Great Scot! A Primer On James Hutton

Saltire composed of ammonites

It’s St Andrews Day today. Hooray! An excuse to drink whisky and generally be loud and simultaneously insanely proud of my identity and depressingly horrified by it.

There is just one thing stopping me from doing this, and I must sort it before the fun can begin.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond today have published some very spirited and motivational speeches on Scottish culture and achievement. Unfortunately, they both failed to mention geology, and being a geologist I know that a lot of major geological advances (such as the theory of Uniformitarianism, which underpins all geological study today) were achieved by Scottish geologists.

Why so many Scottish geologists? Well, we’re not better at geology than anyone else, we just happen to be surrounded by some of the most interesting and complex rocks in the UK. The Moine Thrust, the Tay Nappe, the Lewisian Complex… there’s an awful lot to keep us busy.

I’m going to focus on Hutton. James Hutton. A very cool bloke. For a start, he was a plutonist, someone who believed that all rocks on the planet originally came from an internal volcanic source. The plutonist is the natural enemy of the neptunist, someone who believed that all rocks originated via crystallisation in the oceans, and they warred for years over who was correct. Now we know that the plutonists had the right idea, although some sedimentary rock can form in a kind of neptunist way (coral reefs).

So this Uniformitarianism stuff. What does it mean?

Well, in 1788 Hutton went to the now-famous Siccar Point, and after studying its curious rocks overlying each other, he decided that an unimaginably long time must have passed between them being deposited, a large span of time in which the original rocks were tilted practically vertical. He threw out the window the concept that the Earth was only 6000 years old. These rocks were the evidence, the starting point for a geological revolution.

He published his Theory of the Earth[1] in 1795, and the reception of this new idea was varied – he was simultaneously applauded and accused of being an atheist (a pretty serious accusation in the 18th Century!).

A century later, Charles Lyell decided to develop his work even further, eventually publishing the famous Principles of Geology. The new viewpoint – that of slow-moving forces over long periods of time – became known as Uniformitarianism, and the old viewpoint of gods causing sudden, violent events became known as Catastrophism.

Some people today still hold to Catastrophism, in spite of the evidence against. And by this I mean they hold to the idea that all change on Earth’s surface comes from short-term, high-impact events. It’s a world apart from what we call Neo-catastrophism today, a more integrated idea which holds that long-term processes are occasionally supplemented by short-term events.

But thanks to this intrepid Scot, whose revelation about the Earth was almost as monumental as Galileo’s, an even greater number of us today are able to use his ideas, build on them, and discover more about this restless, ever-moving planet. Nae limits, eh no?

[1] You may be interested to know that both volumes of Theory of the Earth are available on Project Gutenberg:

Theory of the Earth, Volume 1

Theory of the Earth, Volume 2

3 thoughts on “Great Scot! A Primer On James Hutton

  1. Great write-up:-) but surely most geologists recognize both Uniformitarianism AND catastrophism. Uniformitarianism is mainstream but the geological record has had major catastrophic events – yes?!!

    1. Cheers 🙂
      I realise I’ve been somewhat ambiguous in my writing, I might edit that paragraph slightly so as not to confuse! Major catastrophic events have a place alongside uniformitarianism within modern geological thinking, but Catastrophism in this historical context relates more to calamities wrought by a god and directly denies the possibility of long term change; largely because it would have invalidated the Bible in terms of timescale. Neo-catastrophism is probably a more accurate word to describe modern understandings of short-term high-impact change e.g. Alvarez’s work on the K/T Boundary impact.
      I remember very much liking the idea of Catastrophism when I first heard it, but I think it works best when reserved as a plot device for apocalypse tales 🙂

  2. Neo-catastrophism sounds good 🙂 The biggest ‘catastrophe’ must have been the large body that hit the proto-earth and eventually forming the moon from the debris – it must have been a cracker of an impact! The rest pales….!! I always feel sorry for the poor neptunists – though the biblical flood is a great story :-))

    Have a great Christmas and New Year!!

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