But, happily, the force of genius cannot always be controlled by the plans of a narrow and shortsighted prudence.
John Playfair, 1805
W hen Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops left Edinburgh on November 3, 1745, to begin their march on England, they left only a small force of 500 men to maintain Jacobite control. Two months later, while Charles's forces were bogged down near Stirling Castle, English soldiers retook Edinburgh, forcing the remaining Highlanders to flee without firing a shot. One of the first official acts of the royal army was to find Archibald Stewart, the Lord Provost, and throw him into prison. Stewart was accused of aiding and abetting the enemy because he had presided over the meeting in which the town leaders had voted to do nothing to stop the rebels. George Drummond, the fifty-nine-year-old former Lord Provost and one of the two city leaders who had mobilized to defend Edinburgh against the clansmen, was installed in his place. The Whig-Jacobite tension that had simmered below the surface prior to "the 45" could no longer be ignored. The defeated Jacobites, like Stewart, were now stripped of all influence.
The confusion and uncertainty that existed in Edinburgh in 1746 were mirrored in James Hutton's life. For the next eight years, he would bounce from one enterprise and location to the next, but fortunately all the while adding to his storehouse of scientific knowledge.
In the winter of 1746, with the Highlanders no longer walking the streets and drinking in the taverns, the citizens of Edinburgh tried to resume some semblance of normalcy. The battle of Culloden would not occur for a few more months, so there was still tremendous unease in the city and throughout Scotland. James Hutton would do his part to get on with life by resuming his medical studies.
The university was founded in the late 1500s and was among the oldest in Great Britain, but the medical school was quite new; it was founded by George Drummond the year Hutton was born. Drummond had high ambitions for the town, and he viewed the University of Edinburgh as an institution that could have a positive influence on other parts of the city. At the time, there was no medical school in Scotland, so any young Scot wanting to become a doctor had to study on the Continent, or else declare himself an Anglican and try to gain admittance to Oxford or Cambridge. This situation was absurd in Drum-
mond's eyes, so he pressured the administrators of the university to hire Alexander Monro as the first professor of anatomy; Monro, in turn, hired four additional faculty members. Drum-mond next forced the city council to approve the building of Edinburgh's first infirmary. His vision was for the two new institutions to be integrated, and the medical school quickly became known for requiring its students to work bedside with sick patients immediately after they began their instruction.
If Drummond saw the need for the integration of theory and practice, in Alexander Monro he had the ideal scholar to make this vision a reality. Monro and the other four original faculty members had studied medicine under Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1738) at the University of Leyden, in Holland. Boerhaave is recognized as the first modern medical doctor in Western history, for he stressed the need to observe directly, to diagnose, and then to treat patients in an era when "doctors" usually kept a safe distance from their patients. A gifted writer and lecturer, Boerhaave attracted many to Leyden and made it the center of medical training in Europe. The curriculum he created wove together strands of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and pathology. Postmortems were made routine, which was a major innovation. As a follower of Newton's, Boerhaave also looked for general laws about the systematic operation of the body and the progress of disease within it. Monro brought this sensibility with him to Edinburgh, and the new medical school was modeled on Leyden's. Thus, any student enrolled in Edinburgh's medical school when Hutton was there would have received intense instruction in anatomy, chemistry, and
Newtonian science, along with an appreciation for the importance of direct observation over slavish adherence to theory.
The medical students were practically buzzing with anticipation at the end of1747. The popular professor of physiology, John Rutherford, was about to begin clinical lectures in the infirmary's operating room. This development represented a significant departure from past practices and was eagerly awaited by the students. However, instead of participating, Hutton left for Paris, where he continued his medical studies at the 700-year-old University of Paris. John Playfair rationalized Hutton's action by pointing out that the medical school in Edinburgh was still not established as a world-class institution, so it was common for students to finish their studies on the Continent. Still, it is more likely that Hutton left Edinburgh not because the medical school was deficient but because he was advised against staying. Sometime in 1747, it seems, Hutton impregnated a young woman. No one, except perhaps for Hutton's family, knew about the illegitimate child until after Hutton's death.
