Abstract of a Dissertation Read in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, upon the Seventh of March, and Fourth of April, M,DCC,LXXXV, concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability.

[Edinburgh: N.p., 1785].

First edition, inscribed presentation copy from Hutton to Matthew Boulton, of one of the great rarities in the history of science, Hutton’s first announcement of his revolutionary view that our earth was shaped by slow, steady forces acting over a long period of time – the doctrine of uniformitarianism. According to Victor Eyles, “10 or at most 12” copies of this Abstract exist (photocopy of letter from Eyles to a previous owner laid in; Eyles is the author of a published bibliographical account of the Abstract, and of the DSB article on Hutton). “Hutton’s theory, or ‘System of the Earth,’ as he called it originally, was first made public at two meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, early in 1785. The society published it in full in 1788, but offprints of this paper were in circulation in 1787, and possibly in 1786. The theory first appeared in print in condensed form, in a thirty-page pamphlet entitled Abstract of a Dissertation … Concerning the System of the Earth, Its Duration, and Stability, which Hutton circulated privately in 1785. The interest of this pamphlet is that it states all the conclusions which were essential to the theory as a whole. It emphasizes that even at this early date Hutton’s thinking was far ahead of that of his contemporaries” (ibid.). “Hutton’s most important contribution to science was his theory of the earth, first announced in 1785. Hutton had then been actively interested in geology for fully thirty years. It is known that he had completed the theory in outline some years earlier, and according to Black, writing in 1787, Hutton had formed its principal parts more than twenty years before. In essence the theory was simple, yet it was of such fundamental importance that Hutton has been called the founder of modern geology” (DSB). “The effect of his ideas on the learned world can be compared only to the earlier revolution in thought brought about by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, German astronomer Johannes Kepler, and Italian astronomer Galileo when they displaced the concept of a universe centred on Earth with the concept of a solar system centred on the Sun. Both advances challenged existing thought and were fiercely resisted for many years” (Britannica).“Born in Edinburgh, James Hutton (1726-97) studied medicine at the university there during 1744-47, after which he spent two years in Paris, where he probably first developed an interest in geology. Hutton returned to Edinburgh in 1750, where “he entered fully into the intellectual and social life of the city. Joseph Black became his most intimate friend. Through Black he became a friend of James Watt, in whose work he took much interest … About 1781 he first met [John] Playfair, and later he befriended Sir James Hall, who attained distinction as a geologist and chemist” (DSB). Through Watt, Hutton met the members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of scientists, engineers and industrialists from the English Midlands, which included Watt’s business partner, Matthew Boulton. Six copies are recorded by ESTC: three in Britain and three in America. ABPC/RBH list one other copy (Sotheby’s, 1988).

Provenance: Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) (presentation inscription on title in Hutton’s hand: ‘Matthew Bolton [sic] Esqr from James Hutton’); Henry Faul (d. 1981). Hutton’s closest friends included Joseph Black, Adam Smith (who appointed Hutton and Black as his literary executors), and James Watt. It was Watt who introduced him to Matthew Bolton, manufacturer, scientist and entrepreneur, very probably when visiting Birmingham in 1774 as Watt moved to that city to join in partnership with Bolton to develop the steam engine. Hutton was a ‘satellite’ member of the famous Lunar Society, which included John Whitehurst, Boulton, Josiah Wedgewood, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Watt, William Withering, and others. Henry Faul was professor of geophysics at the University of Pennsylvania and a noted collector of rare geological books. Laid in is a photocopy of a letter from V. A. Eyles to Faul, dated 26 October 1971, discussing the rarity (“10 or at most 12”) of the book and the importance of this copy and authenticating the inscription.

In the Abstract, “Hutton describes briefly his purpose in carrying out the inquiry, the methods he employed in reaching his conclusions, and the conclusions themselves. His purpose was to ascertain (a) the length of time the earth had existed as a “habitable world”; (b) the changes it had undergone in the past; and (c) whether any end to the present state of affairs could be foreseen. He stated that the facts of the history of the earth were to be found in ‘natural history,’ not in human records, and he ignored the biblical account of creation as a source of scientific information (a view he expressed explicitly later on). The method he employed in carrying out his inquiry had been a careful examination of the rocks of the earth’s crust, and a study of the natural processes that operated on the earth’s surface, or might be supposed, from his examination of the rocks, to have operated in the past. In this way, ‘from principles of natural philosophy,’ he attempted to arrive at some knowledge of the order and system in the economy of the globe, and to form a rational opinion as to the course of nature and the possible course of natural events in the future.

“Hutton concluded that rocks in general (clearly he referred here to the sedimentary rocks) are composed of the products of the sea (fossils) and of other materials similar to those found on the seashore (the products of erosion). Hence they could not have formed part of the original crust of the earth, but were formed by a ‘second cause’ and had originally been deposited at the bottom of the ocean. This reasoning, he stated, implies that while the present land was forming there must have existed a former land on which organic life existed, that this former land had been subjected to processes of erosion similar to those operating today, and that the sea was then inhabited by marine animals. He then concluded that because the greater part of the present land had been produced in this way, two further processes had been necessary to convert it into a permanent body resistant to the operations of water: the consolidation of the loose incoherent matter at the sea bottom, and the elevation of the consolidated matter to the position it now occupies.

“Hutton then considered two possible methods of consolidation. The first, deposition from solution, he rejected because the materials of which ordinary sediments are composed are, with few exceptions, insoluble in water. He adopted the alternative, fusion of the sediments 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.’ He supported this conclusion by stating that the strata formerly deposited in regular succession at the bottom of the ocean are now often found broken, folded, and contorted, a condition to be expected as a result of the violently expansive action of subterraneous heat.

