James Hutton

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James Hutton bigraphy, stories - Scottish geologist

James Hutton : biography

14 June 1726 – 26 March 1797

James Hutton (3 June 1726 OS (14 June 1726 NS) – 26 March 1797) was a Scottish geologist, physician, chemical manufacturer, naturalist, and experimental agriculturalist. He is credited as being the originator of uniformitarianism—one of the fundamental principles 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".

Through observation and carefully reasoned geological arguments, Hutton came to believe that the Earth was perpetually being formed; he recognized 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, also called deep time, came to be included in theories which were called plutonism and uniformitarianism. He is also credited as the first scientist to publicly express the Earth was alive and should be considered a superorganism.

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. 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, in order 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 yearsstill 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. 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.

Early life and career

He was born in Edinburgh on 3 June 1726 OS as one of five children of William Hutton, a merchant who was Edinburgh City Treasurer, but who died in 1729 when James was still young. Hutton’s mother — Sarah Balfour — insisted on his education at the High School of Edinburgh where he was particularly interested in mathematics and chemistry, then when he was 14 he attended the University of Edinburgh as a "student of humanity" i.e. Classics (Latin and Greek). He was apprenticed to the lawyer George Chalmers WS when he was 17, but took more interest in chemical experiments than legal work and at the age of 18 became a physician’s assistant as well as attending lectures in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. After three years he studied the subject in Paris (University of Paris), then in 1749 took the degree of Doctor of Medicine at Leyden with a thesis on blood circulation. 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.