Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism

James Hutton’s theory that Earth’s formation was the result of a cyclic process of erosion and uplift—which, in turn, was the result of the compounding of the ordinary action of water and heat in deep time—was the intellectual precursor of Charles Lyell’s uniformitarian geology and a fundamental premise of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Summary of Event

On March 7, 1785, members of the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh Philosophical Society of Edinburgh assembled to hear a much anticipated paper. Its author, James Hutton, was ill that day and had chosen his closest friend, the renowned philosophical chemist Joseph Black, to deliver the first part of a new theory in a work titled “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Durability and Stability.” “Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Durability and Stability” (Hutton)[Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Durability and Stability] Four weeks later, on April 4, Hutton had recovered sufficiently to present the second part of his theory. In July, he privately printed and circulated an abstract of the paper. Eventually, in 1788, the full ninety-five-page manuscript from which Hutton’s papers had been drawn was published in the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions of the society as “Theory of the Earth: Or, An Investigation of the Laws Observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe.” “Theory of the Earth” (Hutton)[Theory of the Earth]
[kw]Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism (1785-1788)
[kw]Uniformitarianism, Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of (1785-1788)
[kw]Theory of Uniformitarianism, Hutton Proposes the Geological (1785-1788)
[kw]Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism, Hutton Proposes the (1785-1788)
[g]Scotland;1785-1788: Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism[2610]
[c]Geology;1785-1788: Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism[2610]
[c]Science and technology;1785-1788: Hutton Proposes the Geological Theory of Uniformitarianism[2610]
Hutton, James
Playfair, John
Hall, Sir James
Werner, Abraham Gottlob
Buffon, comte de

Hutton’s paper was written in the context of a well-established consensus in eighteenth century geological science. The French naturalist the comte de Buffon had provided a general framework for the consensus in the initial volumes of his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière (1749-1789; Natural History, General and Particular, Natural History, General and Particular (Buffon) 1781-1812) and again in his Époques de la nature
Époques de la nature (Buffon) (1778; epochs of nature). According to Buffon, the Earth originated as solar matter. As Earth cooled, a universal ocean covered its surface. Sedimentation of materials suspended in this primitive ocean produced rock strata, which were exposed as the ocean receded.

In the 1780’s, Abraham Gottlob Werner, a professor at the Freiburg Mining Academy in Saxony, supplemented Buffon’s cosmogony with a stratigraphy Stratigraphy that distinguished four mineralogical groups according to the order in which they had settled out of the universal ocean. Most primitive were chemical precipitates such as granite. Settling out next at lower elevations were heavier materials such as limestone, followed by basalts at still lower elevations and sand and other alluvial deposits. Werner’s stratigraphy would potentially accommodate a great variety of geological phenomena and gain widespread acceptance. Indeed, when professor of natural history John Walker offered the first series of lectures in geology at the University of Edinburgh in 1781, it was Werner’s stratigraphy that he introduced.

What the audience for Hutton’s society paper heard was an audacious departure from the Wernerian consensus. To be sure, Hutton’s theory acknowledged that water was one of the primary agents in geological change. During the 1750’s and 1760’s, Hutton had been a highly innovative agricultural improver on his Berwickshire estate and knew well the power of erosion. However, for Hutton, water’s geological effect was destructive. The action of water could not explain dramatic features of the Earth’s topography such as mountain ranges, nor could it adequately explain the presence of unconformities in rock strata.

For these phenomena, Hutton required a more constructive force. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh in 1743, Hutton had had a longtime interest in chemistry and, during the 1740’s, he had even invented an improved method of producing the ammonium chloride used in soldering metals. In 1768, Hutton leased his farm and returned to Edinburgh. It was at this time that Hutton developed his friendship with Joseph Black, Black, Joseph a pioneer in the study of heat, and Black’s former student, James Watt, Watt, James the inventor of the modern steam engine. These friendships soon suggested to Hutton a second agency in geological change. Subterranean heat, he began to argue, drove the terrestrial machine.

Hutton was combining the so-called Neptunian consensus with a new Plutonism: Like the sea, the underworld could rise and fall. The origins of this conception of dynamic equilibrium again lay in Hutton’s own past. As an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh, Hutton had studied with Colin Maclaurin, Maclaurin, Colin one of the eighteenth century’s most effective popularizers of Sir Isaac Newton’s Newton, Sir Isaac
Newton, Sir Isaac;influence on geology[geology] ideas. In the autumn of 1744, Hutton had begun to study medicine at Edinburgh, in 1747 he transferred to the University of Paris, and in 1748 he enrolled in the center of medical Newtonianism at the University of Leiden, where he completed his medical degree with Dissertatio physico-medica inauguralis de sanguine et circulatione microcosmi (1749; James Hutton’s Medical Dissertation, 1980). Just as in Newtonian astronomy, in which a balance of centrifugal and gravitational forces produced the solar system, and just as systolic and diastolic forces circulate the blood (or just as the piston pushes and pulls in Watt’s double-acting steam engine), uplift complemented erosion in Hutton’s system of the Earth. As water dissolved rock, the products of sedimentation accumulated, generating intense heat and pressure. The intense heat and pressure, in turn, caused rapid expansion and uplift. Even as old continents become new oceans, old oceans become new continents.

