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Hutton, James

time returned ideas denudation

(1726–97) British geologist: proposed the uniformitarian principle in geology.

Hutton had a disorganized start to his career. After leaving school he was apprenticed in a lawyer’s office, but left for the continent to train as a doctor, and qualified as an MD at Leiden. However, it was a profession that he failed to take up, turning instead to farming; after studying agriculture in England and abroad, he returned to his native Scotland and a family farm near Edinburgh. After 14 years the success of a business extracting NH4Cl from soot gave him an independent income and in 1768 he returned to Edinburgh to pursue science.

Hutton is widely regarded as the founder of geology as a modern science. He rejected the scriptural time scales hitherto accepted, which dated the Earth as only a few thousand years old, and argued that it was immeasurably ancient, with ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. He considered the erosive action of rivers to be a major agent in creating continental topography and believed that sediments washed into the sea by rivers accumulated and were metamorphosed via geothermal heat to form new rocks, which would eventually be uplifted and form new land masses. Such ideas ran contrary to previous ideas of a ‘catastrophic’ origin of the continents, at a fixed point in time corresponding to the biblical Creation. Hutton’s concept of a cyclic process of denudation, transport, sedimentation, lithification, uplift and renewed denudation is often referred to as the Plutonic theory, due to the crucial part played in it by terrestrial heat; or as uniformitarianism, since it assumes that geological processes act in a continuous manner over a long time.

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