Hutton’s Theory of the Earth Accepted?

John Playfair informs us that not much notice was taken initially of Hutton’s theory; ‘Yet the truth is that it drew their attention very slowly, so that several years elapsed before anyone showed himself publicly concerned about it…’ By way of explanation he suggests that ‘The world was tired out with unsuccessful attempts to form geological theories…’ He also adds ‘…that other reasons certainly contributed not a little to prevent Dr Hutton’s theory from making a due impression’. Though when expounding on his theories, Hutton was articulate and convincing, his writing style was laborious and complicated ‘..producing a degree of obscurity astonishing to those who knew him, and heard him…’.

Not having a teaching post, Hutton was not able to expound his theory with generations of students; however, John Playfair (who held the chair of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh), and James Hall (chemist and geologist), who both accompanied him to Siccar Point, took up the cause of Hutton’s theory. James Hall’s experimental work on igneous rocks and limestone was decisive in further demonstrating proof for Hutton’s theory. Playfair elucidated and popularised Hutton’s theory in ‘Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory’ (1802), making it more widely acceptable.

It is difficult to imagine the impact of changing the unquestioning acceptance of time and the earth’s age held by entire societies in the ‘old world’ from a mere 6,000 years to one of ‘…no prospect of an end’ ! As Hutton argues; How shall we acquire the knowledge of a system calculated for millions, not of years only, nor of ages of man, but of the races of men and the succession of empires?

Once people had taken notice of Hutton’s theory, it soon became well known and circulated through the academic network in Britain and Europe. There was considerable opposition to it, both on religious and scientific grounds. In particular the final sentence of his 1788 paper ‘The result therefore of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, was taken as directly flouting the bible – still at the time considered heresy, and he was accused of atheism. This was a curious contradiction of his frequent references to the work of God in the evidence of rocks, benevolent in creating ‘a world beautifully calculated for the growth of plants and nourishment of men and animals’

Scientific opposition to his theory was especially vehement and prolonged and much of it came after he died. Most opposition arose from those who believed that part of the earth’s crust was composed of ‘primitive mountains’ which had been precipitated from a primeval ocean – or the seas created during the Flood. This ‘neptunist’ system was in complete opposition to Hutton’s theory dubbed the ‘plutonic’ system. There was also objection to his belief in the relative constancy of geological time and processes (later termed ‘uniformitarianism’), which was in direct opposition to the more popular ‘catastrophist’ explanations for geological events. The debates raged into the early nineteenth century being tested at scientific meetings, publications, laboratories and even at social occasions.

Arguing his theory, involved dismissing and refuting some deeply held convictions and introducing some original concepts:

On time
The Earth was believed to be only 6,000 years old, a date rooted in the bible and which was considered heresy to question
On consolidation of sediments into rock
Rocks it was believed, were precipitated from solutions of sediments in the sea
On the igneous and ‘recent’ origins of granite
Granite was believed to be of ancient origin
On the changeability of the earth’s surface
The earth was considered by most geologists to be composed of its original rock surface or ‘primitive’ rock that had never changed
On igneous rock including granite being ‘young’
Igneous rocks were considered primitive (ie pre-life), because they contained no fossils.
On the earth as a ‘heat engine’
which caused uplift and consolidation
On the constancy of geological time and processes
This opposed the popularly held belief that the earth was formed by sudden and catastrophic geological events such as earth-quakes and floods