SHiPS Resource Center ||   James Hutton: Theology & Geology  
James Hutton's renown work that established the doctrine of uniformitarianism was ironically guided by a deeply religious framework.

James Hutton is best known for expanding our notion of the age of the Earth. His observations of geological strata that had been uplifted on edge and eroded away, and then capped with yet more layers, revealed the presence of whole other "worlds" before us. We could no longer measure the history of the planet in terms of ordinary human lifetimes, nor even in terms of the appearance and disappearance of great civilizations. We had to adopt a whole new, geological time scale.

For many, Hutton laid the foundation for dispelling religious misconceptions about a young Earth--especially as professed in some religious traditions. Yet Hutton himself was a theist. Moreover, his conclusions were strongly guided by his theology. Indeed, for Hutton, a beneficent God was the major reason for believing that the world was extremely old. Somewhere, we have inverted the role of religion in Hutton's work.

Nowhere do we misinterpret Hutton more deeply than in the meaning of the closing image to his great geological work, The Theory of the Earth. Hutton concluded poetically that the Earth offered "no vestige of a beginning,--no prospect of an end." By today's reckoning, Hutton was asserting the unimaginably extended, "deep" time frame of an ancient Earth. But for Hutton, it was quite literal: he saw no beginning and no end to the Earth; the planet was timeless. Why?

For Hutton, the Earth was created by God especially for human habitation. As such the world was wisely self-perpetuating. Though humans might consume many vital elements, they were all replenished. As animals used oxygen, for example, plants regenerated it using the animal's carbon dioxide waste. Rain, so essential for human crops and other vegetation, was supplied continuously by a great cycling of water. Even coal was regenerated--by the burying and consolidation of plants that had captured energy from the sun (using the raw products of earlier coal combustion). Having inherited and managed two farms, Hutton also well appreciated how soil was lost through erosion. But soil, too, was renewed--through geological uplift and breakdown of rock. For Hutton, God had built a great "world machine"--in the Newtonian sense of a clockwork universe. The world was composed of great cycles--cycles without beginning or end. For Hutton, there was certainly no "evolution" in our sense of gradual, directional change. There were only great endless cycles. This view was also shared by Charles Lyell, who later popularized Hutton's "uniformitarian" view of geology that so influenced Darwin. (Lyell, though, never fully embraced Darwin's conclusions about the evolution of organisms, preferring a view of a steady-state world [see SHiPS News, 5(#2)].)

Most importantly, perhaps, Hutton's theological thinking about cycles led to his most significant geological contribution. Hutton's world machine needed an engine of change. For Hutton, it was fire deep within the earth (from coal burning). Heat was a primary agent of change in geology as much as in agriculture and meteorology. Previously, geologists had viewed the formation of rocks--especially sedimentary rock, almost exclusively in terms of water. Following Abraham Werner's conception, rocks had precipitated from an ocean that once covered the world. Through his theological lens, Hutton recognized, instead, the central role of heat in consolidating underwater sediments into rock and, later, in lifting those rocks above sea level. Hutton's "biased" thinking likewise guided him in assembling massve evidence on the importance of intrusions and metamorphic rocks.

Hutton's novel views on heat in geology would later be dubbed "Plutonist," in contrast to Werner's "Neptunist" views, and would come to balance them in significance. One may note the irony, though, in the etymological references to Roman mythology that completely eclipsed Hutton's deeply theist perspective. That small bit of terminology was one early step in disguising the religion in Hutton's science.

Finally, it is worth noting that Hutton's theological thinking on heat also led him (almost unexpectedly, by today's conceptions) to defend the doctrine of phlogiston, the material substance of fire. Hutton's defense was observationally well founded [see SHiPS News 3(#3)] and, if pursued, might well have led to deeper investigations of energy flow through ecosystems or of electrochemistry (in today's terms). Hutton's theological science was innovative, as well as grounded in evidence.

Can we separate Hutton's science from his theology or religion? Yes, perhaps, we can do so. But it is hard to imagine how it would have been otherwise for Hutton. To dismiss Hutton's theology would be to dismiss his discoveries.

Time allows us a certain luxury: we can erase from our stories of past scientists any feature that does not fit our own preferred conceptions of science and religion. Thus many textbooks, in their effort to convey today's notion of scientific concepts, have elided the theology of Hutton's arguments. To suggest that Hutton--or even Lyell--crusaded against naive religious belief misrepresents history. Ultimately, it is misrepresents the process of science, as well.

updated: 6/20/07

  SHiPS helps teachers share resources for integrating history, philosophy and sociology in the science classroom.