Hutton | James | 1726-1797 | geologist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

James Hutton was most well known for achievements in geology but his interests were not solely confined to this.

His most important contribution to science was his Theory of the Earth, (1785). For this theory Hutton has earned the accolade of 'founder of modern geology'. Hutton's theory put forward the idea that fusion of sediments arose by the great heat which he believed to exist beneath the lower regions of the earth's crust. Heat, he claimed, was capable of fusing all the substances found in different types of sediment. He also concluded that the extreme heat that fused the sediments must be capable of producing an "expansive force, sufficient for elevating the land from the bottom of the ocean to the place it now occupies". Hutton then discussed evidence for the action of heat through folds and contortions in rocks and evidence he found in the rocks themselves. He mentioned mineral veins containing matter foreign to the strata they traverse, the widespread occurrence of volcanoes and the occurrence of what he called 'subterraneous lavas' (now known to be igneous intrusions).

Finally, Hutton discussed one of the principle objects of his inquiry, the length of time the earth had existed as a habitable world: the question of geological time. Hutton's ideas were based on the length of time it took to wear down the land. This demonstration that the process of sedimentation was cyclical in nature was perhaps the most important advance in geological science embodied in the theory. In his Theory of the Earth, (1785) he noted: "with respect to Human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end" [pp 27-28]. This principle is now accepted as axiomatic.

Hutton also made contributions to the study of igneous geology. He established for the first time, the existence of a new class of rocks known as 'intrusive igneous'. He concluded that all igneous rocks originated in what he called 'the mineral region', a subcrustal zone of undefined depth in which heat of sufficient intensity to melt rocks prevailed. Apart from geology Hutton had interests in agriculture. For a time, Hutton was himself a farmer, and never lost this passion, for shortly before he died he was engaged in preparing for publication a treatise entitled Principles of Agriculture which still exists in manuscript form.

Hutton also had interests in the physical sciences, in particular, chemistry, physics and meteorology. Toward the end of his life he published a three-part book entitled Dissertations on Different Subjects in Natural Philosophy, (1792) where he discussed mostly meteorology, phlogiston, and the theory of matter.

Hutton also engaged in more philosophical concerns of the time. He published a three volume treatise on metaphysics and moral philosophy entitled, An Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge and of the Progress of Reason, From Sense to Science and Philosophy, ( 1794) . In this he outlined a broad deistic line introducing his belief that in nature there is abundant evidence of benevolent wisdom and design.


His father was William Hutton, Merchant and former Edinburgh city trader.

His mother, Sarah Balfour, was the daughter of John Balfour whose descendants provided two professors of botany at the University of Edinburgh.

Other Significant Information

Theory of the Earth, (1785)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1749: Awarded Doctor of Medicine, Leiden University


List of sources for the biographical information:

Dictionary of Scientific Biography , ( New York, Scribner's, 1981)