James Hutton

On this date in 1726, James Hutton was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. After attending the Royal High School, Hutton enrolled in Edinburgh University in 1740, where he at first studied humanities with the intention of receiving a law degree. However, after discovering chemistry, he abandoned the law and in 1744 began to study medicine. He studied in Edinburgh and Paris before receiving his M.D. in 1749 in Leiden, in what is now the Netherlands. Hutton never practiced medicine, instead devoting himself in turn to the manufacture of ammonium chloride, the study of new agricultural methods, and the construction of canals. Beginning in the 1750s, Hutton became interested in geology, journeying through England, Wales and Scotland to study rock formations. Hutton never married, living with his sisters for much of his adult life. He did, however, father a child, also named James Hutton, during his student years.

One of Hutton’s major contributions to the field of geology was the discovery in 1785 that granite is an igneous, rather than a sedimentary, rock (that is, it is formed from cooling magma, not from compacted sediments). Hutton is perhaps best known for the theory of Uniformitarianism, or the idea that the only processes that can have acted on the Earth’s surface are processes we see around us today—for example, erosion, deposition of sediments, and volcanic activity. The prevailing theory of the 18th century was Catastrophism: the idea that many great catastrophes, such as floods, caused relatively rapid rock formation and landform change. In England especially, geologists were eager to reconcile their theories with the biblical accounts of Genesis; theories that posited catastrophic floods remained popular because they fit well with the biblical story of Noah. Theories such as Hutton’s, which required vastly more time than the bible allowed, were seen as especially suspect. Hutton himself was a deist, who believed that the world had been created for humans’ eventual emergence; however, he did not believe that god interfered in the world, so that the miraculous-seeming events of Catastrophism seemed impossible to him. Hutton explained his geological theories in Theory of the Earth, the first two volumes of which were published in 1795, and the third volume of which was published posthumously in 1899. He was a famously abstruse writer, whose works were not much read; but John Playfair, Hutton’s biographer, published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth in 1802, which popularized Hutton’s difficult material. D. 1797.

“The past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now. No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle.”

—James Hutton, “Theory of the Earth,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1785

Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

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