James Hutton, a failed lawyer and doctor, was the first person to suggest that Earth was millions, rather than thousands, of years old and established geology as a true science
Looking back, James Hutton was in the right place at precisely the right time. Hutton was born in 1726, the son of a prosperous merchant and city officeholder in Edinburgh, just a few years before the Scottish capital became a “hotbed of genius” as the epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment between 1730 and 1820. The environment was primed for big ideas, and Hutton’s concept of uniformitarianism shaped an entire scientific discipline.
Hutton’s big idea was that the earth is millions of years old rather than 6,000 years old, which was based on the literal interpretation of the Bible commonly accepted at the time. His theory of uniformitarianism proposed that rocks and landforms observed at the Earth’s surface today record evidence of past changes and are the result of uniform processes acting over long periods of time.
Hutton’s idea challenged the belief that the natural world was static and unchanging, and disrupted the fundamental principle of geology, but it was not easy to convince others and he did not become known as the Father of Modern Geology until well after his death in 1797.
Geology was not Hutton’s first choice. At 14, he was enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study Latin and philosophy, although his interest in chemistry was piqued by one of his philosophy lecturers during this time.
After graduating in 1743, Hutton briefly worked as a lawyer’s apprentice before re-enrolling at the University of Edinburgh to study science and medicine, and eventually travelled to France and the Netherlands to complete his medical degree. At 23, Hutton established a medical practice in London. It failed to thrive, and he returned to Edinburgh in 1750.
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