Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: The Man Who Found Time

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton And The Discovery Of The Earth's Antiquity
Jack Repcheck
New York: Perseus Publishing, 2003. 256 pages.
Reviewed by
William Parkinson

Jack Repcheck's book is a well-written
account of the career and
times of James Hutton. Hutton, a
well-known figure in geological
circles, is the man credited with
discovering so-called Deep Time.
Unfortunately, Hutton's contributions
to science, unlike those of Charles Lyell, remain unrecognized
by the general public. Repcheck's
stated task is to give Hutton his
due by enlightening the general
public about Hutton's seminal contribution
to our understanding of
earth history.

As Repcheck paints his portrait
of Hutton, he takes us through the
period of the Scottish
Enlightenment and the history of
Scotland at that time. Repcheck
does a decent job at situating
Hutton in his proper cultural and
historical context. Hutton, as
Repcheck notes, was part of the
Scottish Enlightenment, one of the
most astonishing periods of original
thought and intellectual contribution
in recorded history (earning
Edinburgh the moniker of "the
Athens of the North"). Other figures
of this remarkable era in
Scotland are the economist Adam
Smith, the sociologist Adam
Ferguson, the philosopher and historian
David Hume, the poet
Robert Burns, the novelist Sir
Walter Scott, and the great chemist
Joseph Black.

Beyond the general background
material of Hutton's life, Repcheck
also introduces the reader to
Hutton's scientific contributions.
First, Repcheck escorts his readers
deftly through the phase of Hutton's
life when he discovered the rock
cycle. Hutton was the first to recognize
the importance of erosion in
the rock cycle, and the place of
eroded sediments in producing sedimentary
rocks. Hutton was also the
first to recognize igneous intrusion
in rocks (such as sills and dykes). At
the time, many of his conclusions
were quite controversial.

More importantly, though,
Repcheck gives a good account of
Hutton's discovery of an important
geological outcrop and its implications:
Siccar Point, Berwickshire, in
southern Scotland. This outcrop may be called the "other Rock of Ages",
for it was here that Hutton was able
to convince his skeptics of the
antiquity of the earth. This outcrop
is composed of Silurian greywacke
(known as "schistus" to Hutton) of
marine origin (established by the
fossils contained in the greywacke),
tilted into a vertical orientation. It
forms an angular unconformity (that
is, two stratified rock units, with the
lower one being tilted and eroded
while the upper unit, deposited on
the lower unit, is at a lower angle
than the bottom unit) with the overlying
Old Red Sandstone, also of
marine origin (again established by
fossils), in a normal horizontal position
above it.

Hutton, using common sense
and a few established principles,
was able to figure out the general
sequence that produced this particular
rock outcrop. The Silurian
greywacke had been deposited
horizontally in a marine environment,
which, Hutton reckoned,
took thousands of years to accomplish.
Thousands of years more was
needed to accumulate enough sediment
over this strata to cause the
kind of pressure and heat necessary
to lithify the graywacke. Later,
heat and other additional forces
caused the originally horizontal
strata to be contorted and lifted up
into a vertical plane. The once-submerged
rock was then uplifted out
of the water and erosion began
immediately to wear at the
graywacke. Once again the
graywacke was submerged under
the water (either through subsidence
of the land or through a
transgression from the sea) and the
Old Red Sandstone, which contains
a different assortment of fossilized
marine life, as well as sediments
derived from a different
rock source,was laid down on top
of the Silurian greywacke. The Old
Red Sandstone and the Silurian
greywacke that we see today were
both covered with sufficient sediment
to produce the necessary
heat and pressure to lithify the Old
Red Sandstone. Finally, both the
Silurian greywacke and the Old
Red Sandstone (which is today recognized
as Devonian in age) were
lifted up and exposed to the
processes of erosion (for a photograph
of the Siccar Point outcrop,
see Doyle and others [2001: 20]).

As he worked out the sequence
of events for Siccar Point, Hutton
realized that this one outcrop
could not have formed in the single
year of the Flood, or even in the
6000 years generally believed to
have transpired since the beginning
of Creation. It was an astonishing
conclusion! Hutton would
later take those who doubted his
claims to Siccar Point and use it as
an incontrovertible testimony to
the antiquity of the earth. It was at
Siccar Point that biblical chronology
fell to the observations of science,
and for that reason alone, it
deserves to be better known
among the general public.

As for the influence of Hutton's
observations, they were enormous,
as Repcheck observes. In
the end it was Charles Lyell who
recognized the significance of
Hutton's work, reserving a place of
honor for Hutton in his historic
textbook Principles of Geology.
Lyell was taken to Siccar Point
after Hutton's death by Hutton's
friend James Hall — and Siccar
Point worked its magic once again.
Lyell became a believer of Hutton's
claims. Later, a young Charles
Darwin read Lyell, on his trip to the
Galápagos Islands, and recognized
the significance of Hutton's and
Lyell's work for his own developing
theory of evolution. Simply
put, without Hutton's contribution,
we would never have had the
theory of evolution from Darwin.

It is when discussing the reception
of Hutton's work, in chapters
8–10, that the book really shines.
Repcheck chronicles in detail the
reception of Hutton's presentation
to the Royal Society of Edinburgh
in March 1785 and his battle to
win over his skeptics; he then progresses
to the time when Darwin
read Lyell's discussion of Hutton
and accepted the conclusions of
both men. The three chapters are
really the heart of the book and
make for engaging reading.

Repcheck documents the resistance
to Hutton's ideas both from
those still committed to biblical literalism
and from the Neptunists,
proponents of Abraham Gottlob
Werner's idea that the rocks found
in the present era were revealed
when a "universal ocean" that formerly
covered the whole world

I must level one criticism, however.
Although Repcheck discusses
some of the scientific opposition
to Hutton's ideas, he fails to consider
the position of the Church of
England or the Church of Scotland
concerning Hutton. This leaves several
questions unaddressed such
as: Did the Church of Scotland
weigh in on the controversy surrounding
Hutton? What about
other denominations? What about
the so-called chattering classes?
Did they accept Hutton's ideas,
condemn them, or just ignore
them? From the perspective of
those interested in church/science
issues, this is an unfortunate gap in
Repcheck's research. Understanding
the interactions with the
religious authorities is vital to
Hutton's story, and regrettably
Repcheck has not included this

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