Monday, May 29, 2006

James Hutton, geologist and Friend of Adam Smith

Fordyce Maxwell (the paper’s agricultural correspondent – though that severely underestimates his journalistic savvy, local wit and experience) - reports in The Scotsman (29 may) on more evidence of the slowly reviving public consciousness of Scotland’s finer days during the 18th century Enlightenment. The occasion is the opening up of the James Hutton trail in rural Berwickshire, south of Edinburgh.

Relatively unknown out of Scotland, James Hutton was a founding author of the science of geology. He was the first to write about the age of the Earth being measured in millions of years and not in the ridiculously short space of 6,000 years at that time preached by the Churches on the authority of what they claimed was ‘God’, no less. I believe this date is still believed with passionate intensity by some strains of religion.

James Hutton, largely unnoticed at the time, gave his reasons based on observation of rock formations. He published his Theory of the Earth in 1787; it did not sell well; in fact it is hard to find now, and originals sell for hundreds of pounds the last time I looked for a copy on the web.

So what, I hear you say? Well, James Hutton was also a close friend of Adam Smith, often in his company and often sharing walks in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, the site of a former volcano (extinct for 5 million years – I hope). Hutton had a house on a nearby ridge. I have been reading about James Hutton recently and discussing his work and his influence on Smith with Norman Butcher, an academic colleague, like me now retired, but also very active intellectually.

Smith had a theory of the history of society and in many places throughout his works reveals an understanding of social evolution quite remarkable given the paucity of information about pre-history in his days. Interesting in this context, Charles Darwin, after completing the Beagle voyage took the time to read ‘Wealth of Nations’ to see what political economists were saying about the past prior to his developing his evolutionary theories based on the scientific evidence he had found in nature during the Beagle voyage, as if to give himself the confidence to pursue the realism of his revolutionary science of natural selection.

James Hutton’s many conversations with Adam Smith are not recorded but given Hutton’s interests, which besides geology included farming and land improvement (he was a gentleman farmer practising what he studied), moral philosophy (he wrote a 3 volume book on the subject which he must have discussed with Smith) and chemistry, were typical of the range of thinkers in the Enlightenment. We know that Smith enjoyed conversations on scientific subjects and both men must have influenced each other’s thinking. So much so, that Smith made James Hutton one of two of his Literary Executors (the other was Joseph Black, the renowned chemist who discovered latent heat).

Extracts from Fordyce Maxwell’s article summarise aspects of Hutton’s scientific persona:

Aubrey Manning, emeritus professor of natural history at Edinburgh University, is an admirer of a man he calls "an intellectual giant".

There has been renewed interest in Hutton in recent years and Manning was speaking at the most recent, the official opening of the James Hutton Trail in the Reiver farm shop close by Slighhouses farm.

He was an exponent of the scientific method, said Manning, going solely by the evidence and never beyond, never producing a complicated answer when a simple one would do.
The result was his theory, first delivered to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, which showed how the formation of landscape was an endless cycle of deposition of sedimentary rock, subsequently raised, buckled and broken by immense subterranean upheaval, then worn down by erosion.

Such processes would require millions upon millions of years, ca'ing the legs from religious belief in an earth 6,000 years old and counting.

If only, that thought again, his attempted written explanations had been easier to grasp, Manning admitted: "He was not the clearest of writers."

He produce[d] his, now famous, phrase: "We find no vestige of a beginning - no prospect of an end."
But I like to think that his early efforts on a Borders farm, tackling what until recently were still seen as the priorities of ensuring secure field boundaries, good drainage and fertile fields - up to 400 two-horse loads of marl per acre - not only helped shape his thinking, but contributed to a rounded personality


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