James Hutton (1726–1797) was a Scottish chemist, physician, agriculturalist, and Enlightenment humanist.1 His father was a wealthy Edinburgh merchant who died when James was two years old, and James grew up as the only male in a household of his mother and three sisters.
James attended the University of Edinburgh. His natural philosophy lecturer there had worked with the great creationist scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727),2 which helped infuse in James a particular interest in Newton’s laws of motion and gravity as they apply to the orbits of the planets. He was also intensely interested in chemistry. His first employment was as a lawyer’s apprentice, but he preferred doing chemistry experiments to amuse his colleagues. He therefore re-enrolled at the university to study medicine “as being the most nearly allied to chemistry”.3
Sometime in 1747, Hutton fathered a son by a Miss Edington. He named the boy James Smeaton Hutton and supported him financially, but was not otherwise involved as a parent. Probably for this reason, he transferred his medical studies to the University of Paris.4 This was the Paris of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau—the humanists of the French Enlightenment. After a year in this environment, Hutton moved to the University of Leyden in Holland where, in 1749, he finally received his medical degree, with a thesis on blood circulation.5 In this he applied Newton’s concept of cyclic orbits of the planets to the circulatory system of the blood. He would later think about the earth’s rock formations in much the same way.
Returning to England, he abandoned medicine and teamed up with a former classmate and chemistry enthusiast, James Davie, with whom he had discovered a way to make sal ammoniac from coal soot.6 Together they set up a chemical works in Edinburgh in 1750 to produce this, which provided Hutton with a steady livelihood. In 1754, he took up farming on the family property. This gave him the opportunity to study landforms and their erosion by wind and rain. He also went on a geological tour of the Highlands of Scotland in 1764.
Hutton remained unmarried, and in 1768, he returned to Edinburgh to live with his three sisters, also unmarried. In the words of the famous evolutionist Prof. Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002): “Hutton was wealthy enough to be a full-time intellectual.”7
He was also a Freemason and attended the Canongate Lodge, the oldest Masonic chapel in the world.8 The entrance to a memorial to James Hutton where he used to live features two Masonic pillars.
Hutton was a deist, i.e. he conceded the universe must have had a teleological cause,9 but from then on the laws of science were in control. Thus he believed that the ‘cause’ had no further involvement in human affairs, and so was not the God of the Bible. He thus denied the biblical narrative of the creation of the earth and man, and also the worldwide Flood. Prof. Rudwick writes: “In Hutton’s view, the capacities of human thought and rationality alone gave meaning to nature; so a wisely designed world would necessarily make provision for the permanent existence of the human race, and hence for maintaining the habitability of the earth.”10
Hutton regarded the earth as an eternally perpetuating machine, with a succession of worlds extending indefinitely back into the past. He theorized that the earth’s continents were slowly but continually being eroded into the ocean basins. These erosion sediments then hardened into horizontal strata, which were then raised when the ocean floor was uplifted by subterranean volcanic processes, and so formed new continents, which then were gradually eroded into the ocean again. And so on, for ever. Hence the final sentence in Hutton’s Theory of the Earth 11 is: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”12
In this worldview of Hutton’s, time is cyclic. Biblical geologist John Reed explains: “We see time in the Christian mode—a linear expanse with beginning and end, filled with contingent unique events. Hutton did not. Instead he advocated an indefinite non-historical past, a cycling mechanistic world where erosion wore the land down and heat pushed the land back up—all to maintain a perfect habitation for all of his deistic god’s creatures.”13
In transforming time’s arrow (i.e. events in sequence) into time’s cycle, Hutton annihilated history. Gould writes: “Under the metaphor of time’s cycle in its purest form, nothing can be distinctive because everything comes round again—and no event, by itself, can tell us where we are, for nothing anchors us to any particular point in time, but only (at most) to a particular stage of a repeating cycle. … Change is a continuous backing and forthing, never a permanent alteration in any direction.”14
Note that this conveniently eradicates the history recorded in the Bible concerning God’s creation of the earth and mankind, and the rules He has set by which He will one day judge all people.15
Hutton obviously had never heard of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (since it had not yet been formulated),16 which states that the amount of energy in the universe available for work is relentlessly decreasing. So the universe (hence the earth à la Hutton) cannot have existed forever, otherwise it would have already exhausted all its usable energy and reached what is known as ‘heat death’. Hence Hutton’s eternally perpetuating earth is not only biblically wrong, but also scientifically impossible.
