Theory of the Earth

book by James Hutton

Theory of the Earth; or An Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe (first published in 1788) was written by James Hutton, laying the foundations for geology. In it he showed that the Earth is the product of natural forces. What could be seen happening today, over long periods of time, could produce what we see in the rocks. This idea, uniformitarianism, was used by Charles Lyell in his work, and Lyell's textbook was an important influence on Charles Darwin.


Part IEdit

  • Lastly, We have a surrounding body of atmosphere, which completes the globe. This vital fluid is no less necessary in the constitution of the world than are the other parts; for there is hardly an operation upon the surface of the earth, that is not conducted or promoted by its means. It is a necessary condition for the sustenance of fire; it is the breath of life to animals; it is at least an instrument in vegetation; and while it contributes to give fertility and health to things that grow, it is employed in preventing noxious effects from such as go into corruption. In short, it is the proper means of circulation for the matter of this world, by raising up the water of the ocean, and pouring it forth upon the surface of the earth.
  • The surface of this land, inhabited by man, and covered with plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and compact state in which it is found below the soil; and this soil is necessarily washed away, by the continual circulation of the water, running from the summits of the mountains towards the general receptacle of that fluid.
  • Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the destruction of our land, so far as effected by those operations which are necessary in the purpose of the globe, considered as a habitable world...
  • In what follows... we are to examine the construction of the present earth, in order to understand the natural operations of time past; to acquire principles, by which we may conclude with regard to the future course of things, or judge of those operations, by which a world, so wisely ordered, goes into decay; and to learn, by what means such a decayed world may be renovated, or the waste of habitable land upon the globe repaired.
  • Sand is separated and sized by streams and currents; gravel is formed by the mutual attrition of stones agitated in water; and marly, or argillaceous strata, have been collected, by subsiding in water with which those earthy substances had been floated. Thus, so far as the earth is formed of these materials, that solid body would appear to have been the production of water, winds, and tides.
  • The greatest part of the calcareous masses upon this globe... have originated from marine calcareous bodies; for whether we examine marbles, limestones, or such solid masses as are perfectly changed from the state of earth, and are become compact and hard, or whether we examine the soft, earthy, chalky or marly strata, of which so much of this earth is composed, we still find evident proofs, that those beds had their origin from materials deposited at the bottom of the sea; and that they have the calcareous substance which they contain, from the same source as the marbles or the limestones.
  • We are led... to conclude, that all the strata of the earth, not only those consisting of such calcareous masses, but others superincumbent upon these, have had their origin at the bottom of the sea, by the collection of sand and gravel, of shells, of coralline and crustaceous bodies, and of earths and clays, variously mixed, or separated and accumulated. ... forming a general rule, which shall comprehend almost the whole, without doing it absolutely. This excluded part consists of certain mountains and masses of granite. These are thought to be still older in their formation, and are very rarely, at least, found superincumbent on strata which must be acknowledged as the productions of the sea.
  • All the consolidated masses, of which we now enquire into the cause, are upon the surface of the earth in a state of general decay, although the various natures of those bodies admit of that dissolution in very different degrees.

