James Hutton Biography

Contributor to the Theory of Evolution

James Hutton, 1726 - 1797 by Sir Henry Raeburn
James Hutton, 1726 - 1797 by Sir Henry Raeburn. (Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain)

Although not an accredited geologist at first, doctor and farmer James Hutton spent much time hypothesizing about the earth's processes and formation being the same as they were eons ago, as well as asserting that life changed in a similar pattern, long before Darwin wrote about natural selection.

Dates: Born June 3, 1726 – Died March 26, 1797

Early Life and Education

James Hutton was born on June 3, 1726, in Edinburgh, Scotland. James was one of five children born to William Hutton and Sarah Balfour. His father William, who was the treasurer for the city of Edinburgh, died in 1729 when James was only three years old. James also lost an older brother at a very young age. His mother did not remarry and was able to raise James and his three sisters on her own, thanks to the large wealth his father had built before his death. When James was old enough, his mother sent him to high school at the High School of Edinburgh. It was there that he discovered his love of chemistry and mathematics.

At the young age of 14, James was sent off to the University of Edinburgh to study Latin and other humanities courses. He was made the apprentice of a lawyer at age 17, but his employer did not feel he was well suited for a career in law. It was at this time James decided to become a physician to be able to continue his study of chemistry.

After three years in the medical program at the University of Edinburgh, Hutton finished his medical degree in Paris before returning to get his degree at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in 1749. He practiced medicine for a few years in London shortly after earning his degree.

Personal Life

While studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, James fathered an illegitimate son with a woman who lived in the area. James gave his son the name James Smeaton Hutton but was not an involved parent. Although he financially supported his son as he was raised by his mother, James did not take an active role in raising the boy. In fact, after his son was born in 1747, it was then that James moved to Paris to continue his studies in medicine.

After finishing his degree, instead of moving back to Scotland, James took up practice in London. It is not known whether or not this move to London was prompted by the fact his son was living in Edinburgh at the time, but it is often assumed that is why he chose not to move back home at the time.

After deciding practicing medicine was not for him, Hutton moved to a large area of land he had inherited from his father and became a farmer in the early 1750s. It was here that he began to study geology and come up with some of his most well-known ideas.


Even though James Hutton did not have a degree in geology, his experiences on his farm gave him the focus to really study the subject and come up with theories about the formation of the Earth that were novel at the time. Hutton hypothesized that the interior of the Earth was very hot and the processes that changed the Earth long ago were the same processes that were at work on the Earth in present day. He published his ideas in the book The Theory of the Earth in 1795.

In this book, Hutton even went on to assert that life also followed this pattern. The ideas put forth in the book about life changing over time using the same mechanisms since the beginning of time was in line with the idea of evolution long before Charles Darwin came up with theory of Natural Selection. Hutton attributed changes in geology as well as changes in life to large "catastrophes" that mixed everything up.

Hutton's ideas drew a lot of criticism from popular geologists of the time who took a more religious tone in their own findings. The most well-accepted theory at the time about how the rock formations occurred on Earth was that they were a product of the Great Flood. Hutton disagreed and was mocked for having such an anti-Biblical account of the formation of the Earth. Hutton was working on a follow-up book in 1797 when he died.

In 1830, Charles Lyell rephrased and republished many of James Hutton's ideas and called the idea Uniformitarianism. It was Lyell's book, but Hutton's ideas, that inspired Charles Darwin as he sailed on the HMS Beagle to incorporate the idea of an "ancient" mechanism that had been working the same at the beginning of the Earth as it does in present time. Hutton's Uniformitarianism indirectly sparked the idea of natural selection for Darwin.