Logo IMG
HOME > PAST ISSUE > May-June 2001 > Article Detail


Vestiges of James Hutton

Keith Thomson

The End of the Line with No End

Hutton's deist subtext places his theory firmly at the end of a long line of "sacred theories" in which (mostly British) geologists attempted to reconcile their findings and theories with the works and wisdom of the Creator. Famously, Thomas Burnet (Telluria theoria sacra, 1681), John Woodward (An Essay toward the Natural History of the Earth, 1695) and William Whiston (A New Theory of the Earth: From its Original to the Consumation of all Things, 1696), among many others, framed sacred theories that reconciled geological discoveries with the the first book of Genesis. Theirs were strictly linear theories proceeding from the Origin, to the first earth, Deluge and the present earth, followed by the final day when the earth will be consumed and men called to judgment. They tried variously to explain the origin of the earth's present stratification, the cause of disruption of the strata, the origins of mountains, the mechanisms (if any) currently changing the structure of the earth, and their possible contribution toward the End of the World. For Burnet, the Flood was the cause of the present broken state of the earth, but that did not explain why the shattered bits were internally structured in the first place. In his progressively decaying world, no new land was produced. Woodward explained the stratification of the earth in terms of an original uniform crust having been dissolved at the Flood and redeposited according to the specific gravity of the constituents. But that did not explain the origin of mountains.

Figure 1. Cathodoluminescence imageClick to Enlarge Image

In 1668, in a paper on earthquakes read before the Royal Society of London, Robert Hooke identified earthquakes as the cause of uplift of the land. In 1669, Steno (Nicolas Stensen) published his De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus (English translation 1671), the first modern analysis of the geological record, where he articulated the concept of superposition of strata. Although it has been claimed that Steno saw a cyclical system in earth history, in fact he outlined a conventional linear narrative, including one major repetition. The earth was first covered with water in which sediments were laid down. These later formed dry land. Next, these rocks were broken up and the Flood repeated the process with new sediments. Thus we can see three kinds of rock—original, first sediments and second sediments. Steno, seeking to "lay down the agreement of Nature with Scripture," lacked (or did not admit) the intellectual breakthrough of predicting that this would be a process that would continue endlessly into the future, or had been repeated more than once in the past.

Figure 2. Ancient zircons were foundClick to Enlarge Image

Hutton's view of "indefinite time" comes from his analysis of earth processes; like Burnet, he found a measure of the slowness of erosion in the rate at which ancient monuments have been worn away. But whence did Hutton derive the idea of "a circularity in the matter of this Globe?" It seems to us obvious to ask: If the earth is constantly being eroded away, is that loss offset by the buildup of sediment (forming new land in deltas for example) or by mountain building? Theories of cycles appear at least twice in early writing about the earth. The elements of a global water cycle were sketched out in the second half of the 17th century by Edmund Halley among others (but not univerally believed, especially by those who thought rivers were recharged underground from the sea). Hutton himself wrote a long treatise on rain in 1795. Like Hutton, Woodward's thesis had been that the purpose of changes in the earth was to maintain a suitable soil for agriculture. On the global scale, he saw the Flood as a mechanism to "retrench and abridge the Luxury and Superabundance of the earth ? and the matter so buried was to be brought upon the Stage once more; being only reserved for the benefit of posterity.?" He went further and made the rain cycle a vehicle for a fantastical recycling of "Terrrestrial Matter" in which soil is in "a kind of Revolution or Circulation," first being washed into the sea and then "returned back again to the earth dispersedly by rain."

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist