‘Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution, and restoration of land upon the globe… Read March 7 and April 4 1785,’ in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788, Part II, pp. 209-304, with two engraved plates.

Edinburgh: Royal Society, 1788.

First edition of this epoch-making work, the foundation of modern geology. “[Hutton’s] fundamental conception, now accepted as a matter of course, but then entirely new, was the doctrine of uniformitarianism. The formation of the surface of the earth is one continuous process which can be studied entirely from terrestrial materials without cosmological or supernatural intervention . . . Another important feature of Hutton’s system is his discussion of the erosion of land-surfaces due to the atmospheric, chemical and mechanical action of water. . . . his central ideas of uniformitarianism and of the effect of small changes in nature leading eventually to gigantic transformations have had far-reaching consequences in their influence on Charles Lyell and Darwin” (PMM). “Hutton’s theory - which he invariably referred to as a ‘system,’ the title ‘Theory of the Earth’ having been applied to the work by the editors of the Edinburgh Transactions - postulated a cyclical history of the earth in four stages, consisting of erosion, deposition of the eroded land as strata at the bottom of the ocean, compression of the strata under the heat which lies beneath the earth’s crust, and the fracturing and re-emersion of the fused sediments to form new continents. The revolutionary nature of Hutton’s system lay in its cyclical view of geologic processes - "a principle now accepted as axiomatic" (DSB), in its rejection of the catastrophic view of the processes of geological evolution, and in its focus on the materials of the earth itself as adequate testimony to a continuous and uniform process of change. Hutton’s methodology reflected this view and was of nearly equal import for the development of geology. He had formulated his theory by employing essentially the same methods used by modern field geologists: “He examined many different types of rocks, paying attention to their structural relations one to another; and he considered in detail the mineralogical and chemical composition of individual rocks. He also studied intensively the physical processes now operating on the earth’s surface... In constructing his theory, Hutton had used as a working hypothesis the assumption, based on his own observations, that the geological evidence provided by surface rocks provided both a key to the past and an indication of the future course of events. His theory formulated for the first time the general principle that some fifty years later came to be known as uniformitarianism” (DSB). Hutton’s theory was met with widespread criticism, and it was to defend himself against charges of atheism that he published the expanded two-volume version of his work in 1795, which consists largely of supporting proofs that had been omitted from his succinct initial presentation. His theories did not begin to gain general acceptance until after the publication of Lyell’s Principles of Geology (London, 1830-33), although it was another 30 years before Hutton’s theories of the role of erosion were proven correct” (Norman). “Hutton’s theory ... was first made public at two meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, early in 1785. The society published it in full in 1788 [in the present volume]” (DSB).

“We may summarize Hutton’s famous essay as follows:

Part I: Prospect of the Subject to be Treated of. As our perceptions of it affirm, the earth is a unique creation, specifically designed by its infinitely wise Creator to serve as a habitable world for life in all its forms. This world consists of four essentially spherical parts – core, water, crust, and air – each of which contributes to the maintenance of life. The world as a whole is subject to such basic powers as centripetal and centrifugal forces (which, being kept in balance, maintain our globe at a proper distance from the sun), light, heat, cold, and condensation, all of which foster motion and activity.

“A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world because soil is necessary to the growth of plants, and soil is nothing more than materials collected from the destruction of land. Necessarily, then, our seemingly solid continents must be subject to erosion by water and air. Paradoxically, the removal of fertile soil from the continents by natural agents is actually part of a great cycle by which the continuing fertility of the earth is assured. That this process is extremely slow, involving lengths of time beyond human experience and comprehension, should not disguise the benevolence underlying it. Fossil shells and other such relics prove that the earth has a history far antedating all human records.

“The solid parts of the globe are, in general, composed of sand, gravel, shale, and usually fossiliferous limestone, all of which are productions of water, wind, and tides. (there is also a granitic part, to be considered later.) Though originally loose, they are now firmly compacted rock. Evidently, then, some sort of consolidating power has been at work.

