Introduction to James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth

James Hutton, grandfather of modern geology.
James Hutton, grandfather of modern geology.

In my last post, I produced a summary of a natural history lecture series that the novel’s character, Jonathan Moore, provides to a relatively voluntary group of simple, uneducated, Anglican church goers.   The very first of these revolves around 1) elementary ideas on the subject of knowledge. [I don’t believe by 1820, the year of the novel’s setting, a solid definition of the scientific method was yet in place]; 2) the notion that an idea can be compelling and probable without every last miniscule detail of it having been worked out. [This is actually commentary on the science of climate change, but is relevant to what was known about the age of the earth in the early 19th century]; and 3) an elementary introduction to James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth.

Here I would like to share those passages from the book in which I’ve summarized the first part of Hutton’s geologic observations.  I spent a week and read through his often rambling, disorganized and redundant writing (it was written near the end of his life, and there wasn’t any computerized, word processor editing back then), and then tried to organize particular parts I found compelling:

Grammar Nazi Trigger Warning:  ‘that’, in many cases in the novel, substitutes for ‘so that’, and ‘would’ sometimes substitutes for ‘if’, to give the prose a more ‘biblical’ or Shakespearean feel.

[Note:  This is a re-posting of an article I originally published in February of 2015.  Since then, I’ve edited a few sentences in this particular section of the novel, so that what is published below it a tad less polished than what you get from the most recent edition available at Amazon and Lulu.]


Of Woodbridge and Hedgely; Pg. 79-88: 

‘And so with that introduction, I will now entertain you along a subject that has caused an amount of uproar in Edinburgh – one which has afforded both criticism and defense, where arguments on particular details may be shewn to be just in some cases, but still fail to refute the general idea, for it is hardy with much evidence lending it support; one which my brother did staunchly champion. It will be of some interest here, I believe, as it is intimately concerned with the properties of the soils, yet there is a much greater goose to be cooked:

‘In the year seventeen eighty five, a philosopher, expert on the workings of the earth, did present to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a theory based upon the findings of both his eye and mind. James Hutton was the man’s name and he called his idea the Theory of the Earth which he later published at the end of the century. I do indeed own a copy, and it is rambleously profound. Let us begin to understand it:

‘Hutton starts his book with the following observation:

“When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of those several parts, 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.”

‘and goes onto pronounce:

“We shall thus also be led to acknowledge an order, not unworthy of Divine wisdom, in a subject which, in another view, has appeared as the work of chance, or as absolute disorder and confusion.”

‘You see Hutton had found that the earth is a machine made up of many parts: rock, soil, heat, water, air, ocean, plants and animals which, through particular observation of such, he concluded is in a constant motion that brings about both the destruction and renewal of rock, sand and soil, that we farmers many never be in want of it. Let us enjoy his reason:

‘We must first concede the man had a proficient understanding of the classification of minerals – feldspar, gypsum, etcetera – and what he did not know, just as I’ve previously stated concerning the interconnectedness of science, he found in a book by a right man of minerals by the name of Cronsted. Now we may address his first point: that across our earth, whether it be along the shore or as high up as the Alps or Andes mountains – soaring features of the new world – it is found that the rock is inundated with the relics of sea creatures of long ago! He further found that our calcareous rocks, soil, chalk and the like are indeed made up of the shells and bodies of a particular set of these creatures – coral or cockle shells as examples – for it is quite uncommon to find a stratum of such without having these relics embedded, and they are of the selfsame elements, shewn by our men of chemistry. Here again I will refer to his writing:

“But that which renders the original of our land clear and evident, is the immense quantities of calcareous bodies which had belonged to animals, and the intimate connection of these masses of animal production with the other strata of the land. For it is to be proved, that all these calcareous bodies, from the collection of which the strata were formed, have belonged to the sea, and were produced in it.”

‘He then had reckoned a mechanism for how it became that these creatures of long ago had transformed into our fine rock of lime. He did so by contemplating the following: firstly – that inside these marbles, these chalks and marles there exists, by his words, a ‘sparry structure’ or a crystalline expression of the limestone that may only be born from a state of fluidity; secondly – that as glass or iron may be molten, so too may be rock, as shewn by the work of volcanoes; thirdly – that the interstices of our rock’s strata, each articulate in its particular mineral composition, are consolidated upon each other in a manner that only can occur by a state of molten fluidity, whilst there are examples of calcareous regions, such as those of the Isle of Wight, whose hardness is a feature of their strata’s depth: soft and crumbly atop, graduating to well consolidated below; and lastly – the general observance of what one would conclude was the attrition of rock, gravel and sand by the work of water against them, inland or along the shore, and the taking of soil by a flooded stream or ditch away from its original position upon the land.

