Biography of James Hutton, Founder of Modern Geology

Painting of James Hutton seated at a table

Henry Raeburn / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

James Hutton (June 3, 1726–March 26, 1797) was a Scottish doctor and geologist who had ideas about the formation of the Earth that became known as Uniformitarianism. Although not an accredited geologist, he spent much time hypothesizing that the Earth's processes and formation had been going on for eons and were continuing to the present. Charles Darwin was well-acquainted with Hutton’s ideas, which provided a framework for his work in biological evolution and natural selection.

Fast Facts: James Hutton

  • Known For: Founder of modern geology
  • Born: June 3, 1726 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • Parents: William Hutton, Sarah Balfour
  • Died: March 26, 1797 in Edinburgh, United Kingdom
  • Education: University of Edinburgh, University of Paris, University of Leiden
  • Published Works: Theory of the Earth
  • Children: James Smeaton Hutton

Early Life

James Hutton was born on June 3, 1726, in Edinburgh, Scotland, one of five children born to William Hutton and Sarah Balfour. His father, who was a merchant and treasurer for the city of Edinburgh, died in 1729, when James was only 3 years old. He also lost an older brother at a very young age.

His mother did not remarry and was able to raise Hutton and his three sisters on her own, thanks to the wealth his father had built before his death. When Hutton was old enough, his mother sent him to the High School of Edinburgh, where he discovered his love of chemistry and mathematics.

Education

At the young age of 14, Hutton 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 believe that he was well-suited for a career in law. Hutton decided to become a physician to be able to continue his studies in chemistry.

After three years in the medical program at the University of Edinburgh, Hutton finished his medical studies in Paris before receiving his degree from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands in 1749.

Personal Life

While studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Hutton fathered an illegitimate son with a woman who lived in the area. He named his son James Smeaton Hutton. Although he financially supported his son, who was raised by his mother, Hutton did not take an active role in raising the boy. Following the birth in 1747, Hutton moved to Paris to continue his medical studies.

After finishing his degree, instead of moving back to Scotland, the young doctor practiced medicine in London for a few years. It is not known whether this move to London was prompted by the fact that his son was living in Edinburgh, but it is often assumed that is why he chose not to move back to Scotland. Soon, however, Hutton decided that practicing medicine was not for him.

Before he had started his medical studies, Hutton and a partner had become interested in sal ammoniac, or ammonium chloride, a chemical used in making medicines as well as fertilizers and dyes. They developed an inexpensive method of manufacturing the chemical that became financially rewarding, enabling Hutton in the early 1750s to move to a large plot of land he had inherited from his father and become a farmer. Here he began to study geology and came up with some of his best-known ideas.

By 1765, the farm and the sal ammoniac manufacturing company were providing enough income that he could give up farming and move to Edinburgh, where he could pursue his scientific interests.

Geological Studies

Hutton did not have a degree in geology, but his experiences on the farm gave him the focus to form 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 that the processes that changed the Earth long ago were still at work millenniums later. He published his ideas in his book, "The Theory of the Earth," in 1795.

Hutton asserted in the book that life also followed this long-term pattern. The concepts in the book about life changing gradually by these same mechanisms since the beginning of time were in line with the principles of evolution well before Charles Darwin came up with his theory of natural selection.

Hutton's ideas drew much criticism from most geologists of his time, who followed a more religious line in their findings. The prevailing theory at the time of how rock formations had occurred on Earth was that they were a product of a series of "catastrophes," such as the Great Flood, that accounted for the form and nature of an Earth that was thought to be only 6,000 years old. Hutton disagreed and was mocked for his anti-Biblical account of the Earth's formation. He was working on a follow-up to the book when he died.

Death

James Hutton died in Edinburgh on March 26, 1797, at age 70 after suffering poor health and pain for a number of years caused by bladder stones. He was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Churchyard.

He left no will, so his estate passed to his sister and, on her death, to Hutton's grandchildren, the children of his son, James Smeaton Hutton.

Legacy

In 1830, geologist Charles Lyell rephrased and republished many of Hutton's ideas in his book "Principles of Geology" and called them Uniformitarianism, which became a cornerstone of modern geology. Lyell was an acquaintance of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle on Darwin's voyages. FitzRoy gave Darwin a copy of "Principles of Geology," which Darwin studied as he traveled and collected data for his work.

It was Lyell's book, but Hutton's ideas, that inspired Darwin to incorporate the concept of an "ancient" mechanism that had been at work since the beginning of the Earth in his own world-changing book, "The Origin of the Species." Thus, Hutton's concepts indirectly sparked the idea of natural selection for Darwin.

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