Friday, October 31, 2008

James Hutton's Right to Precedence

The introduction to a remarkable, and welcome, booklet celebrating the opening of the recently beautifully restored (from Lottery funds) 19th-century Rotunda in Scarborough, England, contains these paragraphs which I noticed:

The 1770s to the 1820s was a period of major change and modernisation in Britain, with the Industrial and Agricultural revolutions in full swing. There as a renaissance in scientific thought too, which led to the birth of a new science, geology. Edinburgh lay at the centre of its development, primarily becaude ot was there that James Hutton (1726-1797), who had studied at both Edinburgh and Leiden universities, began challenging the established idea that the Earth was created in 4004 B. C. Hutton owned land in Berwickshire, where he observed the way that rivers eroded their surroundings to transport sediment to the sea. He realised that those sediments would ultimately form solid rock which could be uplifted to form mountains and eroded again. This process implied the passing of immense intervals of time. In 1795 Hutton published his revolutionary ideas in a book called Theory of the Earth.

A few years earlier, in 1797, a young man in south-west England was appointed as a surveyor’s assistant. He was called William Smith (1769-1839), and is now immortalised as the ‘Father of English Geology’

My interest in James Hutton primarily is in his friendship and collaboration with Adam Smith. While acknowledging the major contributions of William Smith (no relation) to geology (‘father of English geology’), I was taken aback by the implication (‘a few years earlier') that William Smith he had a claim to precedence over James Hutton (widely credited as the ‘father of modern geology’).

James Hutton made the essence of his theory of the Earth in a paper (Concerning the system of the Earth, its duration, and stability), read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh at two meetings in 1785 (the first part was read by his friend, Joseph Black, the physician and chemist, in March and the second part by Hutton in April). His book, The Theory of the Earth, was published later but that does not affect Hutton’s rightful 'claim' to precedence.

Papers read at either of the Royal Societies in Edinburgh or London, or other prestigious bodies like the Linnaean Society, London, are clear statements of proven precedence, as applies from the reading of the papers on natural selection read at the Linnean Society on behalf of both Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin in July 1858.

My interest in James Hutton and his theories of the Earth is partly because of my current research project on the claims of many Smithian scholars that Adam Smith was motivated by his alleged beliefs in Christianity or some form of Deism, of which I intend to report in due course.

Meantime, search the Lost Legacy archives for my earlier article on James Hutton on 29 May 29 May, 2006: “James Hutton, geologist and Friend of Adam Smith'.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Failure to agree with them is 'heresy'. Failure to behave properly is a 'sin'.
have lost or abandoned religion in the traditional sense by now, or have retained only a tenuous, formulaic connection, or have veered off into various unsatisfying concoctions of "spirituality"....................................

6:26 am  

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