Hutton’s argument had profound implications for eighteenth century geology. Whereas Buffon conceived the history of the Earth proceeding in one direction of greater cooling and erosion, Hutton did for matter in time [p]Matter;in time[time] what Newton had done for matter in space and conceived the laws of motion in terms of reciprocal action and reaction. Whereas Neptunism implied catastrophism, the assumption that the geological processes of the past were of a qualitatively greater magnitude than the geological processes of the present, Hutton’s dynamic equilibrium implied a uniformitarianism, in which the observed geological processes of the present were the key to understanding the geological processes of the past. Also, whereas catastrophism offered a way to reconcile biblical accounts of the Creation and the Flood, Hutton entirely ignored Genesis as a source of geological knowledge.

Finally, Hutton undercut Werner’s stratigraphy. In the years after 1785, Hutton traveled to sites across Scotland—most famously, to the unconformity at Siccar Point—to gather evidence for his theory. This evidence indicated that granite had not originated as an aqueous precipitate but had crystallized from molten magmas. It also revealed that granite, which Werner had made the oldest rock, was in some cases intruded upward into sedimentary strata. Conversely, the evidence also showed the ancient volcanic origin of basalts. By recognizing the igneous origin of many rocks, Hutton reconfirmed that the forces of geological change acted uniformly in past and present. He also reconfirmed that geological processes did not work in one direction and, therefore, no inherent limit could be set regarding Earth’s geological history. In short, Hutton had discovered deep time. Deep time (geology) “We find,” Hutton famously concluded in his 1788 paper, “no vestige of a beginning, —no prospect of an end.”


James Hutton extended the Scottish tradition of conjectural history to the economy of nature. From the perspective of deep time, cycles of dissolution and composition succeeded one another in a spontaneous and, ultimately, benevolent order. As if by an invisible hand, the nearly imperceptible action of heat and water shaped the grandest features of the physical environment. Yet, for all the assurance of durability and stability, Hutton’s theory faced intense criticism in the years after 1788. The specter of the French Revolution rendered Hutton’s defense of design an invitation to atheism, his understanding of nature’s uniformity an incitement to political turbulence.

In 1795, a very ill Hutton attempted to rebut these charges in the two sprawling volumes of “Theory of the Earth.” Most responsible for keeping Huttonian geology before a scientific public, however, were his two companions on the trip to Siccar Point in 1788, the chemist and geologist James Hall and the mathematician John Playfair. Under the pressure of criticism, Hutton’s geology underwent its own reconstruction. In a series of ingenious experiments between 1798 and 1805, Hall proved aspects of Hutton’s theory, demonstrating, for example, the thermal metamorphosis of limestone into marble. In 1802, geologist John Playfair published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (Playfair) Beautifully presented in compelling prose, Playfair’s illustrations were no longer organized as mere proofs of an a priori theory but as the empirical foundation for a historical narrative. It was Hall’s experimental and Playfair’s empirical Huttonianism that, in 1830, provided the precedent for the scientific uniformitarianism of British geologist Charles Lyell’s Lyell, Charles
Principles of Geology (1830-1833). It was the same Huttonianism that, in 1859, provided two crucial elements to the variational evolution Evolution;geology of Charles Darwin’s Darwin, Charles
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859): the notion that evolutionary change could take place by an incremental accumulation of small variations and the discovery of time that allowed this slow agency to work.

Further Reading

  • Dean, Dennis R. James Hutton and the History of Geology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. An extensively documented scholarly guide to Hutton’s writings. Less successful on the natural philosophical origins of Hutton’s theory of the Earth.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987. Argues that Hutton developed uniformitarianism more as a deduction from his Deism than as an induction from field observations.
  • Hutton, James. System of the Earth, 1785, Theory of the Earth, 1788, Observations on Granite, 1794, Together with Playfair’s Biography of Hutton. Darien, Conn.: Hafner, 1970. Facsimiles of Hutton’s papers presented to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh and then published in the society’s journal, compiled here in book form. Includes an introduction by Victor A. Eyles and a foreword by George W. White.
  • McIntyre, Donald B., and Alan McKirdy. James Hutton: The Founder of Modern Geology. Edinburgh: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1997. A well-illustrated short introduction to Hutton for the general reader.
  • Repcheck, Jack. The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2003. A fine popular account of Hutton’s life and scientific achievement. Contains a good bibliography of the extensive literature on Hutton.

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