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Creation 36(3):20–23, April 2014

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James Hutton: the man who warped time


Sir Henry Raeburn (1766) James-Hutton
James Hutton said that time never got started, but now it’s going, he said it won’t end either.

James Hutton (1726–1797) was a Scottish chemist, physician, agriculturalist, and Enlightenment humanist.1 His father was a wealthy Edinburgh merchant who died when James was two years old, and James grew up as the only male in a household of his mother and three sisters.


James attended the University of Edinburgh. His natural philosophy lecturer there had worked with the great creationist scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727),2 which helped infuse in James a particular interest in Newton’s laws of motion and gravity as they apply to the orbits of the planets. He was also intensely interested in chemistry. His first employment was as a lawyer’s apprentice, but he preferred doing chemistry experiments to amuse his colleagues. He therefore re-enrolled at the university to study medicine “as being the most nearly allied to chemistry”.3

Sometime in 1747, Hutton fathered a son by a Miss Edington. He named the boy James Smeaton Hutton and supported him financially, but was not otherwise involved as a parent. Probably for this reason, he transferred his medical studies to the University of Paris.4 This was the Paris of Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau—the humanists of the French Enlightenment. After a year in this environment, Hutton moved to the University of Leyden in Holland where, in 1749, he finally received his medical degree, with a thesis on blood circulation.5 In this he applied Newton’s concept of cyclic orbits of the planets to the circulatory system of the blood. He would later think about the earth’s rock formations in much the same way.

Hutton—the gentleman farmer

Returning to England, he abandoned medicine and teamed up with a former classmate and chemistry enthusiast, James Davie, with whom he had discovered a way to make sal ammoniac from coal soot.6 Together they set up a chemical works in Edinburgh in 1750 to produce this, which provided Hutton with a steady livelihood. In 1754, he took up farming on the family property. This gave him the opportunity to study landforms and their erosion by wind and rain. He also went on a geological tour of the Highlands of Scotland in 1764.

Hutton remained unmarried, and in 1768, he returned to Edinburgh to live with his three sisters, also unmarried. In the words of the famous evolutionist Prof. Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002): “Hutton was wealthy enough to be a full-time intellectual.”7

He was also a Freemason and attended the Canongate Lodge, the oldest Masonic chapel in the world.8 The entrance to a memorial to James Hutton where he used to live features two Masonic pillars.

Hutton—the deist

Hutton was a deist, i.e. he conceded the universe must have had a teleological cause,9 but from then on the laws of science were in control. Thus he believed that the ‘cause’ had no further involvement in human affairs, and so was not the God of the Bible. He thus denied the biblical narrative of the creation of the earth and man, and also the worldwide Flood. Prof. Rudwick writes: “In Hutton’s view, the capacities of human thought and rationality alone gave meaning to nature; so a wisely designed world would necessarily make provision for the permanent existence of the human race, and hence for maintaining the habitability of the earth.”10

Hutton’s view of the earth

Hutton regarded the earth as an eternally perpetuating machine, with a succession of worlds extending indefinitely back into the past. He theorized that the earth’s continents were slowly but continually being eroded into the ocean basins. These erosion sediments then hardened into horizontal strata, which were then raised when the ocean floor was uplifted by subterranean volcanic processes, and so formed new continents, which then were gradually eroded into the ocean again. And so on, for ever. Hence the final sentence in Hutton’s Theory of the Earth [1788]11 is: “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”12

In this worldview of Hutton’s, time is cyclic. Biblical geologist John Reed explains: “We see time in the Christian mode—a linear expanse with beginning and end, filled with contingent unique events. Hutton did not. Instead he advocated an indefinite non-historical past, a cycling mechanistic world where erosion wore the land down and heat pushed the land back up—all to maintain a perfect habitation for all of his deistic god’s creatures.”13

The unconformity at Siccar point, where horizontal sandstone lies on top of vertical sandstone, is strong evidence for Noah’s Flood, not for endless time.

