James Hutton: A timeless legacy

2026 will mark the tercentenary of RSE founding Fellow and the father of modern geology

Ray Perman FRSE, author, former journalist, former Chairman of the James Hutton Institute

The founding of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) in 1783 was the product of a clash of huge egos, fierce academic rivalry, and political infighting. It was typical of James Hutton that he took no part in the conflict – and possibly was unaware that it was happening at all. He lived quietly, outside the universities, and apparently took no interest in politics.

Yet the RSE gave Hutton – the subject of my biography James Hutton, The Genius of Time¹ – a position at the centre of the intellectual life of Enlightenment Edinburgh and a platform from which to launch his ideas and expose them to critical scrutiny. He became a founding Fellow, joined the RSE Council, and was one of the first to read a paper at its meetings.

Hutton deserves a place among the titans of the Enlightenment. He is revered among geologists as the man who formulated the basic theory on which the modern discipline is based, yet compared to his close friends Adam Smith and James Watt he is hardly known at all to non-specialists.

The tercentenary of his birth in 2026 will give an opportunity to try to restore the balance. That year will also mark 250 years since the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and the death of the philosopher David Hume. There are moves to persuade the Scottish Government to name 2026 as the year of Enlightenment with Hutton, Smith, and Hume as its central characters.

Had the RSE not been formed we might know a lot less about Hutton’s work and our view of the development of the earth might have been different. He was an active member for the rest of his life, but his influence persisted long after his death. Over the next half-century, the RSE became a bastion of support for Hutton’s theories against sustained attacks from men with much higher academic standing than he possessed.

By 1783 Hutton was in his late fifties and could be considered a dilettante. He had used the comfortable income his father had left him to dabble in areas that took his interest for a period. He had been a trainee lawyer, a doctor, a farmer, a scientist, a businessman. He co-founded a successful industrial chemicals factory and was on the board of management of the Forth & Clyde canal.

He was known as a wit and an amusing dinner companion who was interested in everything – but unlike his close friend the chemist Joseph Black he had made no major discovery and unlike James Watt he had invented nothing of consequence.

Yet over the remaining 14 years of his life, he published not only his seminal Theory of the Earth, but numerous scientific papers which included a theory of rain, a dissertation on language and a description of infrared radiation five years before Sir William Herschel described the same phenomena to the Royal Society of London.

James Hutton (1726-1797); The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Rocks were formed in strata on the ocean floor from the shells and bones of sea creatures, compressed by the weight of the water above. Gradually this rock was expanded by the heat at the centre of the earth, until it was pushed above the surface of the waters to form land, hills and mountains. These would be broken down by temperature, wind and rain and washed into streams and rivers, eventually reaching the sea as tiny grains, where tides would deposit them on the seabed for the process to begin again.

This circular process, he believed, had happened time and time again and continued to constantly reshape the earth.

Hutton was careful not to put an age on the earth, but conscious also that the process he described would need an unimaginable length of time. But, he added, time was not a constraint – it was infinite.

His most famous phrase, ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end,’ meant just that: he had not sought to describe how the earth started, nor how it would end. However, it did not prevent it from being wilfully misinterpreted by his critics, who made veiled threats of atheism against him, saying that by asserting the earth was eternal (which he never did) he was denying the act of Creation and therefore the existence of God.

Hutton was not an atheist; he acknowledged God as the instigator but challenged conventional orthodoxy, which clung to the Biblical narratives of the seven days of Creation and Noah’s flood. From Biblical sources it had been calculated that the globe was less than 6,000 years old, an impossibly short period for the processes Hutton believed formed the planet.

A close up of a rocky mountain
Siccar Point, Berwickshire is notable in the history of geology as James Hutton observed the angular unconformity of the point. The rocks provided Hutton with conclusive proof of the uniformitarian theory of geological development.

Although he expanded the Theory of the Earth, adding proofs and illustrations, it was not his largest work. An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress of Reason, from Sense to Science and Philosophy, published in 1794 in three volumes totalling over 2,000 pages, announced its highly ambitious intention in the first sentence of the Preface –to ‘investigate the nature or progress of human understanding.’

It was not well received. According to the philosopher Peter Jones: ‘The silence which greeted the publication of the metaphysical treatise was, and has remained, almost complete.’ It did, however, devote a chapter to an explanation of natural selection in animals, over 60 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

It is unlikely that Darwin had read Hutton’s vast tome, but Hutton was a friend of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who had also written about the evolution of animals, and it is possible that the two men had discussed it when Hutton stayed with Erasmus at his home in Lichfield, or afterwards in their long correspondence.

Erasmus died before Charles Darwin was born, but it is probable that he knew of his grandfather’s interest in the subject and had read his books and poetry. Other writers had also discussed natural selection and the selective breeding of crops and farm animals was well established. Darwin was also influenced by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which itself owned much to Hutton’s Theory of the Earth.

Hutton’s last few years were marred by a painfully debilitating illness, yet it did not stop him from working or greeting his friends with humour. At the time of his death in 1797, he was writing a treatise on agriculture. The handwritten manuscript is now owned by the RSE, kept in the National Library of Scotland and is being prepared for publication by Professor Alan Werritty FRSE. More than 200 years after its intended date of publication, it promises to give us new insights into the mind of this remarkable, but under-appreciated scientist.

Ray Perman FRSE, author, former journalist, former Chairman of the James Hutton Institute

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

¹James Hutton, The Genius of Time by Ray Perman, Birlinn

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