From here to tedious eternity

The Man Who Found Time
April 23, 2004

James Hutton is at first sight an unlikely contender for the title, father of modern geology. He was trained as a medical doctor and spent much of his working life as a gentleman farmer on the Scottish Borders. Hutton was a polymath with a keen interest in chemistry, and was responsible for expelling catastrophism from the heart of geological theory and introducing the idea of a world "with no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end". As such, he has always been held in the highest regard by practising geologists.

However, as Jack Repcheck points out in The Man Who Found Time , outside this specialised field Hutton remains a comparative unknown.

Repcheck, sensing an injustice, sets out to place Hutton on the pop science map with the likes of Copernicus and Darwin. He paints a vivid (if occasionally long-winded) picture of the environment in which Hutton developed his ideas. Despite the fact that only three chapters deal with the publication of Hutton's great theory and its repercussions, this is an informative and revealing book that argues persuasively for a seat at high table.

Hutton is held in particular fondness by igneous petrologists, especially those, such as myself, who work on the origin of granites. His observations of granite at Glen Tilt, Galloway and Arran convinced him this rock was formed by the freezing of hot material rising up from depth and breaking apart older sedimentary strata. This correct and critical interpretation placed him on a collision course with Abraham Gottlob Werner, the highly influential professor of geology at Freiburg University, whose followers believed granite was a primary rock, deposited from the Deluge a mere 6,000 years ago.

Hutton's obsession with geological cycles undoubtedly reflected his training in medicine, especially physiology, where decay and rejuvenation are essential components. His metaphor of the earth as a living organism inspired James Lovelock's Gaia theory, also called geophysiology, which, like Hutton's ideas, met with some derision but is gaining ground.

So why is Hutton not a household name? His recognition of the extreme antiquity of the earth cleared the way for Darwin by freeing the natural world from the temporal straitjacket imposed on it by scripture. While Hutton's theory may have been overshadowed by events such as the French revolution and the American war of independence, this does not explain why the work of his contemporaries, including David Hume, Adam Smith and others in the Scottish Enlightenment, are still widely read.

The fact that Hutton consigned himself to virtual obscurity (his prose was described as impenetrable by Stephen J. Gould), may have been important initially. But a repackaging of Hutton's ideas by John Playfair into a more digestible style was rejected by no lesser an authority than Georges Cuvier, who regarded Hutton's Theory of the Earth as belonging to the speculative tradition so derided by the new empiricists.

However, there is a simple but unflattering explanation not considered by Repcheck: that people were just not very interested in knowing about the antiquity of the earth. The fact remains that the sheer, unimaginable vastness of what we know as deep time is a numbers game of inhuman proportions. Most of us struggle to remember what we did last weekend; the human brain is simply not wired up to perceive geological time in any way other than through metaphor. For Hutton's antiquity to be of interest, something has to take place within it.

This is why evolution, with its struggle of life and death set against an unrelenting background, is easily the more captivating subject. Deep time, on its own and with nothing to do, is a lonely, unsettling notion, and beyond the singular importance of knowing with accuracy the age of the earth, it is also a boring one.

Inevitably, comparisons are drawn with the pioneering English geologist William Smith, subject of Simon Winchester's recent bestseller. Although Smith was only 28 when Hutton died, Repcheck has overlooked a number of parallels between them.

Despite coming from different backgrounds, both had their ideas ignored or dismissed by their peers and needed champions to advance them. Both worked on Britain's numerous canal projects of the 18th century. Both struggled to promote the upstart science of geology over Genesis, which led inevitably to accusations of blasphemy. The critical difference concerns their methodology, in particular Hutton's unashamedly a priori concept of the necessity of final cause.

With Hutton's cardinal role as the first empirical geologist dismissed by Gould as myth, perhaps it is time to recognise Smith as the true champion of field-based data collection over received wisdom and speculation.

Nick Petford is reader in geology, Kingston University.

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity

Author - Jack Repcheck
Publisher - Simon and Schuster
Pages - 247
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 7382 0692 X

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