In transforming time’s arrow (i.e. events in sequence) into time’s cycle, Hutton annihilated history. Gould writes: “Under the metaphor of time’s cycle in its purest form, nothing can be distinctive because everything comes round again—and no event, by itself, can tell us where we are, for nothing anchors us to any particular point in time, but only (at most) to a particular stage of a repeating cycle. … Change is a continuous backing and forthing, never a permanent alteration in any direction.”14

Note that this conveniently eradicates the history recorded in the Bible concerning God’s creation of the earth and mankind, and the rules He has set by which He will one day judge all people.15

Hutton obviously had never heard of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (since it had not yet been formulated),16 which states that the amount of energy in the universe available for work is relentlessly decreasing. So the universe (hence the earth à la Hutton) cannot have existed forever, otherwise it would have already exhausted all its usable energy and reached what is known as ‘heat death’. Hence Hutton’s eternally perpetuating earth is not only biblically wrong, but also scientifically impossible.

The product of thought, not field observation

Students today are taught that Hutton deduced his theory from meticulous field observations, particularly on granite (as an intrusive rock and hence evidence for uplift) and unconformities17 (as evidence for multiple cycles of uplift and erosion). However, nothing could be further from the truth. As Gould points out, Hutton first presented his theory of the earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, but he did not see his first unconformity until 1787, or his most famous one, at Siccar Point, until 1788.18

Gould writes: “His statement about granite could not be clearer or more precise: ‘I just saw it, and no more, at Petershead and Aberdeen, but that was all the granite I had ever seen when I wrote my Theory of the Earth [1788 version]. I have, since that time, seen it in different places; because I went on purpose to examine it (1795, I, 214).’”19 And Chapter VI of his 1795 Theory of the Earth, Volume 1, Section II, has the revealing title: “The Theory confirmed from Observations made on purpose to elucidate the subject”!

Gould says: “Hutton did not draw his fundamental inferences from more astute observations in the field, but by imposing on the earth, à priori,20 the most pure and rigid concept of time’s cycle ever presented in geology—so rigid, in fact, that it required Playfair’s recasting to gain acceptability.”21

Falsehoods about Hutton

Why then are students taught so much factual inexactitude concerning Hutton? Gould attributes it to four major editors who revised what Hutton wrote.

1. John Playfair’s rewrite of Hutton’s legendary unreadability

Hutton’s rambling (1,200-page) 1795 Theory of the Earth has endless quotations in French with one running to 41 pages. After Hutton’s death, his friend, Scottish mathematician and scientist John Playfair (1748–1819), set out to rescue his ideas from their poor presentation. He spent five years rewriting them in a shorter form, published in 1802 as Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Gould says: “Playfair subtly ‘modernized’ his friend, and helped to set the basis of Hutton’s legend by toning down his hostility to history … portraying his field evidence in the traditional, historical style that Hutton himself had consistently shunned.”22

Rudwick says that Playfair used the unreadability “as a reason for bowdlerizing23 the work by detaching it from its theological framework and suppressing its teleology. He has been followed by countless other commentators ever since.”24

2. Charles Lyell’s mischaracterization

In the 19th century, Charles Lyell’s 3-volume rewrite of geological history titled Principles of Geology emerged as the predominant English geologist text. As Lyell had studied law and was a barrister, he needed a science ‘hero’ with field experience to augment his rhetoric. Gould writes: “Hutton was pressed into service in one of the most flagrant mischaracterizations ever perpetrated by the heroic tradition in the history of science.”25

3. Sir Archibald Geike’s mythology

In 1897, Sir Archibald Geike, in his The Founders of Geology disingenuously presented Hutton as a paragon of objectivity. Geike wrote: “In the whole of Hutton’s doctrine, he vigorously guarded himself against the admission of any principle which could not be founded on observation. He made no assumptions. Every step in his deductions was based on actual fact … .”26 Gould comments: “Geike’s mythical Hutton has been firmly entrenched in geological textbooks ever since.”26

4. John McPhee’s retelling

Gould informs us that prolific American writer John McPhee “has adopted Hutton to convey the mystique of fieldwork as both science and aesthetics. In Basin and Range (1980), McPhee … has given the Huttonian myth its most literate retelling since Geike’s invention.”27

Obituary postscript

Hutton died in 1797, aged 70. A few weeks later his executor and other friends were stunned when Hutton’s hitherto unknown illegitimate son, now 50, arrived from London, and announced his existence.28 It would seem that despite Hutton’s life-long efforts to recycle history, his own was linear after all.

