James Hutton is often described as the ‘Father of Geology.’ This lesson will cover his discoveries and theories. After the lesson, there will be a quiz to test your knowledge.

James Hutton’s Theory

James Hutton, who lived from 1726 to 1797, was a Scottish geologist, chemical manufacturer, and agriculturalist. He is commonly referred to as the founder of modern geology.

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The prevailing theory of Hutton’s time was that all the rocks on Earth were formed from sediments during a great flood. Hutton theorized that a continuing process formed and destroyed the rocks and soils of earth and that the process was an endless loop. Speaking about the natural history of the earth, Hutton was quoted saying in 1788, ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’

In 1785 the Royal Society of Edinburgh Bulletin Volume published its famous dissertation ‘The Earth theory, or on terrestrial composition, disintegration and restoration of law.’ In it, Hutton famously described Earth as a living organism. His work would be influential for centuries, even inspiring Charles Darwin during his writings on evolution.

Rock Cycle

Hutton demonstrated that granite, which makes up the bulk of the continents, was igneous rock. Igneous rocks could form at any time when slowly cooled. Hutton’s paper also described sedimentation as the weathering of rocks by a variety of external forces, such as wind, water, and ice. These sediments are then brought to the ocean by rivers and deposited on the seabed. Over time, the lake bed and seabed sediments are uplifted and once again subjected to weathering, continuing the never-ending process.

Hutton also demonstrated that unconformities, missing layers of the geologic record, in sedimentary layers are ancient erosion surfaces. Hutton theorized that a set of rocks separated by an unconformity must have formed by the deposition of the first layers, followed by the uplift and erosion of those layers, and further followed by deposition of a second set of layers.

Geologic uncomformity
uncomformity

This interpretation demonstrated that new rocks can form to replace those that have eroded away. This chipped away at the prevailing theory that all the rocks had been formed at once during a great flood. Hutton believed, based on how slowly erosion occurs, that the Earth must be millions of years old.

Evolution

Hutton was not directly involved with evolutionary theory. His research led Charles Lyell to the principle of Uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism states that geologic formations are caused by the forces that we can see operating around us. In other words, no supernatural causes are needed to explain geology. In that sense, he prepared the ground for evolutionary theory.

Lesson Summary

James Hutton is often described as the ‘father of Geology’ because of his paper ‘The Earth theory, or on terrestrial composition, disintegration and restoration of law,’ in which he describes the formation of igneous and sedimentary rocks. The prevailing theory of the time was that all rocks were created and deposited during a great flood. It was Hutton who began to chip away at this idea and first to describe the Earth as a living thing, with processes and cycles. His work would greatly influence Charles Darwin and his thoughts on evolution.