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Vestiges of James Hutton

Keith Thomson

A recent paper announced the discovery of grains of detrital zircon from 4.4 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia, representing the original continental crust of the earth. This discovery would have been exceptionally interesting to the Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–97).

It is ironic that Hutton, the man whose prose style is usually dismissed as unreadable, should have coined one of the most memorable, and indeed lyrical, sentences in all science: "(in geology) we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end." In those simple words, Hutton framed a concept that no one had previously contemplated, that the rocks making up the earth today have not, after all, been here since Creation.

Although only his contributions to geological theory are remembered, Hutton was a doctor, farmer, mineralogist, chemist and philosopher. He was also a founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to which on March 7 and April 4, 1785, he revealed his thoughts on the history of the earth. Our record of what he said is limited to a 5,000-word Abstract of a Dissertation ... concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability. The magical words "no vestige" did not appear in print, however, until a quite different version of his ideas was published in 1788.

The 1785 abstract begins:

The purpose of this Dissertation is to form some estimate with regard to the time this globe of this earth has existed, as a world maintaining plants and animals; to reason with regard to the changes which the earth has undergone; and to see how far an end or termination to this system of things may be perceived, from the consideration of that which has already come to pass.

Here Hutton laid out his thesis that the present land and geological strata are not original but were "formed by the operation of secondary causes"; that the land is constantly being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion; and that a preceding world had similarly been destroyed. He concluded that an "indefinite space of time" had been needed to "produce the land which now appears" from the "consolidation ? by means of fusion" of earlier sediments, and that an equal space of time will be needed to destroy it, while a world to succeed ours is currently being formed at the bottom of the sea. Like their predecessors, these new sediments will eventually be raised up (as a result of the earth's inner heat) and equally inevitably destroyed again. All those processes are identical to those currently in operation on earth and therefore are observable and potentially measurable. However, he stated:

... as there is not in human observation proper means for measuring the waste of land upon the globe, it is hence inferred, that we cannot estimate the duration of what we see at present, nor calculate the period at which it had begun; so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end.

But this was not Hutton's main conclusion in 1785. Projecting the earth as an end-directed system, in orthodox deist fashion, he wrote:

According to the theory, a soil adapted to the growth of plants, is necesarily prepared and carefully preserved; and, in the necessary waste of land which is inhabited, the foundation is laid for future continents, in order to support the system of the living world.

Thus, either in supposing nature wise and good, an argument is found (formed) in confirmation of the theory, or, in supposing the theory to be just, an argument may be established for wisdom and benevolence to be perceived in nature....

Hutton's 1788 THEORY of the EARTH; or an INVESTIGATION of the laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe begins where the 1785 version left off—with the "system." "? the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end. We perceive a fabric, erected in wisdom, to obtain a purpose worthy of the power that is apparent in the production of it." Such a machine is "constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles, by which its different parts are all adapted, in form, in quality, and in quantity, to a certain end; an end attained with certainty or success.? The globe of this earth is evidently made for man." Further, the earth is "not just a machine but also a organised body as it has a regenerative power."

Hutton's new version is still end directed:

... nature has contrived the productions of vegetable bodies and the sustenance of animal life, to depend ... (on) destruction of one continent ... (and) renovation of the earth in the production of another...."

In fact, in Hutton's cyclical "system of the earth," at least three succeeding worlds can be discovered:

... the world which we inhabit is composed of the materials, not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present, but of the earth which, in ascending from the present, we consider the third.... Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration."

And the process continues. He concludes:

... we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature ... by which they are intended to continue these revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.

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