the Enlightenment, as well as through his own natural gifts, Hutton unleashed impressive powers of observation and empiric reasoning during his studies of rocks and soil there and on his Scottish farms.
To help him understand things – and again, as a Scot during the Age of Enlightenment – James Hutton turned to books.
These included Robert Hooke’s Discourse on earthquakes (1705), Leibniz’s Protogaea (1749), Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (serially published from 1749 onwards), William Whiston’s A New Theory of the Earth 1696, and Nicolaus Steno’s “Prodromus” dissertation (1669).
Not a “Farmer’s Almanac” among ’em. It was a different time.
On the farms and in his walks through the countryside, Hutton noticed animal and vegetable matter decaying into soil. He also saw rock layers that had clearly once been soil.
The more closely you studied the Earth, the more clearly you could see that “a great geological cycle” existed in which weathering and erosion washed away soil, which was then laid down and turned to rock, which was then raised up into mountains upon which weathering and erosion could once again work.
This did not jive with current thinking that Earth was thousands of years old. Even just one run through the cycle would take millions of years, and Hutton thought it had happened at least three times.
It took time for Hutton to observe his field evidence, think about it, and then develop his theories about Earth’s long history.
In 1785, now back in Edinburgh and a prominent figure in intellectual circles, presented his ideas to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
His Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe was given as two lectures in the spring of 1785. In July, he read to the Society an extract of his Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration and Stability.
Modern writers have made much of the way he ended the first part of Theory of the Earth, but in context I think it can be interpreted as fitting in with Biblical thinking.
Hutton seems to echo the Alpha/Omega nature of Divinity, and of course, since Man can’t understand Divinity, there is no reason – from that viewpoint – for humanity to expect to find the Maker’s hand in the history of the Earth:
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 this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.
Hutton nonetheless was called an atheist, and there was much controversy and disagreement. In reply, Hutton went out into the field and collected more evidence. In doing so, he found the “Great Unconformity” – horizontal layers of red sandstone overlying a layer of conglomerate that sat on almost vertically tilted layers of greywacke.
Why was that significant? Because there could be no other explanation for it than small processes happening over millions of years.
It didn’t silence some of his critics. James Hutton was a great observer and thinker, but his writing wasn’t very accessible. Few read his publications, and some of those who did read them but disagreed misrepresented what he had said.
Today’s Internet flamers are only the latest (and in many cases the least literate) in a long tradition.
It wasn’t until the turn of the 19th century, and five years after Hutton’s death in 1797, that his friend and field coworker, John Playfair, cleared things up with Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802). Simply and eloquently, Playfair set forth Hutton’s insights into how small geologic processes can have big effects over a long enough period of time.
It took a while, but some other naturalists, including Charles Lyell, gradually came around to Hutton’s way of thinking.
Today James Hutton’s field methods and insight that “the present is the key to the past” are something every Geology 101 student must learn. He truly did lay the foundations for modern geology.
Featured image: Library of Congress via Wikimedia.