Hutton’s a priori commitment to materialism

In 1785, before examining the evidence, the deist James Hutton (1726–1797), ‘the Founder of Modern Geology’, proclaimed:

‘the past history of our globe must be explained by what can be seen to be happening now … No powers are to be employed that are not natural to the globe, no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle’ (emphasis added)

This philosophy was expounded and popularized by the influential lawyer-geologist Charles Lyell in his book Principles of Geology (3 volumes, 1830–33), which greatly influenced Darwin. The historian and philosopher of science, William Whewell, coined the term uniformitarianism for this philosophy in an (anonymous) review of Lyell’s second volume (Quarterly Review XLVII(93):126, March 1832). Uniformitarianism is a not a refutation of Biblical teaching on Creation and the Flood, but a dogmatic refusal to consider them as even possible explanations for the rocks and fossils we observe.


  • Hutton, J., ‘Theory of the Earth’, a paper (with the same title of his 1795 book) communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and published in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1785; cited with approval in Holmes, A., Principles of Physical Geology, 2nd edition, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., Great Britain, pp. 43–44, 1965.