In E. C. Mossner's standard biography of David Hume, there is a marvelous passage about how illegitimacy was dealt with in the eighteenth century. Apparently, David Hume's own father, Joseph, impregnated a young servant girl when he was twenty-one, the same age as Hutton when his indiscretion occurred. The young woman, Elspeth Burnett, who was a servant to Joseph's uncle, testified before a church committee that she was with child in March 1702, and she claimed that Joseph Hume was the father. Joseph took his time about appearing before the same committee. When he finally showed up in
August (the baby probably had been born by then), he simply denied the accusation. With barely a pause, he announced that he had to leave for Utrecht, in Holland, and off he went. No one tried to stop him. He did, in fact, go to the University of Utrecht to study law, and he stayed in Holland for the next three years. Mossner points out that young men in Joseph Hume's position were usually recommended by family members to leave town and stay away for a while until the "affair" was forgotten. It is likely that the Hume family paid the girl a modest amount of money and made a contribution to the church poor box. Then the matter was dropped, and "the scandal would probably not have damaged his own good name irreparably." By leaving Edinburgh for Paris, Hutton appears to have been doing what any young man in his situation would have done.
Hutton remained in Paris, where he "pursued with great ardour the studies of chemistry and anatomy," according to Playfair, for a little over a year. The University of Paris was among the oldest in Europe. The date of its founding is obscure, but it was a formal institution of higher learning from the eleventh century on, and its medical school was probably the oldest in Europe. Paris would have been incredibly exciting, both culturally and aesthetically, for the young Hutton. The gardens, the cafes, the wide boulevards were already a feature of the city, thanks to the long and prosperous reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), and the open spaces would have been a welcome departure from Edinburgh's narrow wynds and generally overcrowded conditions. The unrest that would lead to the French Revolution two generations later was not yet openly manifesting itself. Rather, this was the Paris of
Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and the young Rousseau—the height of the French Enlightenment.
Given Hutton's pronounced interest in chemistry, it is quite possible that he attended several of the riveting lectures given throughout the year by Guillaume-François Rouelle (1703-1770), a chemist at the Jardin du Roi. Scholars at the Jardin were obligated to teach public courses, which were advertised and well attended. Rouelle was reputed to be a gifted public speaker with a showman's style, particularly when it came to demonstrating chemical experiments. Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, was said to have been inspired by him. Rouelle had a fascination with the chemical makeup and structure of the earth's surface, and gave at least one lecture on the subject.
After his year in Paris, James Hutton packed up once again and moved to Leyden, in Holland, where many Scots finished their medical schooling. Not even ten years since Boerhaave's death, the medical school was still the finest in Europe. Leyden, though much smaller than Paris, was a vibrant city with a thriving textile trade. Leyden was only thirty miles from Amsterdam, where Dutch culture was enjoying its zenith.
In September 1749, after five years of study, James Hutton finally received his medical degree. His University of Leyden thesis was titled De sanguine et circulatione in microcosmo (The Blood and the Circulation of the Microcosm). This thesis was significant because it made use of Newton's notion of cycles (as seen in the orbits of the planets) in analyzing the circulatory system, which is what allows the human body to be self-
sustaining. Hutton would later think about the earth in much the same way.
In the fall of 1749, six years after having failed as a solicitor's apprentice, James Hutton was finally ready to begin a career. He had a degree from the best medical school in Europe and had studied at two other outstanding institutions. With nearly a decade of schooling behind him, he had received the finest available instruction in chemistry, by way of the study of medicine, and had been imbued with Newtonian thinking, thanks to Colin Maclaurin. His medical training had also honed his observation skills. But instead of going back to Edinburgh to begin a medical practice, he moved to London. Perhaps he wanted to avoid Edinburgh because of his illegitimate son. Or perhaps the opposite was true—he was helping the mother of his son establish herself in London (the boy was known to have spent most of his life there). Whatever the reason, we know that from his residence in London, Hutton wrote to his friends in Edinburgh and expressed concern that it would be difficult to start a medical practice back home. Yet he did not try to begin a practice in London, either. In fact, after all the years of preparation, there is no evidence that he ever seriously considered practicing medicine.
