Its been said that we live in a world of ideas. Sometimes ideas lead to good things but not always. One idea that has contributed greatly to the confusion over the age of the earth is usually attributed to James Hutton. The Man Who Found Time by Jack Repcheck is a recent book which gives some of the Hutton story. The book is subtitled: "The Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity."
It is from Hutton that we've gotten the religious idea of Uniformitarianism, often identified with the phrase The Present is the Key to the Past. The idea is that by observing natural processes in today's world, a person would come to the conclusion that since these processes are generally very slow, it would take a long, long time to develop the geologic formations we see today. In the main, Hutton's idea was (and remains) a denial that the earth's feature could have been produced by a catastrophe, especially a water related event, in the earth's history.
Repcheck's book (from Perseus Publishing, 2003) of some 200 pages plus a listing of source materials provides not only some insights into Hutton's life as a Scotsman and how Hutton came to his conclusions about earth history but also gives some interesting historical notes about 18th Century Scotland where Hutton lived. Recheck also reports that Hutton was not immune to the temptations of the flesh as he fathered a child by a young woman to whom he was not married.
Though trained in medicine, Hutton apparently never pursued a medical career but felt it more interesting to do other things, including a stint at farming. He was very much attracted to Issac Newton and his work. From him, it is said, Hutton learned or picked up observational skills.
Hutton, observing the give and take of tides and what he believed were pressures from deep in the earth, came to think that all of these would, over eons of time, create what he saw in front of his eyes. Hutton was not the first to come up with the thought that the earth was very old. He had probably read John Woodward's Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695) or William Whiston's New Theory of the Earth (1696) or perhaps G.L. de Buffon's 34 volume Histoire Naturelle (1749). These and other works of his day tended to stray away from the straight-forward reading of scripture. Hutton strayed even further from that path to the extent that the Bible was no longer considered a valid source of earth history. His thinking was first printed in 1788, based on lectures given in 1785. His book, The Theory of the Earth was finally published in 1795. Two years later, March 26, 1797, Hutton died, apparently of kidney failure.
Today, in most corners of geologic thought, Hutton is considered the Father of modern geology. His idea of a long age for earth history encouraged Charles Lyell to write his Principles of Geology, three volumes completed by 1833. These, in turn, provided Charles Darwin the grist for his later efforts. Hutton led to Lyell led to Darwin; a series of ideas.
Repcheck's work is interesting in that it provides a brief history of Hutton and his 18th Century thinking. As a balanced work, however, Repcheck could have gone a step further and showed that not all modern day geologists stand in awe of Hutton's work. There are many who take strong exception to the idea that the present is the key to the past but who, instead, maintain that the past is the key to the present. Many of these geologists are alive and well today and have written and spoken on the subject in many ways and venues but Repcheck does not mention them. This suggests that Repcheck is either ignorant of such people or is unwilling to acknowledge them for fear that some people might be tempted to hear what they have to say. In my opinion, it is the latter concern which Repcheck is facing. (...)