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James Hutton

Hutton, James, 1726–97, Scottish geologist, chemist, and naturalist. He was initially attracted to chemistry; he entered the legal profession at the Univ. of Edinburgh; turned to medicine, as it closely resembled chemistry; and then became a farmer to allow him to study rocks and be able to pursue his interests in geology. He formulated controversial theories of the origin of the earth and of atmospheric changes (see uniformitarianism) that paved the way to modern geological science. After 1768, he moved to Edinburgh to discuss his ideas with other scholars including the physician and mathematician John Playfair, and chemist Joseph Black. Hutton started a controversy by standing against the popular Neptunists (rocks developed in a great flood) and the Plutonists (all rocks are of igneous origin) schools, proposing the theory of uniformity of causes, concluding that the earth's history can be explained by observing the geological forces now at work, because these forces are identical to the ones that operated in the past. By studying the Devonian Old Red Sandstone along the Scotland coast, he discovered that sedimentary rocks originated from, not a single flood, but a series of successive floods; noted that the intrusion of igneous rocks were distinct from sedimentary deposits; recorded the gradual actions of geomorphic processes; and discussed the lengths of geologic time. His ideas influenced Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, which in turn influenced Charles Darwin's theories of adaptive evolution. Hutton's great work was The Theory of the Earth (2 vol., 1795; MS fragment for Vol. III ed. by Archibald Geikie, 1899); it was simplified by John Playfair as Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802).

See study by E. B. Bailey (1967).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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