Part IIEdit

  • The strata formed at the bottom of the sea, are to be considered as having been consolidated, either by aqueous solution and crystallization, or by the effect of heat and fusion.
  • Knowing those general laws, and making just observations with regard to the natural appearances of those consolidated masses, a philosopher, in his closet, should be able to determine, what may, and what may not have been transacted in the bowels of the earth, or below the bottom of the ocean.
  • We have strata consolidated by calcareous spar a thing perfectly distinguishable from the stalactical concretion of calcareous earth, in consequence of aqueous solution. We have strata made solid by the formation of fluor, a substance not soluble, so far as we know, by water. We have strata consolidated with sulphureous and bituminous substances, which do not correspond to the solution of water. We have strata consolidated with siliceous matter, in a state totally different from that under which it has been observed, on certain occasions, to be deposited by water. We have strata consolidated by feldspar, a substance insoluble in water. We have strata consolidated by almost all the various metallic substances, with their almost endless mixtures and sulphureous compositions; that is to say, we find, perhaps, every different substance introduced into the interstices of strata which had been formed by subsidence at the bottom of the sea.
  • Heat is an agent competent for the consolidation of strata which water alone is not.
  • There are to be found among the various strata of the globe, bodies formed of two different kinds of substances, siliceous bodies, and those which may be termed sulphureous. With one or other, or both of those two substances, every different consolidated stratum of the globe will be found so intimately mixed, or closely connected, that it must be concluded, by whatever cause those bodies of siliceous and sulphureous matter had been changed from a fluid to a concreted state, the strata must have been similarly affected by the same cause.
  • Siliceous matter, physically speaking, is not soluble in water...
  • Here, for example, are crystallized together in one mass, first, Pyrites, containing sulphur, iron, copper; 2dly, Blend, a composition of iron, sulphur, and calamine; 3dly, Galena, consisting of lead and sulphur; 4thly, Marmor metallicum, being the terra ponderosa, saturated with the vitriolic acid; a substance insoluble in water; 5thly, Fluor, a saturation of calcareous earth with a peculiar acid, called the acid of spar, also insoluble in water; 6thly, Calcareous spar, of different kinds, being calcareous earth saturated with fixed air, and something besides, which forms a variety in this substance; lastly, Siliceous substance, or Quartz crystals. All these bodies, each possessing its proper shape, are mixed in such a manner as it would be endless to describe, but which may be expressed in general by saying, that they are mutually contained in, and contain each other.
  • For the explanation of those natural appearances, which are so general, no further conditions are required, than the supposition of a sufficient intensity of subterraneous fire or heat, and a sufficient degree of compression upon those bodies, which are to be subjected to that violent heat, without calcination or change. But, so far as this supposition is not gratuitous, the appearances of nature will be thus explained.
  • Sulphur and metals are commonly found combined in the mineral regions. But this rule is not universal; for they are also frequently in a separate state. There is not, perhaps, a metal, among the great number which are now discovered, that may not be found native, as they are called, or in their metallic state.
  • While immersed in water, and under insuperable compression, the vegetable, oily, and resinous substances, would appear to be unalterable by heat; and it is only in proportion as certain chemical separations take place, that these inflammable bodies are changed in their substance by the application of heat. Now, the most general change of this kind is in consequence of evaporation, or the distillation of their more volatile parts, by which oily substances become bituminous, and bituminous substances become coaly.
  • The strata of fossil coal are found in almost every intermediate state, as well as in those of bitumen and charcoal. Of the one kind is that fossil coal which melts or becomes fluid upon receiving heat; of the other, is that species of coal, found both in Wales and Scotland, which is perfectly infusible in the fire, and burns like coaks, without flame or smoak. The one species abounds in oily matter, the other has been distilled by heat, until it has become a caput mortuum, or perfect coal.
  • There are frequently found siliceous crystals and amethysts containing water; and... it is impossible to confine water even in melted glass. It is true, that here, at the surface of the earth, melted glass cannot, in ordinary circumstances, be made to receive and inclose condensed water; but let us only suppose a sufficient degree of compression in the body of melted glass, and we can easily imagine it to receive and confine water, as well as any other substance. But if, even in our operations, water, by means of compression, may be made to endure the heat of red hot iron without being converted into vapour, what may not the power of nature be able to perform? The place of mineral operations is not on the surface of the earth; and we are not to limit nature with our imbecility, or estimate the powers of nature by the measure of our own.
  • I have specimens in which the mixture of calcareous, siliceous, and metallic substances, in almost every species of concretion which is to be found in mineral bodies, may be observed, and in which there is exhibited, in miniature, almost every species of mineral transaction, which, in nature, is found upon a scale of grandeur and magnificence. They are nodules contained in the whinstone, porphyry, or basaltes of the Calton-hill, by Edinburgh; a body which is to be afterwards examined, when it will be found to have flowed, and to have been in fusion, by the operation of subterraneous heat.
  • The proof I give is this, That besides the general conformation of those hard bodies, so as to be perfectly adapted to each other's shape, there is, in some places, a mutual indentation of the different pieces of gravel into each other; an indentation which resembles perfectly that junction of the different bones of the cranium, called sutures, and which must have necessarily required a mixture of those bodies while in a soft or fluid state.
  • If it is by means of fusion that the strata of the earth have been, in many places, consolidated, we must conclude, that all the degrees of consolidation, which are indefinite, have been brought about by the same means.
  • It may be alleged, that there is a great part of the solid mass of this earth not properly comprehended among those bodies which have been thus proved to be consolidated by means of fusion. The body here alluded to is granite; a mass which is not generally stratified... We shall... only now consider one particular species of granite; and if this shall appear to have been in a fluid state of fusion, we may be allowed to extend this property to all the kind.

