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Vestiges of James Hutton

Keith Thomson

All in Balance

The underlying metaphor was, of course, Newtonian. Hooke (whose Lectures and Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions were published posthumously in 1705) referred explicitly to the Newtonian balance of forces:

Water is rais'd in Vapour into the Air by one Quality and precipitated down in drops by another.... In the circular Motion of all the Planets, there is a direct Motion which makes them indeavour to recede from the Sun or Center, and a magnetick or attractive Power that keeps them from receeding. Generation creates and death destroys.... All things almost circulate.... We have multitudes of instances of the wasting of the tops of Hills, and of the filling or increasing of the Plains.... It is possible there may have been several vicissitudes of changes wrought upon the same part of the Earth.

Hutton used the same cosmological analogy. His great genius was to see the global scope, and indefinite time scale, of the mechanisms of change operating cyclically on earth. In 1795, he published the unfinished multivolume version of his theory that so many (unreasonably) find unreadable. The first chapter is an expanded version of the 1788 essay, beginning with the same opening paragraph and closing with the immortal "no vestige" sentence. But "no vestige" leaves room for ambiguity. On the one hand, he seems to be saying that the earth is infinitely old and therefore even, as Aristotle thought, eternal. On the other hand, harking back to the language of the abstract, he might merely be saying that we lack the means to discover the age of the earth. As he said eslewhere in the book: "It is in vain to seek for any computation of the time.?" Taken literally, his words state that no vestige of the original rocks that made up the earth can have survived the geological mill (or, as we now know, the plate tectonic smelter). Grains of zircon belonging to that first crust have survived, however, along with Hutton's genius and his most graceful words.

© Keith Thomson

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