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Andrew Alden

Hype for Hutton

By October 9, 2012

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James Hutton is the 18th-century Scot who came up with the first workable theory of global geology in his 1788 address to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Today he is considered the father of modern geology, one of the greater lights in the grand Scottish intellectual firmament. But in today's Edinburgh only a few scattered plaques and the name of a small street honor him. Professor Stuart Monro of the National Museums Scotland felt bad about that: "He is the man who gave us geological time. He looked at the rocks and realised that mountains were made because they had been squeezed and pushed up, and that the earth must be much older than 6,000 years. It was a tipping point in geological understanding," he told The Scotsman on Sunday. And Monro is now in charge of an upcoming exhibit that will animate Hutton and show him in dialog with scientists of his and subsequent times—sort of the Tupac hologram of geoscience.

I think that I don't mind. Hutton was reportedly a compelling person out in the field, although his ornate prose has not aged well. His ideas were audacious, as I explain elsewhere: he was a Christian creationist like most educated people of his time. To him, Earth was a purpose-driven planet. His audacity was in treating the Earth as a machine, set in motion by God, for making and maintaining soil. From that perfectly Biblical starting point plus decades of fieldwork informed by his practiced farmer's eye, Hutton deduced that the Earth's stones said something different from the Bible's words. He showed that whereas the Bible encompasses a few thousand years of history, the Earth appears eternal, with "no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end." I think his achievement is as remarkable in its own way as the resurrection of Tupac.


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