Part IIIEdit

  • We seek to know that operation by means of which masses of loose materials, collected at the bottom of the sea, were raised above its surface, and transformed into solid land.
  • The present question is not, what had been the cause of heat, which has appeared to have been produced in that place; but, if this power of heat, which has certainly been exerted at the bottom of the ocean for consolidating strata, had been employed also for another purpose, that is, for raising those strata into the place of land.
  • It is a truth unquestionable, that what had been originally at the bottom of the sea, is at present the highest of our land. In explaining this appearance, therefore, no other alternative is left, but either to suppose strata elevated by the power of heat above the level of the present sea, or the surface of the ocean reduced many miles below the height at which it had subsisted during the collection and induration of the land which we inhabit.
  • The strata of the globe are actually found in every possible position: For from horizontal, they are frequently found vertical; from continuous, they are broken and separated in every possible direction; and from a plane, they are bent and doubled. It is impossible that they could have originally been formed, by the known laws of nature, in their present state and position; and the power that has been necessarily required for their change, has not been inferior to that which might have been required for their elevation from the place in which they had been formed.
  • We are now to conclude, that the land on which we dwell had been elevated from a lower situation by the same agent which had been employed in consolidating the strata, in giving them stability, and preparing them for the purpose of the living world. This agent is matter actuated by extreme heat, and expanded with amazing force. If this has been the case, it will be reasonable to expect, that some of the expanded matter might be found condensed in the bodies which have been heated by that igneous vapour; and that matter, foreign to the strata, may have been thus introduced into the fracture and separations of those indurated masses.
  • We have but to open our eyes to be convinced of this truth. Look into the sources of our mineral treasures; ask the miner, from whence has come the metal into his vein? ...There is but one place from whence these minerals may have come; this is, the bowels of the earth, the place of power and expansion, the place from whence must have proceeded that intense heat by which loose materials have been consolidated into rocks, as well as that enormous force by which the regular strata have been broken and displaced.
  • To see the evidence of marble, a body that is solid, having been formed of loose materials collected at the bottom of the sea, is not always easy, although it may be made abundantly plain; and to be convinced that this calcareous stone, which calcines so easily in our fires, should have been brought into fusion by subterraneous heat, without suffering calcination, must require a chain of reasoning which every one is not able to attain. But when fire bursts forth from the bottom of the sea, and when the land is heaved up and down, so as to demolish cities in an instant, and split asunder rocks and solid mountains, there is nobody but must see in this a power, which may be sufficient to accomplish every view of nature in erecting land, as it is situated in the place most advantageous for that purpose.
  • These operations of the globe, remain at present with undiminished activity, or in the fulness of their power.
  • That Sicily itself had been raised from the bottom of the ocean, and that the marble called Sicilian Jasper, had its solidity upon the same principle with the lava, would stumble many a naturalist to acknowledge. Nevertheless, I have in my possession a table of this marble, from which it is demonstrable, that this calcareous stone had flowed, and been in such a state of fusion and fluidity as lava.

Quotes about Theory of the EarthEdit

  • On the 7th of March and 4th of April, 1785, Hutton read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh his Memoir on a "Theory of the Earth ; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution and Restoration of Land upon the Globe." Extending to no more than 96 quarto pages, it was written in a quiet, logical manner, with no attempt at display but with an apparent anxiety to state the author's opinions as tersely as possible. Probably no man realised then that this essay would afterwards be regarded as marking the turning-point in the history of geology. For some years it remained without attracting notice from friend or foe.
  • It does not appear to be generally known that Desmarest, departing from his usual practice of not noticing the work of living writers, wrote a long and careful notice of Hutton's Memoir of 1785 in the first volume of his Géographie Physique, published in 1794-1795. He disagrees with many of Hutton's views, such, for instance, as that of the igneous origin of granite. But he generously insists on the value of the observations with which the Scottish writer had enriched the natural history of the earth and the physical geography of Scotland. "It is to Scotland," he says, "that Hutton's opponent must go to amend his results and substitute for them a more rational explanation."

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