Science in the Scottish Enlightenment
Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

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Science in the Scottish Enlightenment

5.2 Background to Theory of the Earth

The two volumes of Theory of the Earth embody a startlingly original conception of the processes which shape the earth's surface, and they contain some vivid observations, drawn from Hutton's travels. However, they are poorly organised, repetitive and sometimes obscure. In a most helpful survey of Hutton's work, from which this section draws liberally, Jean Jones quotes from a wonderfully direct letter that a saddlesore Hutton wrote while on a field-trip in Wales: ‘Lord pity the arse that's clagged to a head that will hunt stones’ (Jones, 1986b, p. 127). Such admirable conciseness is absent from the Theory, but the two volumes are a foundation text in the science of geology, and are well worth exploring.

This brief account of his life stresses the practical and commercial aspects of Hutton's life. However, another influence is at work in his geological theorising: the book is very far from a handbook for coal prospectors. It is a grand attempt, as its title indicates, to establish the principles which govern the structure and shape of the earth's crust. Given the materials with which Hutton worked – rivers, rocks, volcanoes, oceans, fossils – it is plain that he could never formulate neat mathematical laws to account for landforms, but the drive of his theorising is always to describe geological processes in terms of the interplay of two contending natural forces: elevation and erosion.

It is equally plain that Hutton's work was inspired and regulated by his deistic religious beliefs. Deists put aside the Christian Revelation, with its scripture, miracles and incarnation, in favour of an unimpassioned belief in a Divine Architect whose sole purpose was to set the universe running. In so doing, deists who happened also to be geologists put aside the account in the book of Genesis of the formation and history of the world. Christians, on the other hand, were gripped by the powerful story of the seven days of Creation, of God's subsequent anger and the Flood. Not until the nineteenth century, and for some Christians not even then, did non-literal readings of the biblical Creation story start to make headway.

Hutton's deism enabled him to sidestep all problems of harmonising his theory with scripture. One of the remarkable features of the Theory of the Earth is the absence of references to the account of Creation which had possessed the European imagination for nigh on two thousand years: the Genesis story seems to have faded almost clean away in the blaze of the Enlightenment. Hutton made only oblique, but entirely civil, references to the biblical account. Here, for example, is how he handles the idea of the Flood:

Philosophers observing an apparent disorder and confusion in the solid parts of this globe, have been led to conclude, that there formerly existed a more regular and uniform state, in the constitution of this earth; that there had happened some destructive change; and that the original structure of the earth had been broken and disturbed by some violent operation, whether natural, or from a supernatural cause.

He goes on to say that his own theory gives a perfectly satisfactory account of the phenomena supposedly resulting from a great cataclysm, and concludes:

Therefore, there is no occasion for having recourse to any unnatural supposition of evil, to any destructive accident in nature, or to the agency of any preternatural [i.e. supernatural] cause, in explaining that which actually appears.

(Hutton, [1795] 1959, vol. 1, pp. 165–6)

This is not to say that religious belief played no part in his theorising. On the contrary, it was a powerful stimulus. Hutton's fundamental belief was that the earth has been formed for a purpose. That purpose is the support of life, and especially human life. Furthermore, in Hutton's view, the discovery of the way in which this purpose has been achieved leads enquirers to a noble conception of the Divine Architect.

Hutton's belief in a wise providential ordering of a world which, no matter how it changes, is always bountifully equipped to support life is not just a polite decoration to his work. It actively regulates his theorising. This teleological view, stressing the purposeful drive towards an end, leads Hutton to assume, for example, that no matter how radically the face of the earth has been remodelled during geological time there has always been a harmonious relationship between land-mass and ocean: he could not conceive of the possibility of there ever having been a time when life on land was impossible. ‘It is only required’, he wrote, ‘that at all times, there should be a just proportion of land and water upon the surface of the globe, for the purpose of a habitable world’ (Hutton, [1795] 1959, vol. 1, p. 196).

The purpose of a ‘habitable world’ is Hutton's answer to the teleological question ‘What is the earth for?’. Moreover, in characteristically Enlightenment fashion, Hutton declares further that life is essentially happy:

It is of importance to the happiness of man, to find consummate wisdom in the constitution of this earth, by which things are so contrived that nothing is wanting, in the bountiful provision of nature, for the pleasure and propagation of created beings; more particularly of those [i.e. humans] who live in order to know their happiness, and know their happiness on purpose to see the bountiful source from whence it flows.

(Hutton, [1795] 1959, vol. 2, p. 183)

Such cheerful sentiments are a long way from the Christian tradition, strong in Scottish Calvinism, which asserted humanity's sinfulness.

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