Part II: An Investigation of the Natural Operations Employed in Consolidating the Strata of the Globe. Logic suggests only two possible means of consolidation: strata once at the bottom of the sea have been lithified either by aqueous solution and crystallization or by heat and fusion. But water can dissolve only some of the materials involved and can deposit them only in simple ways. If, however, heat and fusion are substituted for water and solutions, all these difficulties soon disappear. Thus, heat is competent to consolidate strata whereas water alone is not. Consider, for example, such indissoluble silicates as feldspar, flint, and fossil wood. Alternatively, what of sulfurous minerals, metals, and coal? (Hutton discussed a number of specimens from his own collection.) Three further cases especially worthy of attention are rock salt (clearly a product of fusion), ironstone septaria, and agates. A geological case in point is Calton Hill, Edinburgh, a basaltic outcrop evidently brought into being by fusion, its basalts being filled with nodules.

“Let us also consider strata consolidated without the introduction of foreign matter, that is, merely by the softening or fusion of their own materials. Such are the sandstone and limestone strata which constitute all but a small portion of the globe. Though Scotland includes a great deal of sandstone, however, there is surprisingly little limestone. Spanish marble and English chalk prove, nevertheless, that consolidation is not only general but universal.

“Granite, unlike the examples previously considered, is not generally stratified, but a specimen from Portsoy (depicted in plate II) proves that it has crystallized out of a fluid state by means of fusion. Returning to a more general consideration of strata as such, Hutton cited the existence of perpendicular fissures and veins, and fragments of former strata. As further evidence of fusion.

Part III: Investigation of the Natural Operations Employed in the Production of Land above the Surface of the Sea. That strata deposited at the bottom of the sea are consolidated by heat and fusion has now been established. How, then, are they elevated into continents? How else but by the same force? Strata at the bottom of the sea are necessarily horizontal, but those we see are in every possible position; they could not possibly have been so created. Other proofs derive from mineral veins. Earthquakes and volcanoes, products of subterranean heat, prove that the same force is sufficient and universal. Yet naturalists have discovered the remains of ancient volcanoes in many different countries. Lavas exist where no vestiges of volcanoes can now be found. Other melted matter, analogous to lava, was forced among strata still consolidating at the bottom of the sea; now on dry land, it forms the rock called basalt. A review of examples from Scotland and Derbyshire leads to a fuller explanation of how basalt differs from lava. Virtually identical in origin and composition, the two rocks are distinguished only in the manner of their production. Lava was erupted into the atmosphere while still fluid; basalt congealed within the earth under immense compression (and may be called subterranean lava). As for telling them apart, only basalt contains solid inclusions. ‘The flowing of basaltic streams among strata broke and displaced,’ Hutton affirms, ‘affords the most satisfactory evidence of those operations by which the body of our land had been elevated above the surface of the sea (p. 282); signs characteristic of volcanic activity, however, are entirely lacking. Though his examples are limited, moreover, Hutton’s argument is global, for ‘The great masses of the earth are the same everywhere, and all the different species of earths, of rocks or stone, which have as yet appeared, are to be found in the little space of this our island’ (p. 283). To know the construction of Britain, therefore, is to know the construction of the world.

Part IV: System of Decay and Renovation Observed in the Earth. Philosophers in the past have imagined an earth more regular than ours, one subsequently soiled by some natural disaster or exercise of divine wrath. Yet the present earth, in all its beauty and diversity, is ideally suited for habitation, its processes being stable, unchanging and purposeful. Working in concord with this physical system,,, is an animate one. Among known fossils, we find remains of every plant or animal genus (and probably species) now living on the earth, even some with which we are otherwise unacquainted. Together with gravel, sand, and clay (all derived in a former world by processes observable in ours), these relics affirm that the former world was in all respects essentially a duplicate of our own.