“Hutton then discussed the direct evidence of the action of heat, which he had 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.’ (The examples quoted here, and in the fuller version of the theory, indicate clearly that he was referring to what are now known as igneous intrusions.)

“Hutton next claimed that his theory could be extended to all parts of the world, a generalization that was by then justified because similar rocks occur in other countries. He also claimed that the theory, based on rational deductions from observed facts, was not ‘visionary.’

“Finally, Hutton discussed one of the principal objects of his inquiry, the length of time the earth had existed as a habitable world, that is, in effect, the question of geological time. He rejected as humanly impracticable the possibility of estimating geological time by measuring the rate at which erosion is wearing down the land. Hence he concluded

‘That it had required an indefinite space of time to have produced the land which now appears; … That an equal space had been employed upon the construction of that former land from whence the materials of the present came; … That there is presently laying at the bottom of the ocean foundation of a future land, which is to appear after an indefinite space of time … so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end’ [pp. 27-28].

“Hutton was not prepared to be more definite than the facts allowed.

“It was also in the Abstract that Hutton disclosed for the first time his philosophic belief that there exists in nature evidence of wisdom and design. He believed that the natural processes operating on an within the earth’s crust had been so contrived as to provide for the indefinite continuance of the earth as a habitable world, providing means for the continuing existence of living beings, and that his theory provided support for this conclusion. The final paragraph of the Abstract includes the following statement: ‘Thus, either in supposing Nature wise and good, an argument is formed in confirmation of the theory, or, in supposing the theory to be just, an argument may be established for wisdom and benevolence to be perceived in nature.’ Hutton’s theory ran counter to the belief then widely held that the present world was created by a divine being, fully populated by animal and plant life, at a time that could be measured by human records.

“Hutton makes few references in the Abstract to the evidence on which he bases his theory. This is discussed in detail in his 1788 paper” (DSB).

“As revealed in 1785, Hutton’s theory was less impressive than it might otherwise have been. At a time when original thought was expected to be elegantly phrased, when thinkers were evaluated also as writers, Hutton had written badly. Though a strict logician, he was almost entirely innocent of rhetorical accomplishments. More specifically, Hutton did not know how to construct expository paragraphs. Instead he wrote crabbedly, sentence by sentence, making the development of his thought rather hard to follow. Significantly hampered as well by the lack of a developed geological vocabulary (a cultural accomplishment not yet in existence) he was only moderately successful at explaining what he saw. In too many cases, moreover, Hutton slighted empirical evidence to favour philosophical assertion. Utilising habitually dichotomous logic he contrasted past with present, the human record with natural history, land with sea, natural with supernatural, consolidation with dissolution, solution with fusion, water with heat, purpose with chance, good with evil, design with chaos, ends with means, and the general with the particular. Despite the field evidence from which much of it derived, therefore, Hutton’s theory appeared to his first hearers as very much a philosophical or even theological exercise …

“The result of Hutton’s first public presentation of his theory was that he became somewhat concerned about its religious implications. When it had been accepted for publication in the not yet emergent Transactions of the new society, Hutton thought to allay the theological suspicions of his opponents by separating his exposition with a preface written in July 1785 …

“Clearly not at ease with his intended preface, he sent it for comment to a judicious friend William Robertson, principal of Edinburgh University, whose beautifully written historical studies (which made him famous) stressed general ideas in a way no doubt agreeable to Hutton. Robertson also opposed religious bigotry and distrusted religious enthusiasm while advocating, like Hutton, the same optimism regarding creation’s essential rightness … Robertson was fond of ‘skimming his friends talk and giving it back to them in polished paraphrase.’ He ran true to form in this instance, presenting Hutton a more urbane version of his remarks designed to save the geologist from both stylistic and religious criticism” (Dean, pp. 18-22).

Dean believes that the published version of the Abstract was, in fact, written by Robertson, working from Hutton’s manuscript (which is now lost). “Alluding to unspecified peculiarities, E. B. Bailey suggested in 1967 that Hutton did not write his own abstract. ‘The geology is the geology of Hutton,’ he claimed, ‘but the voice is the voice of Playfair.’ In his 1972 DSB entry on Hutton, however, V. A. Eyles rejected Bailey’s contention as unnecessary. After routinely agreeing with Eyles for years, I later undertook a detailed stylistic analysis of Hutton’s verbal characteristics (including syntax, grammar and vocabulary) in his ‘Theory’ of 1788, then did the same with his ‘Abstract.’ Though completed within a year of each other, they are in some respects highly dissimilar. A large number of words, phrases, constructions and rhetorical techniques in the ‘Abstract’ clearly do not belong to Hutton, though others do.

“Stylistically, the relationship of Hutton’s ‘Theory’ to his ‘Abstract’ is remarkably like that between the original preface and William Robertson’s elegant redaction of it. The ‘Abstract,’ moreover, often seems more akin to Robertson’s version of the ‘Preface’ than to ‘Theory’ or any other of Hutton’s works. I now believe, therefore, that the ‘Abstract’ was also paraphrased by Robertson (it is definitely not by Playfair) from Hutton’s original draft and that Hutton preferred the new version to his own” (ibid., pp. 275-6).

Dean, James Hutton and the History of Geology, 1992. Eyles, ‘A Bibliographical Note on the Earliest Printed Version of James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, its Form and Date of Publication,’ Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 3 (1955), pp. 105-108 (this gives the evidence establishing the authorship and date of publication of the Abstract, which was issued anonymously and undated).

8vo (196 x 126 mm), pp. 30, [2, blank] (a few unimportant stains to title). Attractive elaborately gilt morocco, red morocco lettering piece on spine. A very fine copy.

Item #5349

Price: $185,000.00

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