Theory of the Earth

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Theory of the Earth was a publication by James Hutton which laid the foundations for geology.[1] In it he showed that the Earth is the product of natural forces. What could be seen happening today, over long periods of time, could produce what we see in the rocks. This idea, uniformitarianism, was a major step in the History of the geologic time scale. It was used by Charles Lyell in his work, and Lyell's textbook was an important influence on Charles Darwin.

Hutton recognized that rocks record the evidence of the past action of processes which still operate today. He also anticipated natural selection, as follows:

"Those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race".[2]

Hutton's prose hindered his theories.[3] John Playfair in 1802 restated of Huttton's geological ideas in clearer English. However, he left out Hutton's thoughts on evolution.[4] Charles Lyell in the 1830s popularised the idea of an infinitely repeating cycle (of the erosion of rocks and the building up of sediment). Lyell believed in gradual change, and thought even Hutton gave too much credit to catastrophic changes.

Hutton's work was published in different forms and stages:

  1. 1788. Theory of the Earth; or an investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the Globe. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. 1, Part 2, pp. 209–304.
  2. 1795. Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations. 2 vols, Edinburgh: Creech.
  3. 1899. Theory of the Earth; with proofs and illustrations, vol III. Edited by Sir Archibald Geikie. Geological Society, Burlington House, London.

References[change | change source]

  1. Mather, Kirtley & Mason, Shirley L. (eds) [1939] 1967. A source book in Geology, 1400–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 92–100. ISBN 0-674-82277-3
  2. Pearson, Paul N. 2003. "In retrospect". Nature V. 425 #6959, p. 665. Comments on Hutton's 3-volume 1794 work, An investigation of the principles of knowledge and of the progress of reason, from sense to science and philosophy. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help); External link in |work= (help)
  3. Geikie, Archibald 1897. The founders of geology. London: Macmillan. p. 166.
  4. Playfair, John 1802. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. Edinburgh. Playfair added an important observation of his own: that glaciers can transport great quantities of rock.