Students today are taught that Hutton deduced his theory from meticulous field observations, particularly on granite (as an intrusive rock and hence evidence for uplift) and unconformities17 (as evidence for multiple cycles of uplift and erosion). However, nothing could be further from the truth. As Gould points out, Hutton first presented his theory of the earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, but he did not see his first unconformity until 1787, or his most famous one, at Siccar Point, until 1788.18
Gould writes: “His statement about granite could not be clearer or more precise: ‘I just saw it, and no more, at Petershead and Aberdeen, but that was all the granite I had ever seen when I wrote my Theory of the Earth [1788 version]. I have, since that time, seen it in different places; because I went on purpose to examine it (1795, I, 214).’”19 And Chapter VI of his 1795 Theory of the Earth, Volume 1, Section II, has the revealing title: “The Theory confirmed from Observations made on purpose to elucidate the subject”!
Gould says: “Hutton did not draw his fundamental inferences from more astute observations in the field, but by imposing on the earth, à priori,20 the most pure and rigid concept of time’s cycle ever presented in geology—so rigid, in fact, that it required Playfair’s recasting to gain acceptability.”21
Why then are students taught so much factual inexactitude concerning Hutton? Gould attributes it to four major editors who revised what Hutton wrote.
1. John Playfair’s rewrite of Hutton’s legendary unreadability
Hutton’s rambling (1,200-page) 1795 Theory of the Earth has endless quotations in French with one running to 41 pages. After Hutton’s death, his friend, Scottish mathematician and scientist John Playfair (1748–1819), set out to rescue his ideas from their poor presentation. He spent five years rewriting them in a shorter form, published in 1802 as Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Gould says: “Playfair subtly ‘modernized’ his friend, and helped to set the basis of Hutton’s legend by toning down his hostility to history … portraying his field evidence in the traditional, historical style that Hutton himself had consistently shunned.”22
Rudwick says that Playfair used the unreadability “as a reason for bowdlerizing23 the work by detaching it from its theological framework and suppressing its teleology. He has been followed by countless other commentators ever since.”24
2. Charles Lyell’s mischaracterization
In the 19th century, Charles Lyell’s 3-volume rewrite of geological history titled Principles of Geology emerged as the predominant English geologist text. As Lyell had studied law and was a barrister, he needed a science ‘hero’ with field experience to augment his rhetoric. Gould writes: “Hutton was pressed into service in one of the most flagrant mischaracterizations ever perpetrated by the heroic tradition in the history of science.”25
3. Sir Archibald Geike’s mythology
In 1897, Sir Archibald Geike, in his The Founders of Geology disingenuously presented Hutton as a paragon of objectivity. Geike wrote: “In the whole of Hutton’s doctrine, he vigorously guarded himself against the admission of any principle which could not be founded on observation. He made no assumptions. Every step in his deductions was based on actual fact … .”26 Gould comments: “Geike’s mythical Hutton has been firmly entrenched in geological textbooks ever since.”26
4. John McPhee’s retelling
Gould informs us that prolific American writer John McPhee “has adopted Hutton to convey the mystique of fieldwork as both science and aesthetics. In Basin and Range (1980), McPhee … has given the Huttonian myth its most literate retelling since Geike’s invention.”27
Hutton died in 1797, aged 70. A few weeks later his executor and other friends were stunned when Hutton’s hitherto unknown illegitimate son, now 50, arrived from London, and announced his existence.28 It would seem that despite Hutton’s life-long efforts to recycle history, his own was linear after all.