He burst the boundaries of time, thereby establishing geology's most distinctive and transforming contribution to human thought—Deep Time.
Stephen Jay Gould, 1977
Before there was science, there was the Bible. For thousands of years, it supplied reassuring answers to those profound questions that humans have always asked. Who are we? Where are we in relation to everything else in the universe? And how and when did we get here, this place we call Earth?
The Bible's teachings about the mysteries of existence were comforting. The Book of Genesis said that an all-knowing, all-powerful God "created the heaven and the earth" on the First Day. Over the next five days, all creatures that walk, crawl, and swim were given life. And God was pleased. Even more soothing were its teachings about us. Man, we were told, was formed in nothing less than God's own image, the earth a special home for His highest creation. Adam and Eve and their descendants had certainly fouled things up, to the point where God eventually felt compelled to start over with Noah's family. But, still, man was uniquely blessed, and Earth was his dominion.
One of the few mysteries not resolved explicitly in the Bible was the age of the universe. But learned scribes, teasing information from the Holy Scriptures, and paying close attention to the Hebrew prophesies, had stepped in to supply the answer. They calculated that Creation had occurred not quite 6,000 years ago.
Yet the reverence accorded to biblical answers caused problems, the most serious being that it prevented rigorous and systematic examination of the very world that God had created. Scholars who investigated fields that did not touch on church doctrine were relatively unaffected, but those who explored the natural world were playing with fire—the figurative fire of controversy, the real fire of the heretic's pyre, and the eternal fire of damnation if the church felt they had stepped too far. It required genuine bravery even to venture into these issues; it required hard-to-imagine resolve to promote a position that conflicted with church teachings.
A surprising number of individuals had this unique form of intellectual courage, but it was largely the work ofjust four men who shattered the biblically rooted picture of Earth and separated science from theology.
The first was Nicolaus Copernicus. A Catholic cleric living in what was then Prussia, Copernicus argued in 1543 that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe. All those wondrous heavenly bodies revolved not around man's home, but a ball of fire in the sky. If the earth was no longer the center of things, was it still special? Why would God choose a place other than the center of the universe as the home for a creation made in His own image? Because Copernicus expected his theory to bring on the wrath of church leaders, he waited until the end of his life to publish it. The cleric was on his deathbed when the first copies of his book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (1543), arrived from the printer.
Because of a cryptic introduction and the technical nature of the work, Copernicus's book did not have a profound impact immediately. It took Galileo, the first celebrity scientist, to publicize the true meaning of what Copernicus had written. Ninety years after Copernicus's death, Galileo was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition for endorsing the Copernican system in his influential book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).
As troubling to the devout as Galileo's endorsement of Copernicus's sun-centered universe was, it was not as bad as what would come next. After all, the Bible did not actually state that the earth was the center of the universe. That doctrine came from St. Thomas Aquinas, the influential Catholic scholar who lived and wrote during the thirteenth century. He took the idea from the Greek astronomer Ptolemy. However, the Book of Genesis did say that the earth was formed on the First Day of Creation and that Adam was created five days later, a sequence that everyone knew had occurred almost 6,000 years ago. The King James Bible, first published in the seventeenth century, verified this common knowledge by placing specific dates for key events right in the margin. Thus, all English-speaking Christians knew that God had created the earth on October 23, 4004 B.C.
James Hutton, a Scottish natural philosopher, boldly confronted this centuries-old wisdom. Writing in 1788, he formally presented proof that the earth was significantly older than 6,000 years. In fact, its age was incalculable—it could be hundreds of millions of years old, it could be billions. Hutton reached his conclusion about the age of the planet through his revolutionary theory of the earth, which recognized the importance of the glacially slow process of erosion coupled with the dynamic movements of earth's surface caused by intense underground heat.
Most previous scholars who had developed hypotheses about the earth had never questioned the church's teachings. They saw Noah's Flood or the waters of the unformed earth as the explanation for all odd geologic formations, thus allowing the age of the earth to fit within six millennia. After the intellectual revolution started by Sir Isaac Newton in the late 1600s, a group of biblical geologists tried to develop sophisticated theories that used modern science to shoehorn the earth's history into 6,000 years. And though a handful of predecessors had questioned whether the history of the physical earth could fit into such a short time frame—one had even calculated the age of the earth to be 75,000 years—the strictures of the past were hard to overcome. Hutton completely ignored the Bible and the Deluge, and as a result he was able to clearly see what rock formations told him.