“Hutton’s closing remarks stress the immensity of time required for one world to succeed another. We cannot see the ocean bottom, to observe nature at work there. But that part of the total process we can see, the erosion of the land, takes place with incredible slowness, as comparisons of classical and modern writers on geography substantiate. ‘To sum up the argument,’ he concluded, ‘we are certain that all the coasts of the present continents are wasted by the sea and constantly wearing away upon the whole, but this operation is so extremely slow that we cannot find a measure of the quantity in order to form an estimate’ (p. 301). He conceded that the operations of nature may be less systematic than his theory proposes, but ‘It is not necessary that the present land should be worn away and wasted exactly in proportion as new land shall appear, or, conversely, that an equal proportion of new land should always be produced as the old is made to disappear’ (p. 302). Nor is it necessarily true that all the land will be worn away. Yet there is an essential balance, between lands being created and destroyed, which allows the earth to remain fully habitable and permits animals and plants to migrate from old land to new.

“The continent destined to succeed ours has probably begun already to appear – in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. (Captain Cook had discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778). Obviously the emerging continent these islands represent must have derived from the destruction of another not now in evidence: we may therefore envision a three-part cycle rather than two. In either case, ‘The system is till the same.’ Given the fact of successive replacements, however, we cannot hope to discover either the first cycle or the last. ‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ (p. 304).

“With this remarkable and usually misunderstood affirmation, Hutton concluded his ‘Theory of the Earth’” (Dean, pp. 26-29).

It was not merely the earth to which Hutton directed his attention: he had long studied the changes of the atmosphere. The present volume also contains ‘The Theory of Rain’ (pp. 41-86 of the same part), in which he postulated that the amount of moisture which the air can retain in solution increases with temperature, and, therefore, that on the mixture of two masses of air of different temperatures a portion of the moisture must be condensed and appear in visible form. He investigated the available data regarding rainfall and climate in different regions of the globe, and came to the conclusion that the rainfall is regulated by the humidity of the air on the one hand, and mixing of different air currents in the higher atmosphere on the other.

James Hutton (1726-1797) was born in Edinburgh on 3rd June 1726. At the age of 14 he went to Edinburgh University to study humanities and medicine. Later he studied chemistry and anatomy in Paris, before obtaining his degree in medicine in 1749 from Leyden in the Netherlands. In 1750, he inherited and worked two farms in the Scottish Borders. He travelled to Norfolk and Flanders to learn new farming methods and employed them on his own lands. After witnessing first-hand the processes of erosion and sediment deposition on his farms, James Hutton became interested in geology. He returned to Edinburgh in 1767, where he developed and finally published his geological theories. He was an important contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment, a period when Edinburgh, described by Tobias Smollett as ‘a hotbed of genius’, saw the rise of revolutionary ideas in sciences and humanities. Hutton enjoyed the company of people like Sir James Hall of Dunglass, James Watt, Adam Smith and Joseph Black. Following the publication of his ‘Theory of the Earth’, field visits to his three famous unconformity sites in North Arran, Jedburgh and Siccar Point took place, all of which provided evidence in support of his theory. He died on 26th March 1797, and is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.

Adams, The Birth and Development of the Geological Sciences, pp. 238-45; Dean, James Hutton and the History of Geology, 1992. Dibner, Heralds of Science, 93; DSB VI: 577-89; Geikie, Founders of Geology, pp. 280-316; Horblit 52a (first book appearance of 1795); Linda Hall Library, Theories of the Earth, 38; Norman 540 (offprint); Printing & the Mind of Man 247; Sparrow, Milestones of Science, 107 & p. 24; Zittel, History of Geology and Palæontology, pp. 68-73 (“Hutton was thus the great founder of physical and dynamical geology; he for the first time established the essential correlation in the processes of denudation and deposition; he showed how, in proportion as an old continent is worn away, the materials for a new continent are being provided, how the deposits rise anew from the bed of the ocean, and another land replaces the old in the eternal economy of nature.”).

Large 4to (285 x 225 mm). In: Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788, Part II, pp. 209-304, with two engraved plates for the Hutton paper. Three parts in one volume, pp. xii, 100, 304, [1, leaf of explanation of plates], [305]-336, 209, [1, errata] and four engraved plates (two folding). Original boards, uncut and mostly unopened, spine heavely worn but sewings still strong, entirely unrestored. Very rare in it's original state as here. A fine copy.

Item #5196

Price: $12,500.00

See all items in Natural History, Geology
See all items by