One of the acquaintances to whom Hutton wrote was a former classmate named James Davie. Hutton and Davie had worked on chemistry experiments together during their school years. As students, they had found a way to make the chemical sal ammoniac, which was used as a flux in metalworking (to connect two pieces of metal). Davie and Hutton had discovered how to make the flux from common coal soot, an abundant substance in any northern city of the age. Thus, the expense for raw materials was essentially nothing—one merely paid chimney sweeps a few trifles for soot. Moreover, at the time, the only available sal ammoniac came from Egypt (where it was made from camel dung). Davie wrote to Hutton suggesting that perhaps they should try to sell sal ammoniac by using their method. Hutton left London for Edinburgh a few months later, in the summer of 1750, and worked with Davie to set up the chemical works. No details of the business arrangement exist, but it appears that Davie made Hutton a partial partner at this time; Hutton was made a full partner in 1765. The men loyally adhered to the arrangement for the rest of their days. The firm was an immediate success, and it provided Hutton with a steady income; this, combined with his inheritance, made him financially comfortable.
The sal ammoniac work is the first tangible evidence that Hutton was an unusually gifted and original chemist. It was his knowledge of chemistry that separated him from most of the other early geologists and allowed him to produce such an original theory. Many scientists understood Newton's teachings, and many also were keen observers of the natural world, but few early students of the earth had the gift of chemistry. In the next stage of his life, Hutton would continue to pursue his chemistry experiments while starting to pay attention to geological processes. It is possible that the success he and Davie had in isolating an important chemical from a mineral source—soot being a byproduct of coal—helped to combine these two passions.
Not much is known about the specifics of Hutton's life in the early 1750s, but clearly these were critical years. First, he made the decision not to pursue a career in medicine. Then, James Davie appeared seemingly out of thin air to provide him with financial security. And finally, after several visits to his farm (which he had inherited from his father) some 40 miles southeast of Edinburgh, he made the decision to devote himself to farming. Given that Hutton had spent his life in cities, this was an enormous change, but it was key for his future scientific work. He would start thinking deeply about the land he farmed, which would help prove his theory about the ancient earth over three decades later.
If Hutton was going to be a farmer, he wanted to be a modern, innovative one. But he quickly learned how difficult that would be. At this time, agricultural practices in Scotland were very backward, having changed little over hundreds of years. In 1752, probably on the advice ofJohn Hall, an influential friend who lived near his farm and who was the future father ofJames Hall, James Hutton made yet one more move. Certain parts of England were known for their agricultural innovations, and one of those areas was Norfolk, a county north and east of London. Hutton persuaded a farmer named John Dybold to let him live and work on his farm for a short time. That "short time" stretched to two years.
These were happy and instructive years for Hutton. As John Playfair later wrote:
He appears, indeed, to have enjoyed this situation very much: the simple and plain character of the society with which he mingled, suited well with his own, and the peasants of Norfolk would find nothing in the stranger to set them at a distance from him, or to make them treat him with reserve. It was always true of Dr. Hutton, that to an ordinary man he appeared to be an ordinary man, possessing a little more spirit and liveliness, perhaps, than is usual to meet with. These circumstances made his residence in Norfolk greatly to his mind, and there was accordingly no period of his life to which he more frequently alluded, in conversation with his friends; often describing, with singular vivacity, the rural sports and little adventures, which, in the intervals of labour, formed the amusement of their society.
During his tenure in Norfolk, James Hutton started thinking about the earth in a rigorous way. He traveled extensively around England, and later the Continent, observing farming methods and geology. In a letter to John Hall, Hutton revealed that during his hikes he found himself examining the surface of the earth, and looking in every pit, ditch, or bed of river that fell in his path. He would continue making field excursions for the rest of his life; he could later claim to have seen practically every corner of England and Scotland.
The study of the earth was in its infancy in the mid-1700s— the term geology would not come into use for another generation. Indeed, the first chapter of the Book of Genesis stated precisely how the earth had been created, so for most Christians there was no need to inquire further. Yet, for the scientific community, alive with activity since Galileo's and Descartes's work of the early seventeenth century, numerous questions about the earth needed to be answered. For example, how did a volcano work, what caused earthquakes, and what were those objects that looked like organisms mineralized into stone (that we today call fossils)? Notably, though, all early studies of the earth attempted to be scientifically rigorous while still deferring to the time scale dictated by the Bible, and stressed the central role of Noah's Flood and the waters of the newly created earth.
