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James Hutton

James HuttonBorn: 3-Jun-1726
Birthplace: Edinburgh, Scotland
Died: 26-Mar-1797
Location of death: Edinburgh, Scotland
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Geologist

Nationality: Scotland
Executive summary: Theory of the Earth

Scottish geologist, born in Edinburgh on the 3rd of June 1726. Educated at the high school and university of his native city, he acquired while a student a passionate love of scientific inquiry. He was apprenticed to a lawyer, but his employer advised that a more congenial profession should be chosen for him. The young apprentice chose medicine as being nearest akin to his favorite pursuit of chemistry. He studied for three years at Edinburgh, and completed his medical education in Paris, returning by the Low Countries, and taking his degree of doctor of medicine at Leiden in 1749. Finding, however, that there seemed hardly any opening for him, he abandoned the medical profession, and, having inherited a small property in Berwickshire from his father, resolved to devote himself to agriculture. He then went to Norfolk to learn the practical work of farming, and subsequently traveled in Holland, Belgium and the north of France. During these years he began to study the surface of the earth, gradually shaping in his mind the problem to which he afterwards devoted his energies. In the summer of 1754 he established himself on his own farm in Berwickshire, where he resided for fourteen years, and where he introduced the most improved forms of husbandry. As the farm was brought into excellent order, and as its management, becoming more easy, grew less interesting, he was induced to let it, and establish himself for the rest of his life in Edinburgh. This took place about the year 1768. He was unmarried, and from this period until his death in 1797 he lived with his three sisters. Surrounded by congenial literary and scientific friends he devoted himself to research.

At that time geology in any proper sense of the term did not exist. Mineralogy, however, had made considerable progress. But Hutton had conceived larger ideas than were entertained by the mineralogists of his day. He desired to trace back the origin of the various minerals and rocks, and thus to arrive at some clear understanding of the history of the earth. For many years he continued to study the subject. At last, in the spring of the year 1785, he communicated his views to the recently established Royal Society of Edinburgh in a paper entitled Theory of the Earth, or an Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. In this remarkable work the doctrine is expounded that geology is not cosmogony, but must confine itself to the study of the materials of the earth; that everywhere evidence may be seen that the present rocks of the earth's surface have been in great part formed out of the waste of older rocks; that these materials having been laid down under the sea were there consolidated under great pressure, and were subsequently disrupted and upheaved by the expansive power of subterranean heat; that during these convulsions veins and masses of molten rock were injected into the rents of the dislocated strata; that every portion of the upraised land, as soon as exposed to the atmosphere, is subject to decay; and that this decay must tend to advance until the whole of the land has been worn away and laid down on the sea floor, from which future upheavals will once more raise the consolidated sediments into new land. In some of these broad and bold generalizations Hutton was anticipated by the Italian geologists; but to him belongs the credit of having first perceived their mutual relations, and combined them in a luminous coherent theory based upon observation.

It was not merely the earth to which Hutton directed his attention. He had long studied the changes of the atmosphere. The same volume in which his Theory of the Earth appeared contained also a Theory of Rain, which was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1784. He contended that the amount of moisture which the air can retain in solution increases with augmentation of temperature, and, therefore, that on the mixture of two masses of air of different temperatures a portion of the moisture must be condensed and appear in visible form. He investigated the available data regarding rainfall and climate in different regions of the globe, and came to the conclusion that the rainfall is everywhere regulated by the humidity of the air on the one hand, and the causes which promote mixtures of different aerial currents in the higher atmosphere on the other.

The vigor and versatility of his genius may be understood from the variety of works which, during his thirty years' residence in Edinburgh, he gave to the world. In 1792 he published a quarto volume entitled Dissertations on different Subjects in Natural Philosophy, in which he discussed the nature of matter, fluidity, cohesion, light, heat and electricity. Some of these subjects were further illustrated by him in papers read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He did not restrain himself within the domain of physics, but boldly marched into that of metaphysics, publishing three quarto volumes with the title An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge, and of the Progress of Reason -- from Sense to Science and Philosophy. In this work he developed the idea that the external world, as conceived by us, is the creation of our own minds influenced by impressions from without, that there is no resemblance between our picture of the outer world and the reality, yet that the impressions produced upon our minds, being constant and consistent, become as much realities to us as if they precisely resembled things actually existing, and, therefore, that our moral conduct must remain the same as if our ideas perfectly corresponded to the causes producing them. His closing years were devoted to the extension and republication of his Theory of the Earth, of which two volumes appeared in 1795. A third volume, necessary to complete the work, was left by him in manuscript, and is referred to by his biographer John Playfair. A portion of the manuscript of this volume, which had been given to the Geological Society of London by Leonard Horner, was published by the Society in 1899, under the editorship of Sir A. Geikie. The rest of the manuscript appears to be lost. Soon afterwards Hutton set to work to collect and systematize his numerous writings on husbandry, which he proposed to publish under the title of Elements of Agriculture. He had nearly completed this labor when an incurable disease brought his active career to a close on the 26th of March 1797.

It is by his Theory of the Earth that Hutton will be remembered with reverence while geology continues to be cultivated. The author's style, however, being somewhat heavy and obscure, the book did not attract during his lifetime so much attention as it deserved. Happily for science Hutton numbered among his friends John Playfair, professor of mathematics in the University of Edinburgh, whose enthusiasm for the spread of Hutton's doctrine was combined with a rare gift of graceful and luminous exposition. Five years after Hutton's death he published a volume, Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth, in which he gave an admirable summary of that theory, with numerous additional illustrations and arguments. This work is justly regarded as one of the classical contributions to geological literature. To its influence much of the sound progress of British geology must be ascribed. In the year 1805 a biographical account of Hutton, written by Playfair, was published in vol. V of the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

    University: University of Edinburgh
    Medical School: University of Leiden (1749)



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