The Man Who Found Time

James Hutton (1726-1797), son of a wealthy merchant, received a medical degree from the University of Paris in 1749, but never practiced medicine. Hutton spent 1754 to 1767 as an innovative farmer; thereafter he devoted himself to science. While farming, and during his travels on the European continent, Hutton studied geological features and began to question accepted theories concerning the earth’s age and the origin of its formations.

Most geologists accepted calculations by biblical scholars limiting the earth’s duration to less than 6,000 years. Archbishop James Ussher, whose chronological estimates were printed in the margins of the King James Bible, confidently asserted that Creation started at noon Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C.E. The dominant geological theory of the earth’s origin proposed that a Universal Ocean (identifiable as either Noah’s Flood or the day of Creation) had once blanketed the globe, and all existing formations had emanated from the ocean upon its retreat.

Hutton’s observations, however, convinced him that mountains and valleys were not created by a single event, but resulted from long-term cyclical processes visible in the present—the upwelling of land caused by the earth’s internal heat transmitted through volcanoes and earthquakes, alternating with the erosive action of surface wind and water. Because these mechanisms required enormous lengths of time to produce their effects, believers in religious and geologic orthodoxy rejected his theory. Not until Charles Lyell resurrected Hutton’s ideas in his Principles of Geology (1830-1833), were they generally accepted. Hutton’s theory provided Charles Darwin with the vast time span needed for evolution to alter species.

Author Jack Repcheck’s smoothly-written, concise biography demonstrates Hutton’s scientific importance, but fails to substantiate his ranking with Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin. That Hutton’s theories helped Darwin develop his concept of evolution does not elevate him to equal stature with revolutionary scientists who constructed comprehensive theories.