Hutton's theory was deeply upsetting on two counts. First, it questioned the veracity of the Bible, and second, it displaced humans from close to the start of time. If the Book of Genesis was correct, man was created only five days after the earth was;
if Hutton was correct, the earth had existed for eons before man came along. So, Copernicus took man away from the divine center of things, and Hutton took him away from the divine beginning of things.
Charles Darwin, writing seventy years after Hutton, took the concept of the divine away from man altogether. Darwin's thesis was that far from having been created miraculously by God, the species Homo sapiens was simply descended from an ancestor shared with the common ape. No divine intervention was needed.
Of the four, only Copernicus and perhaps Galileo were Christians—Hutton was a deist, believing strongly in a creator God, and Darwin was an atheist. Still, these men were not bent on battling with their respective churches; they were simply seeking the truth unconstrained by past biases, even those sanctioned by the clergy.
Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin are regarded as the key figures in the freeing of science from the straightjacket of religious orthodoxy. But James Hutton must be counted among them. Biblical scholars had proved generation after generation that the first day of Creation occurred in approximately 4000 B.C. In fact, biblical chronology, as the discipline of precise biblical dating was called, was one of the most rigorous "sciences" of the pre-Renaissance era. Beyond scholars, many of the holiest figures from church history, including the prophet Elijah, St. Augustine, St. Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas, and even Martin Luther, had commented on the age of the earth and all had reached the same conclusion: the earth was nearly 6,000 years old. Alongside the belief in the young earth was the equally powerful belief that the earth would not persist indefinitely—the temporal home of God's highest creation was truly temporary. Soon, Jesus Christ would return to his earthly kingdom to lead the final millennium described in the Book of Revelation, and all existence thereafter would be in the paradise of heaven or the horror of hell. But Hutton saw no termination in sight. He stated, "We find no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end." Acceptance of Hutton's theory required a complete rethinking of the Christian worldview.
Moreover, Hutton's influence on Charles Darwin was significant. While aboard the HMS Beagle in late 1831, en route to the islands where his theory of evolution would begin to be hatched, Darwin carefully studied a recently published book by Charles Lyell, The Principles of Geology (1830). Lyell had rediscovered Hutton's work a generation after it had been forgotten by all but a few scholars. For Darwin, the key insight in Lyell's book was that the earth is profoundly old—geologists now believe that it is 4.6 billion years old—an idea that Lyell properly credits to James Hutton in the first pages of his book.
The ancient age of the earth came as a revelation to Darwin. He had been taught at Cambridge University to trust the teachings of the Book of Genesis, and he was at first highly skeptical of claims that refuted what was so widely believed. However, while exploring St. Jago in the Cape Verde Island chain off the coast of Africa—the first stop the Beagle made—he noticed an undisturbed layer of rocks, called a stratum, formed of shells and coral. It was so undisturbed, in fact, that it looked exactly like a living coral reef that had somehow hardened to stone. Such a band of shells and coral was not too unusual, but this one was 30 feet above sea level. The only way the stratum of delicate ocean fossils could have been raised so high was through the gradual uplifting of the land, a process that Lyell, and before him Hutton, had described. Gentle uplifting of that magnitude would have taken eons. The stratum on St. Jago showed Darwin that Lyell and Hutton were right—the earth was ancient.
When Darwin left Plymouth harbor just a few weeks before St. Jago, he was a bright but traditional naturalist, a collector of specimens really. Now he was a scientist, and his theory of evolution by natural selection, the key ingredient of which was time—lots and lots of time—began to take shape. If Darwin had not been jolted by Hutton and Lyell into appreciating the age of the earth, it is arguable that he would not have deduced the theory of evolution. If not Darwin, then surely someone, such as Alfred Wallace (who did, in fact, independently discover evolution by natural selection), would have uncovered it shortly afterward. But would it have had the power that Darwin's still outstanding presentation gave it?
Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin are household names; Hutton is anything but. The goal of this book is to change that by telling the intriguing story ofJames Hutton and the discovery of the earth's antiquity.
For his science alone, Hutton deserves to be better known. In addition to giving geology, as Stephen Jay Gould stated, its most transforming idea—that the earth was ancient—Hutton devised the first rigorous and unified theory of the earth. His theory posited that the earth was constantly restoring itself. He based this concept on a fundamental cycle: erosion of the present land, followed by the deposition of eroded grains (or dead ocean organisms) on the sea floor, followed by the consolidation of those loose particles into sedimentary rock, followed by the raising of those rocks to form new land, followed by erosion of the new land, followed by a complete repeat of the cycle, over and over again.
