James Hutton, the ‘father’ of modern geology, died on the 26th of March, 1797.
Scotland has had Burns the farmer, Hogg the shepherd and Tannahill the weaver, but nary a bit of the fame of any of those is related to their primary occupation. James Hutton the farmer, on the other hand, used his livelihood as a means of advancing the career that was to make him famous. Hutton was the 18th Century farmer, geologist and naturalist who discovered that heat from within the Earth is involved in the process of mineralisation. He sensibly forbore the study of humanities and involuntarily exchanged that of law to graduate as a doctor, but in truth, he did the latter only as the best means of gaining an education in chemistry, which was essential to progress in what became his lifelong passion. James Hutton progressed from the manufacture of ammonium chloride from soot, a process for which he is less famous, but nevertheless for which he deserves credit, together with the friend with whom he jointly discovered the process, to becoming a farmer. Thereafter, he sought to apply scientific principles to agriculture and devoted his time to the land, but more pertinently, to the study of geology and mineralogy. He is best known for his massive missive, ‘Theory of the Earth’.
After he began to devote himself to geology, Hutton became an active supporter of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In consequence, in that period of the Scottish Enlightenment, Farmer Hutton was accepted by Edinburgh’s intellectual circle. Nowadays, farmers aren’t allowed any closer to that city than Ingliston and that only during the Royal Highland Show. In Hutton’s time, the list of luminaries with whom he mingled included many another famous Scot. He was friends with James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; David Hume, the great philosopher of human nature; Adam Smith, author of the famous book on capitalism, ‘The Wealth of Nations’; and Joseph Black, who discovered carbon dioxide. Black and Watt were among Hutton’s greatest supporters and closest friends.
James Hutton formulated a definite scientific theory, or system, of the earth, however, he did not write it down until he was persuaded to address one of the first meetings of the newly founded Royal Society of Edinburgh. That was in 1785 and his paper was entitled, ‘Theory of the Earth; or, An Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe’. The following year, Hutton published his two volume ‘Theory of the Earth’ and that culmination of his studies is now considered to be one of the founding texts of modern geology. In it, Hutton rejected the widely held belief that the Earth was no more than 6,000 years old, a figure erroneously arrived at by Biblical scholars (the earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old). Instead, he argued that the planet was far older and that its surface had undergone, and continued to undergo, a constant evolution.
Hutton built on this theory to produce ‘An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy’. The forces of change, he concluded, meant that rivers carried silt to lakes and oceans, where they were laid down and compressed into rock, while wind and rain wore down exposed surfaces. However, according to Hutton, the major cause of geologic change was volcanic activity and erosion. He viewed the planet’s inner core as a ‘heat-engine’ capable of fusing together sedimentary rock, causing upheavals in strata and creating mountains. Not for that pragmatic Scot any ridiculous notions of gods or mythical creators, you’d like to think. However, he couldn’t escape all of the blinkered customs of his time and, despite his enlightened theories, Hutton was, it seems, inclined to favour a benevolent design.
James Hutton was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd of June, 1726, according to the old style Julian calendar. Hutton lived through the transition to the new style Gregorian calendar, which meant he lost eleven days of his life as his birthday would have been adjusted to the 14th of June. James went to Edinburgh University in 1740, to study the humanities, but thankfully for the science of geology and instead, he developed a strong interest in chemistry. Nevertheless, at seventeen, he accepted an apprenticeship at law on the advice of friends who felt he should pursue a more lucrative career. That early exposure to legal matters didn’t influence his adherence to rules, however, and performing chemistry experiments when he should’ve been ‘legal beagling’ ultimately led to his dismissal.
Hutton then chose medicine as a profession and, for three years, studied at Edinburgh University, which was then the only means of obtaining an extensive knowledge of chemistry. After moving to Paris in 1747, he eventually transferred to the University of Leiden, in Holland, where he graduated, in 1749, with his M.D. It was during that time that he developed his interest in geology and mineralogy. After returning to Scotland in the summer of 1750, Hutton formed a partnership with close friend James Davie, to manufacture ammonium chloride from soot, a process they had jointly discovered. Hutton then took up farming, on inherited land near Edinburgh, and remained there until 1768, attempting to apply scientific measures to traditional agricultural practices. After that, he leased his farm and moved to Edinburgh, where he spent the rest of his life.
Hutton died on the 26th of March in 1797, two years after the publication of a three volume edition of his book, which was panned by the likes of Irish academic Richard Kirwan, who suggested that Hutton’s theories were blasphemies. By the time the book became available, Hutton had become too ill to provide much of a retort to his critics, but he had his eminent supporters in his friends and fellow Scots, John Playfair and James Hall. In fact, it wasn’t until 1802, when Playfair published ‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory’, summarising the great geologist’s work, that Hutton’s views gained popular attention. Hall played his part in supporting Hutton by the practical means of conducting laboratory experiments to show that igneous rock could form mineral crystals, simply by slowly cooling down.
Playfair’s work, along with Charles Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology’, in which you’ll find his famous phrase inspired by Hutton’s work – “the present is the key to the past” – eventually led to the widespread acceptance of the ‘Huttonian Theory’ on which the modern science of geology is founded. Interestingly, Hutton’s ‘Principles of Knowledge’ includes passages that clearly refer to early concepts of evolution and natural selection. Interesting also, because Hutton inspired Lyell and the champion of evolution, Charles Darwin, has been described as Lyell’s first disciple.