If Hutton had told one of his old professors at the University of Edinburgh of his newfound interest in the earth, and then asked him for a list of the key books in the field, the professor would likely have recommended nine works, all of which were popular or influential at one time. They fell into two groups, the first being investigations of specific earth processes (e.g., earthquakes), the other being all-encompassing "cosmogonies" that attempted to understand everything—how the earth was created, how it evolved, how it was going to end, and so forth. This small library encapsulated geologic thought, circa 1752.
Hutton would have been directed to begin with Nicolaus Steno's (1631-1687) Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body Enclosed by the Process of Nature Within a Solid, published in Italy in 1669. This book made two important strides, and is now widely regarded as the first rigorous work in modern geology. First, it properly identified a fossil as a once-living organism that had died on freshly deposited sediments, was buried by more sediments, and was then petrified (before Steno's pronouncement, fossils were thought to be "figured stones"—minerals that through pure happenstance formed in shapes that resembled organisms). Second, the work carefully and correctly described how sedimentary rocks formed. Steno realized that all sediments accumulate in horizontal layers at the bottoms of bodies of water and that the bottom layer of a sedimentary rock formation must have formed before any of the layers on top of it. Like Hutton later, Steno realized that the rock record he studied did not match well with the standard interpretation of the Bible, yet he was not prepared to jettison the Scriptures, as Hutton was. Instead, he devised a scheme of six stages that explained his observations while still keeping the earth under 6,000 years old. He believed that after Noah's Flood, a second cataclysm must have occurred, in Italy at least, to account for the formations he saw there. Hutton probably read the 1671 English translation of Steno by William Oldham, a distinguished member of the Royal Society who viewed the work as seminal.
The next crucial book for a newly inspired student of the earth would have been Robert Hooke's posthumously published Discourse of Earthquakes (1705). Hooke (1635-1703) was an extraordinarily talented and influential scientist, second only to Newton in late seventeenth-century England. He concurred with Steno's description of how fossils formed, and suggested that violent upheavals, such as earthquakes, had raised undersea sediments above sea level in the past, which was correct. However, as it was for Steno, Hook's earth was only as old as the Bible allowed.
After Steno on fossils and sediments, and Hooke on earthquakes, Hutton would have been urged to read Anton-Lazzaro
Moro (1687-1740) on volcanoes. His De' crostacei was published in Venice in 1740. Though it demonstrated an impressive understanding of the power of volcanic action and observed that lava came from deep within the earth, the overall theory was still strongly tied to the Book of Genesis.
The other six books were all cosmogonies, their authors attempting complete histories of the earth (Hutton would later strongly object to this type of effort). The first three scholars, all from England, started a tradition that was later called "biblical geology," that is, the effort to link scientific laws to biblical history. The most ambitious book was Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth, published in four volumes from 1681 to 1689. As the title implies, Burnet's work treated the Holy Scriptures as the starting point. It was a long, very complicated book that sought to explain the evolution of earth in the context of Newton's laws while adhering strictly to the Bible. In astounding detail, Burnet explained how the earth started out as a paradise with a mild climate everywhere, only to be distorted by the great Flood. He continued by projecting what the future held for the earth, and predicted that a planet-engulfing fire would send us all to a fiery death. Burnet was part of the English scientific establishment, Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton being close friends. Just as Newton's chronology helped to keep biblical chronology viable for another century, his assistance and endorsement of Burnet's book helped to keep the study of the earth wedded to that chronology. Newton and Burnet had a lengthy correspondence over two trouble spots in the book. Burnet wanted to, and ultimately did, start his book with the
Flood, and then go back to the newly created earth. Newton, on the other hand, believed that the starting point should be Creation itself because he thought Noah's Flood only further distorted what had already existed. And Newton thought that Burnet's trouble with just six twenty-four-hour periods for Creation could be solved by supposing that the earth had rotated more slowly in the past (therefore a day was longer than twenty-four hours). Remarkably, Newton was prepared to compromise on the natural laws that he had discovered.