Hutton was also the first to recognize the profound importance of subterranean heat, the phenomenon that causes volcanoes, and he argued that it was the key to the uplifting of formerly submerged land. It was a completely original theory. Unlike all previous hypotheses of Earth's workings, there was no call for catastrophes, such as Noah's Flood. All of the earth's history could be understood as the result of the subtle actions of common phenomena, such as rain and waves, simply occurring day after day after day, over a profoundly long time. Hutton's proposition was remarkably prescient and essentially correct. His ideas were the starting point for the modern theory of the earth, which now includes plate tectonics and the role of the ice ages.1
Beyond James Hutton's scientific contribution, there are several other reasons to explore his life in detail. The first concerns his milieu. Hutton was an integral part of what is now recognized as one of the most creative periods in intellectual history. Starting
'See the Appendix for a fuller description of these sophisticated concepts.
around 1750, a small group of academics, amateur scholars, government officials, clergymen, and inventors, all about the same age and all centered around Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, made broad and seminal contributions to Western collective knowledge within essentially one generation. This flowering of philosophical, economic, historical, and especially scientific work is now known as the Scottish Enlightenment. David Hume set standards in Western philosophy and history. Adam Smith developed the field of modern economics. Joseph Black isolated carbon dioxide and was among the founders of modern chemistry. Black's former assistant, James Watt, perfected the practical steam engine, which literally powered the Industrial Revolution. Hutton and many of these great thinkers interacted often, sometimes daily, and there is little doubt that the unique quality of life in Edinburgh in the second half of the eighteenth century served as a catalyst for this explosion of creativity.
The final reason to explore James Hutton's life is that it was simply fascinating. He was a late bloomer who came of age during a watershed period of Scottish history. A jack-of-all-trades, Hutton tried being a lawyer, doctor, and farmer before finally finding his true calling as a scientist. Though he was the last of the great Edinburgh scholars to publish his seminal ideas, he commanded the respect of all the other participants in the Scottish Enlightenment. All who came in contact with him noted his animated personality, his energy, and his good cheer. People were simply drawn to him. As Joseph Black once wrote to James Watt, "I wish I could give you a dose now and then of my friend Hutton's company; it would do you a world of good." Once within his orbit, though, attraction to Hutton's personality gave way to admiration for his clear, rigorous, logical, and obviously original mind. His biographer, colleague, and much younger friend, John Playfair, left this profile of our protagonist:
To his friends his conversation was inestimable; as great talents, the most perfect candor, and the utmost simplicity of character and manners, all united to stamp a value upon it. ... The simplicity pervaded his whole conduct; while his manner, which was peculiar, but highly pleasing, displayed a degree of vivacity, hardly ever to be found among men of profound and abstract speculation. His great liveliness, added to the aptness to lose sight of himself, would sometimes lead him into little eccentricities, that formed an amusing contrast with the graver habits of a philosophic life. .. . But it is impossible by words to convey any idea of the effect of his conversation, and of the impression made by so much philosophy, gaiety and humor, accompanied by a manner at once so animated and simple. Things are made known only by comparison, and that which is unique admits of no description.
What follows, then, is an effort to trace, largely through Hutton's life, the forces and ideas that came together to prove that the earth was ancient—not eternal, but unknowably, incomprehensibly old. The story is a rich one, filled with odd characters, strong friendships, a uniquely social city, profoundly original ideas, and spectacular geology. The book will explore the notions that Hutton had to confront—the entrenched belief in the young earth, and the accepted geologic theories that used the young-earth time frame as a starting point. It will also examine the two environments that inspired Hutton—the physical environment of Scotland and the intellectual environment created by the members of the Scottish Enlightenment. The ultimate establishment of the ancient earth was the result of a remarkable partnership—Hutton and his young colleagues John Playfair and James Hall—in which one man so inspired his younger charges that they put their own ambitious careers on hold so that they could protect their mentor's legacy. Finally, the book will detail the profound influence that James Hutton had on two nineteenth-century scientists whose work remains powerfully significant today—Charles Lyell, whose view of geology still provides one of the foundations for the field 175 years later, and Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution only becomes more important as time goes on.
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