It's an old, old planet

Published: Friday 15 July 2005

-- Revolutions in the Earth: James Hutton and the True Age of the World by Stephen Baxter Phoenix London 2004

Until the closing decades of the 18th century, the Earth and humankind were thought to be as old as each other. English theologian James Usher's painstaking reconstruction of the biblical chronologies in the 17th century fixed the creation of the Earth at 4004 bc. Besides Christian theologians, this reconstruction also pleased early humanists: the brevity of time assured humankind of its special status. Humanity lived and died in a space and chronology reserved for its convenience and edification until March 7, 1785, when the Scottish chemist Joseph Black, deputising for his reticent friend James Hutton, addressed the Royal Society of Edinburgh: "The purpose of this dissertation is to form some estimate with regard to the time the globe of this Earth has existed, as a world maintaining plants and animals." The answer was that our planet was vastly ancient, longer than any human or scripture could measure.

Recent interest Historians have developed interest in Hutton only recently. In 1997, Donald McIntyre and Alan McKirdy authored James Hutton: the founder of modern geology -- a brief but popular biography of this Scottish scientist. McIntyre and McKirby describe geology well, but make Hutton into a paragon of scientific virtue. In contrast, this biography under review places the evolution of Hutton's work against the vivid background of the Scottish Enlightenment.

The virtue of Stephen Baxter is that he locates the dichotomies in the scientist often extolled as the 'father of modern geology'. Hutton's purpose with his rocks was to reinforce religion, not as scripture but as what many 18th century thinkers called "deism" or "natural religion". He thought out his theory first and then crawled all over Siccar Point (an ancient geological site in Scotland) to find evidence for it. One wonders what his friend and the great sceptic David Hume would have made of Hutton's description of rock specimens as "Bibles all wrote by God's own finger". Sadly, Baxter provides no answers. We are, however, told that the other great Scottish mind of the time, James Watt disapproved Hutton's use of hypothesis. "I do not believe even in mechanics without experimentation," he wrote to Hutton in 1795.

The amateur geologist Born in Edinburgh in 1726, son of a sometime town councillor, Hutton studied medicine at the town's college. He never practised as a doctor, but farmed in Norfolk and Berwickshire, where he became interested in geology. In 1767, he moved back to Edinburgh but continued to criss-cross England and Scotland to examine geological strata and outcroppings.

Hutton's theory of the Earth held that the planet was in a state of continuous change. Continents were constantly being eroded and renewed by processes that are visible even today. Soil was washed down to the sea, consolidated into rock and then uplifted under the force of subterranean heat. These cycles of decay and renewal occurred in indefinite time, "so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end".

Praise and scorn The theory ravished the Edinburgh circle consisting of economist Adam Smith, thinker Adam Ferguson, chemist Joseph Black and the naturalist Erasmus Darwin, but was bitterly opposed elsewhere on both scientific and religious grounds. The Irish chemist Richard Kirwan argued that Hutton's succession of worlds violated both common sense and the books of Moses and led "to an abyss from which human reason recoils". The philosopher John Ruskin was similarly disgusted.

Baxter rightly hears, in Hutton's theory, a sort of philosophical echo of the "fire engines being developed by Watt in Glasgow". But he overlooks the influence of Adam Smith, who from 1778 lived very close to Edinburgh. For Smith, nature and commerce were essentially benign: inexplicable and alarming phenomena such as volcanoes or monopolistic practices actually contributed to the smooth operation of the whole. For him, the theory of the Earth was thus a "Cosmological Wealth of Nations". Isn't it strikingly similar to what Hutton propounded: "We are thus led to see a circulation in the matter of this globe, and a system of beautiful economy in the works of nature"?

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