John Woodward's Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth was published in 1695. Inspired by Steno's recognition of the true nature of fossils, Woodward was particularly eager to explain the remarkably wide distribution of them around the world. He argued that the Deluge destroyed the original surface of the earth and, in the process, caused the scattering of living creatures that were later found preserved as fossils.
William Whiston's New Theory of the Earth (1696) was written in the same spirit as Burnet's, but he worked harder to come up with scientific explanations for known phenomena. For example, he pronounced that the Deluge was caused by a collision of the earth with a comet. Invoking comet collisions was popular at the time because a remarkable comet had been visible in England and Europe for most of 1680.
After the appearance of these important works at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, there was a quiet spell that was broken right before Hutton's move to his farm. Within a couple of years of each other, three distinguished works were published. The first was the posthu-
mous publication of Leibnitz's (1646-1716) Protoggea, published in 1749. Taking a cue from René Descartes, Leibnitz was the first to propose an idea that would remain popular for the rest of the century and would cause great frustration for James Hutton: a universal ocean. The universal ocean was a different concept from Noah's Flood, yet it was a variation on the same theme. Leibnitz argued that soon after the earth formed, it was covered by a great sea that eventually dissipated to reveal the already-complex continents.
Another posthumously published book, Benoit de Maillet's (1656-1738) Telliamed (the author's last name spelled backward, 1748), was actually the first to propose that the earth was ancient—about 2 billion years old in the author's estimation. Maillet also envisioned an earth once completely submerged by a universal ocean, and he calculated the 2 billion years based on his analysis of how fast the waters were receding into vortices. The book went through three editions in French and at least one in English. Though a popular read, in the end Maillet's science was unpersuasive. This was because the book was supposedly written by an Oriental philosopher and based on Egyptian legend (Maillet probably chose this format to avoid the censure of the church), and it contained several wild claims; for example, it proposed that all species of organisms began as seeds (found throughout the universe), and that women and men had been transformed from mermaids and mermen.
However, Maillet's work did inspire the last important book of the period, G. L. de Buffon's thirty-four-volume Histoire Naturelle (1749). Buffon was the Intendant of the Jardin du Roi in Paris, an influential position. In his widely read volume about the earth, Buffon argued that it and all the planets had formed after a collision between the sun and a comet or comets. The earth therefore started out as extraordinarily hot. Over time, an ocean formed that engulfed the entire planet (another universal ocean), and the recession of the waters led to the composition of the land now inhabited.
In January 1751, a couple of years after the publication of his ambitious work, Buffon received a letter from the faculty of the Sorbonne. The missive informed him that they had found fourteen ideas in his volumes that were "reprehensible and contrary to the creed of the church." The key offending lines were these: "The waters of the sea have produced the mountains and valleys of the land—the water of the heaven, reducing all to a level, will at last deliver the whole land over to the sea, and the sea, successively prevailing over the land, will leave dry new continents like those which we inhabit." Apparently, the faculty disapproved of Buffon's implication that God did not create the mountains and valleys directly; rather they were the result of secondary causes—the waters of the sea.
To keep his prestigious position, Buffon had to recant: "I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe most firmly all therein related about the creation, both as to order of time and matter of fact; and I abandon every thing in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and in general all which may be contrary to the narration of Moses."
Clearly, as Hutton began his earnest inquiries into the earth in 1752, the field was still deeply influenced by the Book of Gen esis. The extraordinary hold of the Bible prevented genuine freethinking about the history and workings of the planet, and the few open-minded scientists who did emerge were quickly censured by the church. Though Steno, Leibnitz, and Buffon were skeptical about the earth being only 6,000 years old, they did not openly confront the issue.1 Only Maillet published an argument for an ancient earth, but because the author was already dead, and the flaws of his book were so pronounced, the claim had almost no power. There was really only one truly seminal and lasting work from which Hutton could build his own theory, and that was Steno's. He would certainly use it as a starting point. In time, he would build a remarkable edifice on that foundation.
'Buffon would later revise his book and state that the earth was 75,000 years old. He arrived at this number through experiments that he conducted to estimate the cooling rate of the earth. The revision was less influential than the original, though, because when it was published in 1778, geologists were already under the influence of Abraham Werner's theory. Also, several of the assumptions of Buf-fon's hypothesis were no longer believed valid thirty years later.
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