‘And from these he offered that as the marine animals shells accumulate upon the sea floor at their deaths, their structures are worn by attrition, motivated by the ocean’s inexhaustible currents, so that most of their matter becomes finer particulates, just as we may break apart a marle or limestone into an impalpable substance to manure our fields. This broken shell is then covered by even more of such, or thusly by sand or soils being deposited into our oceans from river outlets, having been taken and carried there from inland. The process continues until what was once the floor of the ocean now is quite underneath! Here I will demonstrate how the accumulation forms particular interstices of the strata’.

Mr. Moore visited his table, held up his rummer that was resting atop it to show his audience, then filled it partly with a chalky soil from a bag underneath. Once again displaying the object, he continued to fill it with a darker, sandy material from a second bag, then topped it off with the original entity, that the effect was three layers of material, shown through the clear wall of the cup. A few smiles, a few inquisitive faces, and a few blinking eyes replied to the display, yet the lack of nods compelled the lecturer, with his other hand, to hold up a shale specimen with many thin strata, as a comparator to the rummer.

‘How does this become this? To answer, Hutton apprises the lurid toil of the volcano whose many instances occur both on land and in the ocean; Mount Aetna and the ancient Mount Vesuvius being right examples. He argues they are not but isolated events, but express a regular and extensive heat of unfathomable power that occurs deep within the earth. And just as this heat produces fluid rock that ejects from the mouths of these mountains, it too causes a general fluidity in the material deep inside the earth, that bakes and consolidates our poor shells, sands and soils, which when cooled creates the hardened rocks of strata; pieces of which now lie on this table. Take care not to drop them when passing them around. Let us hear again from Hutton as we do so, who further presented many cases that this fluidity is not of an aqueous origin, but solely heat:

“We have strata consolidated by calcareous spar, a thing perfectly distinguishable from the stalactical concretion of calcareous earth, in consequence of aqueous solution. We have strata made solid by the formation of fluor, a substance not soluble, so far as we know, by water. We have strata consolidated with sulphureous and bituminous substances, which do not correspond to the solution of water. We have strata consolidated with siliceous matter, in a state totally different from that under which it has been observed, on certain occasions, to be deposited by water. We have strata consolidated by feldspar, a substance insoluble in water. We have strata consolidated by almost all the various metallic substances, with their almost endless mixtures and sulphureous compositions; that is to say, we find, perhaps, every different substance introduced into the interstices of strata which had been formed by subsidence at the bottom of the sea.”

‘Here too is a Spanish pudding stone – a marble – in which gravel also has been caught up in this baking process and is made to perfectly conform to the calcareous material around it – see how well it takes polish! And note the fusion of the two species of mineral on this piece – feldspar and quartz, I believe – and contemplate how this feature could ever exist without but the fluidity found in heat and pressure.

‘Yet Hutton did not desist at the horizon of these ideas and retire, to the comfort of his colleagues; no, he exploded their comfort by further offering that this heat not only affords molten lava from fiery mountain summits, but does inject our strata, when in a relatively cooler state (that endeavoring to become, from the ocean, dry land), with veins of liquid mineral and metal, sometimes by violent fracturing, exemplifying the immortal power of the bowls of the earth. His reasons that did oblige him to torment these learned men are that such hardened venous injections are found on land who has known no volcano, ancient or not; that they do contain fractured shards of the impregnated strata, attributed to the sudden nature of the operation; and too the same crystalline and fusion features we’ve thus covered are there present. Here I’ve a capital stone that has been collected by a naturalist retracing Hutton’s journey to Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains: observe this pinked granite injected into this dull sandstone. This stone puts to rest the notions that granite is a primeval substance – for here it is clearly injected into, by plain reason, an older piece of sandstone – and the foolishness that granite was original of sedimentation or chemical precipitation from an aqueous fluid.