Posted on homepage: 21 September 2015

References and notes

  1. The humanist philosophers of the 18th century ‘Enlightenment’ put autonomous human reason and skepticism in place of tradition and faith. Claiming ‘reason’ without God to be a better guide to truth than reasoning from God-revealed truth, they rejected not only belief in God but biblical morality. People could decide for themselves what was true or right for them. Return to text.
  2. Lamont, A., Sir Isaac Newton (1642/3–1727): A Scientific Genius, Creation 12(3):48–51, June 1990, creation.com/newton. Return to text.
  3. Playfair, J., Biographical Account of the late Dr James Hutton, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 5(03):41, January 1805. Return to text.
  4. Repcheck, J., The Man who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, USA, 2003, pp. 88–89, 124. For an evaluation of this book, see Walker, T., The man who made the wedge: James Hutton and the overthrow of biblical authority, J. Creation 18(2):55–57, 2004; creation.com/hutton-warped-time. Return to text.
  5. Titled De sanguine et circulatione in microcosmo (The Blood and the Circulation of the Microcosm), ref. 4, pp. 90–91. Return to text.
  6. Sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride (NH4Cl) was used as a flux in metalworking, in dying, and as smelling salts, and until then was imported from Egypt. Coal soot was of course exceedingly plentiful and cheap. Return to text.
  7. Gould, S.J., Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, p. 64, Harvard University Press, 1987. Return to text.
  8. Located just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, this was the Masonic Lodge attended by Erasmus Darwin and James Burnet (aka Lord Mondobbo), the Scottish judge, scholar of linguistic evolution, philosopher, and deist, who influenced Erasmus, who in turn influenced his grandson Charles Darwin. See Grigg, R., Darwinism: it was all in the family, Creation 26(1):16–18, 2003 creation.com/erasmus. Return to text.
  9. I.e. an orderly, purposeful, goal-directed design, and not due to accident or disorder. Return to text.
  10. Rudwick, M., Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, pp. 160–-61, University of Chicago Press, 2005. Martin Rudwick is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego. Return to text.
  11. His theory appeared as a two-part oral paper read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785; then the published version of 1788, i.e. Hutton, J., Theory of the Earth, Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. 1, Part II, pp. 209–304, 1788. This was followed by a greatly expanded (1200-page) two-volume version in 1795. Return to text.
  12. This is very subtly worded by Hutton. He doesn’t say “no beginning” and “no end”, but “no vestige [i.e. evidence] of a beginning” and “no prospect of an end” [i.e. no natural termination]. Return to text.
  13. Reed, J., St Hutton’s Hagiography, J. Creation, 22(2):121–127, 2008; creation.com/st-huttons-hagiography. Return to text.
  14. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, pp. 80–81. Return to text.
  15. “God who made the world and everything in it … made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth … but now He commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31). Return to text.
  16. The first formulation is credited to the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824. See Wieland, C., World Winding Down: A layman’s guide to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Creation Book Publishers, Powder Springs, GA, 2013. Return to text.
  17. The surface between successive strata of rock in which the overlying formation is not parallel with the underlying one. Return to text.
  18. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, p. 70. For an account of Hutton’s many errors in his interpretation of these rocks see creation.com/hutton-siccar-point. Return to text.
  19. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, p. 72. Return to text.
  20. I.e. based on thought or reasoning alone. Return to text.
  21. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, p. 63. Return to text.
  22. Gould, S.J., Ref. 7, pp 95–96. Return to text.
  23. I.e. remove material that is considered improper or offensive from a text, especially with the result that the text becomes weaker or less effective. It is named after physician, prison reformer, and chess player Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) who published The Family Shakespeare with all the allegedly offensive parts removed. Return to text.
  24. Rudwick, M., Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, p. 161 note 46, University of Chicago Press, 2005. Return to text.
  25. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, pp. 66–67. Return to text.
  26. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, pp. 67–68. Return to text.
  27. Gould, S.J., ref. 7, pp. 68–69. Return to text.
  28. Repcheck, J., ref. 4, pp. 163–64. Return to text.

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