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James Hutton (1726 – 1797)

The founder of modern geology, James Hutton lived a colourful life before devoting himself to the study of the origins of the Earth.

James Hutton
Sir Henry Raeburn. James Hutton, 1726 - 1797. Geologist (About 1776).

Born and raised in Edinburgh, he enrolled in a humanities degree the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14 to study Latin and philosophy. His fascination with science was already present, as he began reading about chemistry and performing experiments with his friend James Davie.

Their profitable ventures into extracting ammonium chloride – a rare and valuable chemical compound – from Edinburgh’s then plentiful supplies of soot would later provide Hutton with the financial stability to pursue his side interest in farming that eventually led him to his geological discoveries.

A few false starts

Prior to his return to Edinburgh in 1750, Hutton was apprenticed to a lawyer, obtained a medical degree at Leiden University in Holland, and established an unsuccessful medical practice in London. None of these endeavours proved satisfactory to him, fuelling his decision to return to science.

Hutton spend most of his life travelling across Europe. Initially he went off to France to complete his medical degree, presumably because he wanted to avoid the responsibility for an illegitimate child of his in Edinburgh.

Later on Hutton travelled extensively across Scotland, England, and France to explore the local farming practices. It is during that time that he started paying particular attention to the local soils, rocks, and landscapes. He then embarked on expeditions to catalogue the rocks around Scotland, building the empirical foundation for his theories.

Contribution to geology

Hutton’s main contribution to geology was the idea of uniformitarianism whose main implication was that the Earth was significantly older than was previously conceived. This was extremely progressive at the time and went against both the scientific and religious notions about the origin and age of the Earth.

It had been long held that the Earth had been created 6,000 years ago based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Hutton’s bold ideas won him many enemies in the clergy, and he was largely proclaimed as an atheist, although he personally believed in God but opposed the literal interpretations of the biblical texts, as well as their meddling with science.

[It] is the little causes, long continued, which are considered as bringing about the greatest changes of the earth.

Theory of the Earth, with Proofs and Illustrations, Vol. 2 (1795), 205

Scientific recognition

Hutton’s ideas were not well-received by the scientific community either. His unpopularity was largely due to his very peculiar, intricate and widely confusing style of writing, with one of his volumes partially written in French.

It was only after Hutton’ death that he received wider recognition of his scientific genius thanks to his friend John Playfair, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, who rewrote and published Hutton’s original works in a more intelligible way.

Despite the lack of recognition from the scientific community at the time, Hutton’s progressive ideas became the cornerstone not only of the science of geology, but of branches of biology and evolutionary studies as well, inspiring Darwin’s work into natural selection among others.