‘Now let us to the goose: This unimaginable heat does not but consolidate material to stone, and fracture and inject new land into the ground; it has a mechanical force of equally inhuman magnitude: Hutton says “we are not to limit nature with our imbecility, or estimate the powers of nature by the measure of our own”. Wherefore does it come to pass that the remnants of marine animals do appear in the bodies of the great Alps? It is this force that compels the land from the oceans to rise, dry out and continue its journey upward. The motive power of this heat is shewn by strata found twisted from their horizontal, sedimentary position in the abyss, into every possible position, be it vertical, bent, doubled over from their plane position, and even broken. One plate in his book does shew a drawing of strata from Jedburgh, Scotland in which horizontal layers sit atop vertical layers – a proposition Hutton called “angular unconformity”, and by its sight one is struck with terrible appreciation for this motive power. Further he proposed that none of all which I’ve addressed this day is of limited accident in the system. Rather, these operations occur in uniform fashion, with regard to the global system, that not one nook or cranny lies untouched, for he does say:

“…but from the accounts of travellers, and from the specimens which are brought to us from distant parts, we have reason to believe, that all the rest of the earth is of the same nature with that which has been now considered. The great masses of the earth are the same every where; and all the different species of earths, of rocks or stone, which have as yet appeared, are to be found in the little space of this our island.”

‘And just as the earth – this perpetual apparatus – reinvigorates itself by the formation of new land, it does so by the destruction of old land, decayed by attrition through the work of water – rain, flood, tide and current – that rock begets gravel, gravel begets sand, sand begets impalpable clay, and these are carried back to the oceans as nutrients that continue the process; all the while, by our relic evidence, plants and animals do thrive – the selfsame species, in fact, and perhaps a few that we are not yet acquainted. Let me reemphasize this: the land we do set foot upon, was once the floor of the abyss, and before it was so, was olden land from a world that does no longer exist, save the species of animals and plants that are more indifferent to the process, and that olden land is thus begotten from that proficiently older. Hutton also puts to the point that the forces which cause such change do still exist at present, undiminished in their power! I will further emphasize that these suppositions are not prophesy derived from a vast imagination: they fully rest upon the merits of observation and reason. In the man’s words:

“It must not be imagined that this undertaking is a thing unreasonable in its nature; or that it is a work necessarily beset with any unsurmountable difficulty; for, however imperfectly we may fulfill this end proposed, yet, so far as it is to natural causes that are to be ascribed the operations of former time, and so far as, from the present state of things, or knowledge of natural history, we have it in our power to reason from effect to cause, there are, in the constitution of the world, which we now examine, certain means to read the annals of a former earth”

‘Yes, Mr. Orton – you’ve something for us?’, he called upon a man – indeed a well respected ploughman – whom the parson had known first as a young scarer of birds, then a cow boy, and presently as a devout Christian man. The laborer had heard every word of the lecture, that he felt the ominous prodrome of a splenic fever derived from the gross disparity between what he knew of the world – which had indeed been impressed upon him in that very church – and that which Mr. Hutton, and now seemingly Mr. Moore did know. This, and his familiarity with Mr. Moore, compelled him speak:

‘Beh, beg pardon sir! Beg pardon Mr. Moore, but we none of us simple folk have ever heard any account of land rising up from the ocean, and perhaps it’s on account that we are so very far from it, yet we further do neither see rocks turn to soil, at least in any quantity needed to remake an entire stretch of land!’ This caused some break of propriety, and muddled agreement and exclamation within the room.

‘Ah, and neither do I, Mr. Orton. And there are no accounts that the natural features observed around sea ports as far back as ancient Greece or Rome are worn in any measurable way through attrition, yet the land plainly tells us it is true. This illuminates the most profound feature of this earthly system: that the interval between ancient Rome and present is but a grain of time inside a heavenly glass keeping an indefinite quantity of such.

‘Again here in lies the matter concerning generality and detail: just as we do not know the exact moment that it will take for any one carriage to arrive in London from Edinburgh, it is not known – the age of our earth. We may only say the time between our cities is a good, long time, and hence we may only say the earth has existed a great, long time – much longer than we’ve been told by many a scholar who insists on adding up ages of the men of Genesis and so forth. A man of the last century – a Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon – did observe the time in which globes of white-hot iron and rock took to cool, then deciding upon a mathematical relationship between their sizes and cooling times, he was able to calculated the cooling time of an earth sized globe, and from such he pronounced the earth to be seventy five thousand years of age. Naturally this was retracted to comfort the authorities of the University of Paris’.

Mr. Moore’s last remark was drowned out by the most abhorrent destruction of silence his church had known; several attacks on the qualities of French character leapt out – embers of the fire he had stoked with his extravagant but indefinite number of grains in the glass of deep time. And as this rabble blazed on, he quietly repeated Hutton’s final sentiments issued some thirty five years removed from the present, at the closing of the man’s lecture in Edinburgh:

“We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; 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; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing 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.”    

[Note this is a post originally published in February of 2015]

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